Monday, July 5, 2010

Review (concert): Yes

REVIEW of Yes at Summerfest
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Friday – July 2, 2010
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

It had been 35 years since I had seen the quintessential prog-rockers Yes. For some reason I had been on a bit of a Yes revival during the past few months, picking-up used CDs of Close to the Edge, Yesshows, and a copy of one of the myriad of best-of collections – The Ultimate Yes – a good but not perfect 3 CD overview of the band. The strangest part of the renewed interest was my re-examination of their work Tales From Topographic Oceans, which they were playing the first time I saw them in concert (1974). No; I take that back – the strangest part of my Yes revival was the lengthy “One Question With . . .” #3, where I interviewed Corporate Yes on my blog, born out of my Topographic Oceans interest.

So when son Dylan pointed out that Yes was going to be playing at the same large outdoor stage for Milwaukee’s Summerfest where we had seen Elvis Costello the previous summer, I was interested. I was also surprised that these boys were playing one of the free side stages. However, Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest is good about getting large if fading names for their entertainment. I was, to be honest, somewhat concerned about seeing the band live. I remember a concert video of the group from a few years ago and was not especially impressed. The friend who supplied the tape was a bit harsher when describing the band as resembling “shrieking old women.” Ouch.

We arrived at the Summerfest grounds in early afternoon, so had about 7 hours before Yes would play their 10 P.M. set. We enjoyed a fine time, seeing a marginal Steely Dan tribute band, followed by an excellent set by The Heavy – really solid. But we were getting pretty tired and the decision had to be made – boogie quick after The Heavy set to the far end of the grounds to try to get seats for Yes, or head for home. We were there – let’s go see Yes. I rushed us through the increasing crowds and we were able to get some bench seats. Good. We were all tired, and I’m not sure I would have fired-up to stand for 45 minutes waiting for the band to come on. But as I say, we did have a place to sit and chill.

As I looked at the stage, I thought about how the mighty had fallen. This was a bare bones set-up with a single large projection screen behind it. Gone were the elaborate sets that I had seen years before. I guess that makes sense – there was no point in putting together complicated (and expensive) Roger Dean-designed stage props. They were on the road to make some money and to play for the faithful, who were at an age where the extraneous stage trappings mattered less than just having the band show-up and play. And this is exactly what happened.

The quintet took the stage right at 10 P.M., accompanied by the dramatic conclusion to “The Firebird Suite,” a concert prelude they have used for decades. Pretentious? Arrogant? At this point it really doesn’t matter – it’s what they use for an entrance. Yes launched into the first song. It was one I didn’t know, but I was impressed with the sound, the tightness of the band and the fact that their lead singer sounded a whole lot like Jon Anderson. A whole lot! The fact that Anderson is not with the band for this lengthy tour point is a bone of contention with some fans and with the singer himself. No matter. I wasn’t expecting Anderson, and vocalist Benoit David had his part down!

During this first number we were able to move down the bench a bit – away from some talking drunks and into far better sightlines. I would say better seats, but this was a standing concert. Not just standing, but standing on the benches. Fine – and neither brother-in-law Scott or Dylan seemed to mind at all. We were all tired from a long day, but the music lifted us up.

After this first tune, drummer Alan White laid down a slow, steady beat. I was amazed, then, when the band hit the opening chords of “Yours is No Disgrace,” a very fast number in its recorded versions. I truly wondered, “Can this really be the tempo they mean to take it?” Clearly it was. They smoldered on this tune at less than half speed for probably 15 minutes. A full version, to be sure. Guitarist Steve Howe looked like an aging history professor, but played like he was on fire. I must have said to Dylan and Scott no less than four times: “Howe is really having a good night!” Unlike the sluggish renditions offered-up by the Steely Dan tribute band from that afternoon, Yes meant to play “Yours is No Disgrace” at this tempo. Very unexpected, very fresh, and very great!

We had talked earlier about watching part of the set and then heading out when Yes hit their material we didn’t know. Never happened. At one point Dylan tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Is this their third tune?” “I think so,” I replied. “They have been playing for 45 minutes!” It seemed to me like about 10. People around Dylan also stared at him in disbelief when he gave me that time reference. Hotcha. I learned later that Dylan was also a bit uncertain about this concert. He likes Yes a great deal but had been at Summerfest earlier in the week and saw The Moody Blues on this same stage. He departed after only a few songs – “No spark,” he said. He would later indicate how glad he was that we stayed for the Yes concert and for their full set.

Speaking of which – “This was a set list from heaven!” I gushed on the bus home. Following the opening pair of numbers they performed excellent versions of “And You and I,” and later “I’ve Seen All Good People.” I kept expecting some material I didn’t know, but the most recent tune they touched after the opening number was “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was an actual #1 Billboard Magazine hit for them in 1984. A very impressive and hot short one.

Another pleasant surprise came when Squire introduced a change of pace, and Steve Howe played a ten-minute set on acoustic guitar. Seated, it was clear that Howe had listened to a lot of Chet Atkins as he ripped through country finger-style guitar licks during this medley comprised more of brief themes than of actual songs. This respite was welcome too because the entire audience sat down for a few minutes during the acoustic interlude. That helped.

Howe, a long time guitar collector, also showed class later in the evening by pointedly acknowledging Wisconsin as “the birth place of the great Les Paul” before the beginning of “Perpetual Change.” This song was also noteworthy as a real showcase for the interplay between Howe’s electric and Chris Squire’s famous Rickenbacker bass guitar. It also featured Benoit David’s vocals on the beautiful lyrics and surprisingly gentle melody which make-up the song.

Suddenly, or so it seemed, we heard the opening acoustic harmonics to “Roundabout.” I knew this had to be a set-closer, and it was. Howe had his unique method of keeping the electric guitar strapped-on while reaching over it to play an acoustic guitar mounted on a stand. Unusual but functional. He also played a bit of steel guitar in his way of making it sound unlike any steel player I’ve ever heard. They departed the stage and then returned to encore with a very hot rendition of “Starship Trooper.”

We saw a good set on a good night. I went on-line later and discovered that, perhaps surprisingly, the boys did not perform “Owner of a Lonely Heart” all that often these days. I was glad they did hit that one, as it is one of Dylan’s favorites and was the song that first grabbed his attention toward Yes. Also, they had not played “Yours is No Disgrace” in months! I was really glad for that one, and in retrospect that tune was my favorite of the evening. But they were all good! As I said to Dylan, although I had seen the band twice before this – these were the specialty tours of Tales from Topographic Oceans and the subsequent year’s Relayer, when they were rarely touching their back catalogue. As such, the only tune Yes played at Summerfest which I had ever heard them perform live was “And You and I,” and even that was a very different arrangement. When we saw them on Friday, they were far closer to capturing the more subtle elements of the studio recording, as opposed to the bombastic nature of the Yessongs version.

Another thing I leaned after the concert – which really does not impact on my review – was how deeply some people feel that this is not really Yes. OK, but as I pointed out on the bus trip to the festival site, the only original member of the band still playing with them is Chris Squire. He acted as sort of de-facto group leader, while Benoit David served as the reserved front man, knowing that he was fortunate to have made the leap from singing with a Yes tribute band to singing with the real thing. It happens.

But make no mistake, this was Yes -- Chris Squire, Steve Howe, drummer Alan White (although I do prefer Bill Bruford, I confess). The core of the popular line-up was solidly in place. Different vocalist, true, but more than capable, and keyboards handled by the son of the band’s most famous former member, Rick Wakeman. This too happens.

Yes is now at the tail end of a very long tour – they began the current stretch in November of 2008, playing more than 130 concerts. They will probably take a deserved break of some duration, but when they return to the road I will search them out. In the mean time, I will probably go through a Yes phase of some duration – I have already pulled their Lps off my shelf, ready for a return to duty.

#30# 1,675 words
Notes: I subsequently learned that the opening song was “Machine Messiah” from the Drama album, a song that Jon Anderson refuses to perform with the group since he is not the singer on that Lp.

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