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Which Yes is the Right Yes?

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Mark and his Yes albums

The author questions: is a band’s lineup more important than the music within? The answer: only to a point

This week I went to see a band perform at The Warfield Theater in San Francsico, a band that — depending upon your perspective — is either (a) a guilty pleasure, (b) one of the most influential groups in rock history, (c) a group well beyond its prime, (d) bollocks, or (e) all of the above. The group in question is Yes.

I went into the show with a nagging question as to whether the group I saw should even be called Yes. And I thought about it some more the morning after the show when looking closely at the tour T-shirt I bought, noticing how it cleverly morphs images from different eras of the band (outtake photos from the 1971 release The Yes Album backed by structures from 1977’s Going for the One). Point is: they are all iconic Yes images, even though they represent decidedly different eras of the band.

There has been much dialogue (whining?) by fans about this topic over the years, particularly since the (appropriately titled) 1980 album Drama appeared — this album marked the initial departure of singer, group co-founder, and prime visionary Jon Anderson (as well as keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who played on many of the group’s most popular records in what is now commonly referred to as the “classic” lineup of the band).

Drama found Anderson and Wakeman replaced by two young up-and-coming new wavers — Geoffrey Downe and Trevor Horn — who would enter rock history as The Buggles, writers/producers of the first video played on MTV, “Video Killed The Radio Star.” At the time it came out, Drama was a hit, although I admit that I didn’t connect with it initially and had moved on to more progressive rock icons like King Crimson and edgier musics revolving around Brian Eno’s universe (Talking Heads, Television, etc.) as well as new wave, punk, and jazz. When Anderson came back in 1984 for the mega-selling 90125 (with yet another incarnation of the band in tow) I raised my nose in prog pride and ignored the album completely as a crass sell out.

Perhaps I was wrong, but I stuck with that attitude until the mid ’90s, when I rediscovered that Yes had been evolving into a pretty interesting hybrid of both bands it had been at different times — merging pop and prog bombast with aplomb and finesse. Albums like The Ladder (1999), Open Your Eyes (1997), Talk (1994) and even the mutation bringing almost all the various and sundry members together, 1991’s Union, have some solid merits — great playing and some terrific tunes.

I became a current fan again and enjoyed seeing them getting back together and tackling noble experiments like touring with a full orchestra (to support 2001’s Magnification). Yes’ biggest problem as it aged has been a seeming inability to self edit, so some records do meander a bit.

Yes: Fly from HereFast forward a bit, and lead singer Jon Anderson got sick and had to bail on the band for a number of years, during which the group decided to keep going by bringing in a singer they found on YouTube from a Canadian Yes cover band. Initially I was dubious, but I began to accept singer Benoit David, especially when they started out new music together. Fly From Here (2011) was better than it had any right to be, all things considered. Perhaps a little light on guitar pyrotechnics, it’s no doubt a good Yes record that finds a balance between their sometimes more ethereal spiritual leanings and the band’s ’80s pop confections.

Just when I was getting comfortable with this new incarnation of Yes, they announce last year that new singer Benoit David had left the band, and a new singer named Jon Davison was now in the group.

So you can imagine my trepidation when a friend asked me to join him and some others to see this new Yes on the third night of a new tour (where they played three albums in their entirety: The Yes Album, Close To The Edge, and Going for the One). But I went along in a spirit of camaraderie and come-what-may lack of expectations. I feared we would be welcomed by a half empty theater and a band playing with only relative heart and soul.

Yes at the Warfield

An appreciative, near sold out crowd at The Warfield in San Francisco (March 5, 2013) enjoys the music of Yes performed by the latest incarnation of the band.

Instead, I was surprised. The place was nearly sold out. And the band was playing pretty well. The songs were performed at a slower and steadier pace, very much keeping to the album arrangements. I’d heard some complaints from other Yes fans over recent years that the drummer was slowing things down, but — without having insider access to the band and knowing for sure — I’m guessing that the reduced pace has more to do with the other musicians wanting to perform all their parts accurately.

Drummer Alan White was playing rock-steadily the whole night, but solidly. He did not appear to be huffin’ and puffin’ to get through the evening. Of course, it was only the third night of the tour, and given the circumstances of personal tragedy in Keyboardist Geoff Downes’ family, I (and most everyone) can forgive them the occasional flub. Even guitarist Steve Howe, who is arguably still the most “rockstar” of the group — stepping out into the spotlight to solo and generally having a great time on stage, bouncing around while playing and switching deftly between guitars mid song (as he is known to do) — took some artistic liberties (such as on the acoustic signature opening of the encore “Roundabout.”)

Yes lets loose the confetti at the Warfield

Yes blows away fans with a Flaming Lips-styled confetti explosion at the end of “Awaken.”

At intermission I had a nice talk with a guy who was an old Yes fan from the early days and a genuine music fan. Not the typical tired hippie dude, this guy looked like some senior Silicon Valley business executive who probably sported long hair at one point in his life as he lived a more rock and roll lifestyle. Yet, he spoke with a passion for the music that I found really heartwarming — it reminded me of similar conversations I had some of my parent’s friends reminiscing about the big band era. Good music is good music. We discussed the notion of the new singers in Yes (he wasn’t even aware that they had put out a new album in 2011, much less throughout the ’90s) and he drove home a point that another friend had hinted at in a similar online conversation a couple years ago. That point is simply: if it sounds like Yes’ music and is played by sympathetic musicians, then it isYes music.

That got me thinking about the history of music. I mean, where would we be if, after Beethoven died, everyone said things like:

“Well, if its not Ludwig playing those tunes, man, then its gotta suck and we can forget it…. Imma goin’ ta follow Rimsky-Korsakov’s tour… he rocks, dude.”

Heck, Igor Stravinsky is widely known to not be the best interpreter of his music, and he turned the music world upside-freaking-down with his compositions. (Note: Yes typically opens their shows with a snippet of Stravinsky.) Would Duke Ellington have had a 50-year career if he’d stopped performing whenever a key band member came or went? And what about when Ozzy left Black Sabbath, or Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian vs. David Coverdale. The point is, for better or for worse, groups can keep going and they can keep relevant, making music their fans will enjoy. Sure it would be great if at some point original singer Jon Anderson decides to return to the band, but I am not holding my breath for that. He is putting out his own new music and touring, and that’s cool, too.

So, perhaps in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s good that Yes is still going strong, even in its approaching twilight years. If the core guys in the group — Chris Squire was a co-founder of the band — still have things to say compositionally, the band then gives them a vehicle to say it. Hell, I even accept and applaud Dweezil Zappa for bringing his dad’s music to new and younger audiences who never got a chance to see Frank back in the day. Why not? He plays the music with a fair amount of genetic authority and respect that can only come from being inside the music on a granular level.

Yes 2013 lineup

Yes 2013: Older, perhaps wiser, and with some new energy from new lead singer Jon Davison (center). Bring it on.

“But… but… the new Yes… it’s not ‘the classic lineup,'” you say, still.

I respond by asking: which classic lineup do you refer to?

Bill Bruford, the original drummer, left the band in 1972 just after Close to the Edge was recorded, so most of us never even got to see that — arguably — classic lineup perform live. Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe weren’t even the original keyboardist and guitarist (respectively) — the first two Yes albums featured Peter Banks on guitar (who left to form Flash, a group that put out three good albums, one of them easily as good as anything Yes put out at that time period) and Tony Kaye (who was brought back into the fold during the ’80s and early ’90s).

So what is the classic lineup? Really. Think about it. The classic lineup everyone talks about (Anderson, Wakeman, Squire, Howe, White) was only together for three of Yes’ studio albums in the ’70s: Tales From Topographic Oceans, Going for the One, and Tormato, four if you count parts of live album Yessongs. Thus, I say, there is no one classic lineup.

So, I’ve decided to accept whatever Yes becomes as long as the music is good.

The Warfield show was encouraging, and it was cool to hear songs like “A venture” from The Yes Album live — I never heard that song live before — as well as all of Going for the One, an album the band was promoting the very first time I saw them in 1977.

Fly From Here was a good toe in the water in terms of new music from the band. Lets hope the next one is even better.

Here is a fan video of Yes performing “Roundabout” at The Warfield:

And here’s a 1971 TV appearance by Yes featuring original Keyboardist Tony Kaye and drummer Bill Bruford:

This is 1969 promo for the original original lineup with Peter Banks on guitar (and a groovy dune buggy!):

Here’s 1980-era Yes — it can be argued that without this incarnation of the band, they never would have survived reinvention in mid ’80s:

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