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Concert Review: Yes, Sands Casino, Bethlehem, PA 4/7/13

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Yes (photo by Rob Shanahan)

Yes (photo by Rob Shanahan)

In recent years, the legendary progressive rock band Yes has stuck with a greatest-hits approach in live shows, typically playing the most recognizable, radio-played songs in its formidable catalog.

Fair enough, but for longtime fans who’ve seen the band live multiple times, hearing another rendition of 80s comeback hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” may not be too exciting.

That’s why it’s so cool—at least to this longtime fan—that Yes changed things up for its Spring 2013 tour, playing three classic albums—Close to the Edge, The Yes Album and Going for the One—in their entirety at each show.

This tour has raised the eyebrows of some fans, as only two current Yes members (guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire) were on all of the original albums being played (drummer Alan White was on Going for the One). Is it valid for this version of Yes to play these albums?
When I interviewed current Yes lead singer Jon Davison earlier this year, (read the interview here), I asked him about this controversy.

“Though it’s important to acknowledge the artists of the music during such an event, it’s most important, in my opinion, to acknowledge the music itself, which transcends the personalities behind it,” was Davison’s reply.

Fair enough, and based on the way the 2013 Yes “acknowledged the music” at the show I saw on this tour, I’d say that it is indeed valid. This may be the best show Yes has put on in years, perhaps even decades. And judging by the reaction of the sold-out crowd, I’d say I’m not alone in this conclusion.

The concert I caught was held at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pa., a small town about 1.5 hours of drive time away from Philadelphia. I’d never been to this venue before, but it turned out to be a great place to see a show. The casino’s Event Center was a nice arena—not too big to be overwhelming, but large enough that I felt like I was at a major event. And what an event it was!

The 2013 Yes comprises Squire (the only person to be on every Yes album and in every lineup), Howe, White, Davison and keyboardist Geoff Downes, who was in Yes from 1980 to 1981, and rejoined in 2011. Howe has been the band’s guitarist since 1970, and White joined in 1972, so neither they nor Downes are newcomers to the Yes family. The big question mark here was Davison, who became lead singer for Yes in 2012, replacing Benoit David, the vocalist who himself had replaced the band’s original, iconic founding lead singer, Jon Anderson. Anderson has been out of Yes since 2008, the year in which he fell ill and the band enlisted Yes tribute band David to stand in for him in an arrangement that became permanent. When David himself became ill in 2012, Yes hired Davison, an American best known for singing with the band Glass Hammer. The band’s replacement (two times!) of Anderson has been controversial, with some longtime fans boycotting all Yes shows and new recordings (the band released a new studio album, Fly From Here, in 2011) to protest Anderson’s absence.

Their loss. It is a shame that Anderson is no longer with the band, but Davison did a spectacular, peerless job in his place. I never got to see the band with Benoit David fronting, but I read reports and heard live recordings of shaky performances. Understandable—this is a very demanding repertoire to say the least. Anderson’s alto lead voice was an anomaly on the band’s classic records—soft and melodious where other rock vocalists were aggressive and forceful. To sing this music and cut through the roar of the band’s instrumentation is a formidable task, and Davison handled it with poise, energy and most of all, great spirit.

Scheduled to start at 7 p.m. with no opening act, the band came on around 7:15 to the sound of its usual entrance music, Stravinski’s “The Firebird.” Not that any of this music is easy, but Yes began the show with one of its most ambitious, accomplished albums, 1972’s classic Close to the Edge. Played in sequence, this album began with the lengthy title track, a suite of shorter pieces unified by a consistent theme in the style of a symphony. Despite such pretensions, “Close to the Edge” kicked major ass this night, as it does have some pretty hard-hitting, rocking sequences. The Close to the Edge album only has two more songs—“And You and I”, another lengthy one that’s effectively morphed from an acoustic ballad to rocking stomper; and “Siberian Khatru”, one of the more aggressive songs from the early Yes catalog that showcased standout harmony vocals by Davison, Squire and Howe.

With that album done, the band launched into “Yours Is No Disgrace”, the opening track from 1971’s The Yes Album. This LP is the one that’s been best represented in Yes tours of years past, as it contains many of the band’s most iconic songs—besides “Yours …”, it also includes guitar showcase “Starship Trooper” and classic rock radio staple “Your Move/I’ve Seen All Good People.” Those were handled with great enthusiasm considering the band’s probably played them a million times over the years. But one of the nice things about playing full albums is that it allowed the fans to hear live versions of album tracks the band has rarely—or never—played onstage, such as “A Venture” and “Perpetual Change”, both worthy in their own right and very refreshing in this context.

After an earned 20-minute intermission, the band came back and, with Howe rocking the pedal steel guitar, delivered a roaring “Going for the One” to kick off the album of the same name.

A few thoughts about Going for the One: It was the special treat of the evening to hear this album played start-to-finish, because, to my knowledge, Yes hasn’t played anything from this album in years. Certainly, in the three Yes shows I’ve seen prior to this one, I haven’t heard anything from this album live, ever. And it’s a good one! Following the soaring title song, the pace changed for the delicate, acoustic “Turn of the Century,” which was followed by another stomper, the organ-driven “Parallels.” The second portion of the five-song album (side two back in the vinyl days) began with a superb rendition of one of Yes’ most beautiful compositions ever, “Wondrous Stories.” And then the band launched into what was probably one of the most anticipated songs of the evening—and the clear highlight of the night for me—the epic “Awaken”, a very complex piece of music that includes a delicate section of percussion along with some challenging instrumental passages for all concerned. The capper was as the song concluded, following Davison’s sensitive delivery of the final lyrics, “Like the time I ran away and turned around, and you were standing close to me …”, as the band hit the song’s sweeping, majestic final chords and a mountain of confetti erupted from the ceiling.

It’s hard to convey in words, but this wasn’t New Years’ Eve showmanship or Vegas flash; it was actually moving, as the music and the fellowship of the audience and band and the flying papers from on high combined for a stirring finale to an exceptional evening of music. Seriously, I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. Music has the power to move us, but it so rarely does for this old, jaded critic. But that moment was like an emotional punch in the gut. Rarely does a rock concert feel so unifying, so emotional. (I wasn’t the only one who felt this way—my 17-year-old son, joining me for his first Yes show, saved some confetti as a souvenir.)

That would have been enough, but it wasn’t the end. Called back for an encore, Yes ended with its classic “Roundabout” off Fragile, an album I hope they perform complete in a future tour. It was a great, spirited rendition, again bringing life to a song the band’s done to death, and the the crowd was up and moving for the whole thing. It was as much a celebration as a song.

The members of Yes played exceptionally well this evening. Howe was a standout and clear audience favorite. He’s no kid, but he jumped around and engaged the audience with his facial expressions of awe and joy as well as with his incredible guitar mastery. Using an array of guitars, from his standard Gibson hollow bodies, to the occasional Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, to a Line 6 electric model he used to play acoustic parts, Howe moved flawlessly from part to part, never missing a note. Nobody plays guitar like Steve Howe.

Likewise, Chris Squire is also a very unique player; his percussive “lead bass” style has influenced countless bass players over the years, and his instrument was certainly very prominent in the mix. For most of the show, he went with his classic Rickenbacker, although he did use a Fender Jazz bass for a few songs, and played a unique three-neck bass (one conventional four-string, one fretless, one six-string for a doubling effect) on “Awaken.” Squire’s backing vocals have always been a crucial element of the Yes sound, and he blended beautifully with Davison just as he did with Anderson long ago.

White provided consistent support and thump throughout. Never the flashiest of drummers, he has a more direct, simple style in comparison to his predecessor in Yes, Bill Bruford (who played on The Yes Album and Close to the Edge). His style may be a departure from Bruford’s jazzy snap on the original album tracks, but he’s played these songs so many times over the years that his style is indelible with these pieces. White was especially effective on the Going for the One songs, as he drummed on the original album. I don’t know if it was deliberate or not, but it seemed like White was brought up in the mix for this album’s songs, and that was a welcome alteration, because his drums seemed somewhat buried for the first part of the show.

Also buried in the mix were Downes’ keyboards, and that’s a shame, because he did great work evoking but not imitating the parts and sounds of predecessors Tony Kaye (who played on The Yes Album) and Rick Wakeman (who was on Close to the Edge and Going for the One). Downes has speedy fingers and plenty of skill, but he’s best at creating soundscapes of synth chords along the lines of his work with Asia, which he founded with Howe. He recreated the parts from the albums with precision—didn’t seem like he missed a note to me—and changed things up on some of the solos rather than just playing Wakeman’s original lines. Good for him. Downes is a great addition to this version of Yes.

And of course, there’s the new lead singer. Davison was so good, just flawless. This is not easy stuff to sing—the Going for the One material seemed especially high-pitched—and he made it sound easy. Quite an achievement, considering he had to sing for about 2.5 hours that night. Beyond Davison’s flawless vocals, he also brings back to Yes the spiritual element that Anderson had onstage with the band. Like Anderson, this Jon truly believed in what he was singing and was clearly moved by it, and that feeling, that emotion was contagious. The crowd clearly liked and accepted him from song one, and his facial expressions related that he was having a good time too. The band is planning to record a new studio album with Davison this year, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they accomplish with this gifted musician at the helm.

As is standard for Yes shows, the sound and lights were excellent. The volume was just right—not too loud, not too soft. I could actually hear the different instruments and the notes being played, not just a boom. There were some mix issues to my ears—Howe and Squire seemed too loud at the start while Davison, White and Downes felt buried—but their levels were adjusted as the show progressed, and by the end, the mix was damn near perfect.

The staging was terrific. Yes opted for a plain stage setting this time around—no elaborate set pieces or design elements as on previous shows, perhaps to emphasize the music. But the video behind the band and to the sides of the stage was excellent, mixing live video of the performance with evocative imagery and films, including some of Roger Dean’s iconic cover art that’s become synonymous with the band.

This was a superb show, plain and simple. Were some tempos a bit slower than on the records? Sure, at times. Were there moments where maybe someone got out of sync with the others? Perhaps. This is not easy music to play, and these guys aren’t kids anymore.

But Yes circa 2013 played hearty renditions of three of their best albums with skill, passion, and lots of love—for their crowd, for their music and for each other. For a band with a history of drama, it was nice to see, and better to hear. Yes is doing further shows on this Classic Albums Tour, and I strongly recommend you check out a concert if you get the chance. Music like this, and players of this caliber, should not be missed.

For further information on Yes and the 2013 Classic Album Tour, go to the band’s official website at www.yesworld.com

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