In the documentary "Yes Years," singer Jon Anderson likened Yes (and, by extension, its music) to a bus whose musician passengers get on and off (and on again) depending on whether they’re hip to whatever the destination appears to be at the time.
That was 27 years ago, on the eve of the Yes Union Tour, which saw eight of the band’s longest-standing members finally joining forces on stage in celebration of song—and in defiance of its own revolving door roster.
While the tour (unlike the accompanying album) was a commercial and critical success, the team-up did little to solidify the ranks for the ‘90s. On the contrary, Yes only continued to metamorphose and transmute into the new millennium, absorbing and regurgitating keyboardists, guitarists, and singers as circumstances (and personalities) dictated.
Not even Anderson was immune to the “Perpetual Change” he sang of so long ago: The founding Yes man succumbed to respiratory infection in 2005 and was forced to take it easy for a while. The “Roundabout” writer eventually recovered, dabbling in a couple solo projects and collaborations (with Jean-Luc Ponty and Roine Stolt) before reasserting himself in another iteration of Yes with fellow alumni Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman.
Meanwhile, bassist Chris Squire—the band’s sole constant—forged ahead with drummer Alan White, guitarist Steve Howe, singer Benoit David, and keyboardist Oliver Wakeman (Rick’s son). David absconded after a couple tours and one studio album (Fly From Here), as did Wakeman—who was replaced by (wait for it) former Yes-man Geoff Downes (of Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame).
Vocalist Jon Davison (Glass Hammer, Sky Cries Mary) signed on in 2013. He’s since appeared on one album (Heaven & Earth) and two live sets (Like It Is: Live at Bristol Hippodrome and Live at Mesa Arts Center).
Risk of Stagnation? Statis?
Not with this gaggle of envelope-shoving musical sorcerers.
Anchorman Squire passed away in 2015, his death prompting his colleagues to consider (not for the first time) whether Yes even had a future.
It did, and does: Billy Sherwood—who contributed to Union (1991), Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Ladder (1999)—returned to fill the bass vacancy at the request of “The Fish” himself.
Suffice it to say the Yes family tree now boasts more branches than the Cuyahoga County Public Library. Convoluted, to be sure—but if any one band warrants the propagation of weed-like tendrils among the tenures of its cast members, it’s Yes, virtuosic and creative to the core since their 1968 inception.
That’s the spirit behind this summer’s Yestival: A Yes concert with a decidedly festive vibe, a victory lap launched mere months after the long overdue induction of the eight-man Union lineup into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The ensemble—currently featuring Howe, White, Downes, Davison, and Sherwood—thrilled Cleveland fans at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica last night (Sunday, August 20) with a progressive party whose soundtrack consisted of a single cut from each of the group’s first ten studio albums.
Yes are famous for their sprawling, epic ‘70s tracks—but the guys only performed a couple of the longer pieces, keeping their portion of the concert confined to a tight ninety minutes.
Striding from the shadows to a recording of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” the five Yessians took their places onstage and—after cursory waves to the crowd—eased into “Survival” (from 1969’s Yes). The folksy, pacifistic peace / love title track to 1970’s Time and a Word followed, with hirsute Davison—who looks more Christ-like every tour—strumming acoustic guitar.
Softer fare out of the way, Howe spearheaded the charge into the Vietnam-era protest number “Yours Is No Disgrace” (from ‘71’s The Yes Album), his fingers tickling the strings of his trusty sunburst Gibson ES-175 for a few jazzy runs, power chords, and wah-wah fills. Sinister, snowbound requiem “South Side of the Sky” (from 1971’s Fragile) came next, giving Downes a chance to shine at his band of synthesizers (Hammond, Roland, Studio Logic, etc.).
Close to the Edge (1972) masterpiece “And You And I” was the night’s longest—and perhaps most diverse—selection, showcasing Howe’s ability to juggle multiple acoustic and electric guitars (and pedal steel) over the course of a single (if multi-suited) excursion. Davison sounded a lot like Anderson here, his voice stretching for some of the same angelic high notes for which Jon the First was renowned.
Howe went classical acoustic on the “Leaves of Grass” portion of “The Ancient / Giants Under the Sun” (from the 1973 double-album Tales from Topographic Oceans). It’d have been nice to hear the full piece (even if it would’ve taken another fifteen minutes), but Davison acquitted himself well—like a choirboy—on the pleading pastoral. Howe applied slide to his Fender steel on prayerful “Gates of Delirium” outro ballad “Soon” (from 1974’s Relayer), providing another opportunity for Davison to soar.
The steel stayed out for rollicking “Going for the One” (from the similarly-named 1977 LP), with Howe expertly slurring his notes over Sherwood’s sturdy bass and between Downes’ honky-tonk piano. Bouncy, save-the-cetacean protest “Don’t Kill the Whale” (from 1978’s Tormato) likewise showcased the band’s ability to improvise and solo. Menacing, proto-metal "Machine Messiah" (from 1981's Drama) unleashed both Howe and Downes for some rip-roaring guitar / synth duels.
White (whose CV includes work with John Lennon and Eric Clapton) was remarkable on drums but shared percussive duties with Dylan Howe (Steve’s son), who manned an auxiliary kit to White’s right. The stick men alternated throughout the evening, maintaining those oddball Yes meters with rhythmic muscle.
The brief-but-bravura Yes encore consisted of Tormato-era Renaissance number “Madrigal” (featuring Howe and Davison on harpsichord-like acoustics and vocals) and the practically obligatory “hit” finale “Roundabout”—which found Sherwood accurately mimic Squire’s jumpy, propulsive bass riff until “mountains came out of the sky” over downtown Cleveland.
Yes wasn’t the only entertainment at Yestival; the five-piece brought some classic rock peers with them, too.
Joined by young guitar shredder Paul Bielatowicz and bassist / “Stick” player Simon Fitzpatrick, Palmer—who also played in Asia (“Heat of the Moment”) with Howe and Downes—negotiated the off-kilter measures of the Aaron Copeland-inspired “Hoedown” and mirthful “Karn Evil 9: First Impression” (familiar for its “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” intro).
Palmer got up from his double-bass drum rostrum (which was parked front-and-center) to say hello at the microphone before diving into Bach-tinged ELP offering “Knife Edge,” whose intricate passages allowed Bielatowicz and Fitzpatrick to set their hands flying. Palmer said he “wouldn’t be here today” but for the Lake-penned hit “Lucky Man,” which came off nicely sans vocals.
Another Copeland work—“Fanfare for the Common Man”—provided the basis for Palmer’s thunderous, skin-laden finale, during which he rolled over his toms, splashed his cymbals, crossed his sticks (traditional grip and hand-over-hand), and clanged the pair of gongs suspended behind his back.
Also on the docket was A Wizard, a True Star Todd Rundgren, who shuffled songs from his most recent albums (2013’s State, 2015’s Global, and 2017’s White Knight) with a couple goodies from his Utopia days.
Diehard Todd-heads know the eccentric songwriter / producer (Meat Loaf, Hall & Oates, etc.) has been doing the electronic / dance thing for a while know, and so were able to tolerate—if not enjoy—Rundgren’s rave-like run (“Come,” “Truth,” “Rise,” “Sir Reality”). But even the cynical and reluctant were converted by mid-set.
“This may be a prog-rock show, but I know you, Cleveland!” encouraged Rundgren. “You’re up for anything! Get those hands in the air!”
Todd’s band—still comprised of old friends Kasim Sulton (bass), Prairie Prince (drums), and Jesse Gress (guitar)—appeared in matching black suits with red ties. Rundgren himself was flanked by a couple femme fatales who danced, sang backup, and changed costumes to fit the theme of the music (from geisha girls to flappers). Keyboardist Greg Hawkes (of The Cars fame) filled the mix with lush chords and quirky effects as Todd raked the strings of his go-to green Project P guitar.
“Ikon,” “Buffalo Grass,” and “This is Not a Drill” saw the band veer from electronica to R&B, soul, and guitar-drenched rock. “Party Liquor” reignited the busy beats, but Rundgren decelerated (albeit briefly) on “Past.”
The second of two Utopia songs—“One World”—wrapped the main course. But Todd (now sweaty in a sleeveless shirt) rebounded with Something / Anything smash “Hello, It’s Me” and ...True Star entry “Just One Victory.”
It’s a matter of opinion whether two Yeses are better than one. But two Yeses are indubitably better than No Yes at all.
And when one of said Yeses drifts into Dodge with Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer riding shotgun, well, that makes for one musically affirmative evening on the Erie shore.