Whether or not you’re able to appreciate the beauty of Wednesday night’s Yes performance at ACL’s Moody Theater depends on some peripheral factors. Fussy advocates for ‘musical relevance’ be-damned: Yes, circa 2013, isn’t for folks with negative attitudes about aging rockers. And then there’s the matter of Jon Anderson’s absence. The former lead vocalist, key lyricist and founding member was fired in 2008 after some health issues forced him to bail on a string of previously announced dates. Now, carrying on without him, there’s resentment wafting through the British quintet’s still-significant fan base. After all, Anderson was at Yes’s core; keeping the name and continuing without him seems, to some, like a money-grab… a victory lap… an insult.
None of this, however, hampered enthusiasm from the capacity crowd that turned up Wednesday night for what’s been dubbed the ‘Three Album Tour’ - a behemoth undertaking that spans The Yes Album (1970), Close to the Edge (1972) and Going for the One (1977), in their respective entireties. The aging five-piece delivered two-and-a-half hours of frothy, progressive stew that simultaneously celebrated the longevity of their music and the LP format that’s served it so well for nearly 45 years. Yes’s performance may have lacked in spots, but given the complexity of the undertaking, the show was still quite an impressive display of musical chops and creative vision.
Taking the stage following a series of vintage film clips, they plowed into the fusion-like grandiosity of "Close to the Edge" with contagious zeal. Immediately apparent was the lack of unnecessary adornments - the band sounded clean and lean… pared down. Whereas portions of the original suite nearly burst at the seams with layered jangles and tweaks, "Close to the Edge" 2013 (whether by choice or necessity) is less cluttered. Geoff Downes’ keyboard playing took a backseat to the rhythmic sinew of Chris Squire’s bass and Alan White’s drumming, leaving ample room for the songs to breathe. Later it seemed like maybe Downes was just unusually low in the sound mix, but the lack of synthesized punctuation was a welcome change either way.
Both "And You & I" and "Siberian Khatru" were plotted out very carefully, but it became clear during the former that Jon Davison is the right man for his new job fronting Yes. Davison’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Anderson is only part of the charm; he even behaves similarly. His movements, the way he played percussion, his posture, even his choice of clothing - it all channeled Jon Anderson, and it all came across very naturally… not at all forced. If anything, the flexibility of his pipes has restored the vocal prowess that partially defined Yes’ sound, something that Anderson - now nearing 70 - would likely be struggling with.
The band hardly said much of anything, letting the music speak for itself - new age-y platitudes were relegated to the images on the screen behind them, which alternated between human figures in meditation, prayer and color-radiating chakra centers to fractal art and gyrating Fillmore-era psychedelic blobs.
Having gotten the trickiest (and lengthiest) of the evening’s selections out of the way, guitarist Steve Howe joked that Going for the One consisted of “…a couple of two-minute songs.” By sandwiching it in the middle of two favorites, the underrated album got the best possible showcase. The new-wave bounce of title track came on strong, while “Turn of the Century” built slowly to a full-band arrangement rife with satisfying, indulgent melodic pockets. “Wondrous Stories” saw Davison pick up a guitar for the first time, and, during the mathematical acrobatics of “Awaken,” Squire busted out a three-necked-monster bass.
The Yes Album got off to a shaky start after intermission; “Yours is No Disgrace” suffered from some clumsy timing and, now, Downes’
walter in Austin
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 11:38 PM
Just back from the show at the Moody tonight. Very impressive. The star of the show, really, was Jon Davidson. He was flawless all night....in fantastic voice, doing a great job with a hugely-diverse setlist, and having a gracious and unobtrusive stage presence. It was nice to see him get a big audience response when introduced at the end. This guy can flat-out sing, and is not just an imitator. If you're deciding whether to see this tour or not, please don't be put off by the fact that Anderson isn't there.
And for that matter, don't be put off that Downes is there instead of Wakeman. I was very impressed with how he handled what surely must be the hardest keyboard parts a rock player could face--those wonderfully-creative parts that Wakeman came up with in his prime. Downes was humble (none of the strutting that I recall from his early Asia days) and was in full concentration mode all night. Sure, there were a couple of solos where he wasn't able to scale the heights that Wakeman would have, but that's ok. To me, Wakeman's outings with the band over the last 15 years were marked by him seeming bored on-stage, bull-rushing through parts that live and die by their subtlety (eg. "Awaken" intro), and generally just seeming to be there for the paycheck. Downes was focused, and putting all his effort and sensitivity into playing his parts.
I noticed an interesting phenomenon with the core-three players. There's been a lot of talk in recent tours about tempo problems, and most fingers in the reviews I've read pointed to White. To me, it's natural that men in their 60s (especially drummers, but any musicians, really) would not be able to play the complicated parts they wrote in the fire of their youth at the same tempo as they get old. What I saw White do tonight, which I think was really smart, was to cut back his playing so that the tempos were spot-on all night, from his kit anyway. He's doing less of those bold, slashing, odd-time signature rolls that so marked his playing in his younger days, and instead has become a more subtle and jazzier player. The music didn't suffer for it at all, and any tempo problems did not come from him.
Squire, too, has continued the general trend of his career of simplifying his playing, but the songs didn't really suffer for it. I think it also allowed him to do more (and better) background vocals, because he wasn't trying to hit runs that his fingers just won't do anymore. So no problems there, either.
Oddly enough, the few tempo issues that came up tonight (eg. Siberian Khatru; Yours Is No Disgrace) came from Howe. Those guitar parts he wrote as a young man were so intricate that it is totally reasonable that, in his 60s, he can't play some of them at the same speeds. But unlike White and Squire, he doesn't seem willing to adjust his playing to compensate so that the songs stay at good tempos and don't drag. Don't get me wrong--it was a subtle thing tonight, and really only seriously noticeable on 2-3 songs. But I hope he's able to find that adjustment so that he can keep up to the tempo that the other guys are setting.
But really, this show was much better than I thought it might be, and thoroughly enjoyable. They did the best job with the "Going for the One" material, which I thought would be the toughest for them. Downes in particular impressed me, because that material really needed the keyboard parts to shine. And they did. "Awaken" was glorious, and it was nice to see Downes not rush the intro like Wakeman likely would have if he'd been there. Sensitive playing all around for these immaculate songs, and they soared. Kudos to the band!
Bonus points to Davidson for singing "Perpetual Change" while playing electric congas!
To me anyway, if Yes was going to pick three of their albums to do in one night, these are the three. No songs that you go pee during, that's for sure. P