Does a popular band’s lasting strength reside in a canon of durable songs, or in the players that comprise its most potent lineup? That question arises inevitably when contemplating Yes, a progressive-rock band that has endured more than its share of schisms through 48 years of fortunes flush and lean. When the group performed at Lynn Auditorium on Thursday, only the guitarist Steve Howe remained from what fans view as its classic period: from 1971 to 1978.
Among Howe’s mates of that era, Chris Squire, the band’s founding bassist and enduring anchor, died of acute erythroid leukemia in June 2015. Drummer Alan White is recovering from back surgery, and intends to return. Singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, both gone since 2004, will tour this fall in a rival faction with guitarist Trevor Rabin, chief architect of Yes’s chart-topping “Owner of a Lonely Heart” mid-’80s phase. (They’ll play the Citi Wang Theatre Oct. 19.)
But if Howe must hoist the banner alone now, he couldn’t have asked for better conditions than those that aligned on Thursday. Since 2013, several Yes tours have featured renditions of two or three vintage albums. The present jaunt, which started on July 25, focuses on “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (1973) and “Drama” (1980), the two albums on which Howe’s influence arguably was strongest.
The presence of keyboardist Geoff Downes – who initially joined the band to record “Drama,” and then departed with Howe to form the arena-rock supergroup Asia – paid obvious dividends during the start-to-finish rendition of the album that opened the concert. Singer Jon Davison, enlisted in 2012, adapted his airy delivery to some of the heaviest items in the Yes canon (“Machine Messiah,” “Into the Lens”), as well its most baroque affectations (“White Car,” “Run Through the Light”).
Billy Sherwood, a Yes associate since 1991, inhabited uncannily Squire’s nimble, growling bass parts. (Happily, his playing and singing were more prominent in the mix than they were for his debut as Yes bassist last August at Foxwoods Resort Casino.) Drummer Jay Schellen, a longtime Sherwood ally and former Asia member, handled intricate and brawny parts as if he’d had years, not weeks, to prepare. If “Drama” was destined to appeal most to hardcore fans, “Tales from Topographic Oceans” was unlikely to push the gates open wider. Condemned as an epitome of prog-rock bloat – four songs sprawled across as many LP sides, lyrics besotted with arcane Indian scripture – the album is rock writ Mahlerian: an episodic pilgrimage dotted with indelible motifs that announce themselves, transform, and recur.
Throughout the two sides presented – the transfixing “The Revealing Science of God” and festive “Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)” – players locked eyes and exchanged signals; electronic tablets visible onstage presumably further bolstered coordination. Exact yet animated, these accounts struck a balance between weightiness and seeming spontaneity. “Leaves of Green,” a pensive passage for voices and acoustic guitar from still another “Topographic” section, “The Ancient,” was a welcome intermezzo amid its weightier neighbors.
Where those album recitals proved the present Yes equal to mighty acts of reanimation, the band’s approach to canonical hits was equally commanding. “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Siberian Khatru” closed the first set, “And You and I” opened the second, and inevitably “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper” arrived in the encore; this vital, hungry combo – not least a visibly animated Howe – played it all with infectious gusto.
Finding enduring fire even in thrice-familiar fare: it’s this, more than which players turn up or what songs they pick, that will ensure Yes’s staying power.
The death of founding bassist Chris Squire last year means there are no original members in the current touring band of progressive rock titans Yes.
Jon Anderson seems content to work with Jean Luc Ponty and focus on the upcoming “An Evening of Yes Music & More” tour with Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman (at Boston’s Wang Theater on Oct. 19).
To further complicate matters, longtime drummer Alan White, who joined in 1972, is recuperating from recent back surgery and had to sit out Thursday night’s show at Lynn Memorial Auditorium.
So, how did the lineup of Steve Howe (guitars), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Billy Sherwood (bass), Jay Schellen (drums) and Jon Davison (vocals) fare? Pretty darn well, thank you very much.
But this was truly a show for Yes die-hards. Marginal fans who went expecting to hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart” — a turgid pile of you know what IMHO — and other radio-friendly tunes were probably ready to take poison about halfway through the close-to-25-minute set-ending “Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil).”
This was also the hardest rocking, aggressive-sounding Yes show I’ve seen in a long time. The band is on the road performing the 1980 album “Drama” in its entirety, sides 1 and 4 of 1973’s bombastic, fantastic opus “Tales from Topographic Oceans” and a handful of greatest “hits.”
The stage was jam-packed with instruments and equipment. The space allotted for Downes’ keyboards was larger than my first apartment.
The six songs from the hard-rocking “Drama” kicked things off. Howe was on fire from the start, the menacing “Machine Messiah,” to the beautiful acoustic solo during “Leaves of Green.” He was a man possessed. He came to play, and drummer Schellen pushed him all night.
Vocalist Davison sounds so much like Anderson it’s eerie. He hits high notes that only dogs can hear; his tighty-whities must’ve been particularly tight. He shined on “Into the Lens” and fan favorites “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Siberian Khatru,” which revved up the crowd even more before a 20-minute interval (that’s Brit-speak for intermission).
It’s a shame White missed the gig, because the ambitious “Topographic Oceans” was the first Yes album he played on. (Steven Wilson has remixed the double album; it will be released next month.) I always found the album indulgent and banal, but the crowd was jazzed and attentive and even rowdy during the long (20-minutes-plus) “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” and especially the percussion freakout with synchronized lights and smoke in “Ritual.”
The encore (that’s Brit-speak for encore), a one-two punch of “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper,” got the crowd clapping, standing and cheering.