CONCERT REVIEW: Classic Tales As Told By YES on Tour (October 26th, 2023)

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At this point in their career, the drama of Yes precedes them (starting well before “Drama” came out, actually), threatening to overshadow the very music they perform. Happily, a few songs into their show at Denver’s Paramount Theater last week, and all politics and comparisons had fallen by the wayside, triumphantly overshadowed by the fact that this is simply some of the best progressive rock music ever made, and it was being performed damn well. Call them Yes, call them by more derogatory names, but regardless of your personal take on their lineup, there was a ton of music from Yes’ legacy to be enjoyed on this evening. Frankly it’s a shame that anyone is too tied up in opinionated knots to not be able to just enjoy it. For the rest of us, this was a fantastic evening. 

Everyone in the theater was grateful that the show happened at all. Reportedly Steve Howe had injured his hand earlier in the week and the two previous shows had been cancelled at the last minute. While Yes management didn’t go out of their way to assure Denver that the concert was indeed happening, no news was good news in this case and so the band and fans alike showed up, trusting that the other would be there. Fortunately Howe showed virtually no signs of pain during his playing, although two songs were cut from the setlist, perhaps due to the potential strain on his hand: “Going For The One” (which requires pedal steel playing) and a short instrumental guitar solo excerpt from “America.” [Apparently those omissions have now reappeared for the subsequent concert two nights later.]

Roger Dean, the famed artist who created so many of Yes’ iconic album covers, was essentially the opening band. He offered a presentation of his history and portfolio to start the evening, which some audience members obviously could have done without, while others were fascinated. There were some interesting stories, a few humorous jabs at Avatar, and most of all it was just nice to visit with Dean for a little bit. But by the end of the talk, the audience was more than ready for Yes to appear.

The setlist was spectacularly diverse and unexpected, a nice change from some past tours where albums were played front to back in their entirety. Opening with “Machine Messiah” is always a welcome choice. It’s been played a surprising amount over the past many years but that’s to make up for its neglect over the previous several decades. Plus, it just makes sense, given that 2/5 of the current band actually played on that studio album, which is about as high a ratio as you’ll get tonight, save for one new song (cue the haters). We follow up with a song where a different 2/5 of the band created the original track, the very surprising “It Will Be A Good Day.” For Yes fans in the know, 1999’s “The Ladder” was an impressive outing, which included Billy Sherwood in the band, so featuring virtually any song from it is a treat. “Your Move/I’ve Seen All Good People” is a friendly bone tossed to the casual fans who will otherwise find very little familiar in the setlist on this tour, and it’s a solid performance of the song, from Howe’s opening lute to his electric soloing later on. 

Jumping back to the 60s, the band chooses to play the title track from “Time And A Word” which should have been a massive anthem at the time of its release. Although no one on stage tonight was part of that original studio album (aside from Howe unfortunately appearing on the album cover for the version in the States), the rendition offered here is triumphant, from singer Jon Davison’s pitch-perfect delivery to Billy Sherwood’s harmony vocals which Chris Squire used to sing and Howe’s soloing where Peter Banks used to be. For those not in the know, Sherwood has completely perfected Squire’s approach to the bass, both in covering the classic pieces and even in writing new songs with a Squire mindset. In the case of this song, Sherwood’s playing of Squire’s bass lines lifts up this simple folk song and makes it a prog anthem. A fitting tip of the cap to the band’s origins. 

The highlights of the show turn out to be reached through the next two songs. “South Side of the Sky” is a hidden gem off the “Fragile” album, but offers a vibe which Yes was not able to capture live in concert for many years. Here the band delivers the song’s intense driving energy successfully, thanks largely to drummer Jay Schellen who seems particularly on fire tonight. The middle slow section is deftly played by Geoff Downes, covering Rick Wakeman’s original lines, as Davison, Sherwood and Howe sing the beautiful interweaving vocal lines. Its glory is surpassed by the next choice, one of Yes’ most evocative pieces “Turn Of The Century”. Co-written by Yes’ beloved late drummer, Alan White, tonight’s performance is made even more special by the fact that his wife Gigi is in the audience, which Davison announces as he dedicates the song to her and her son. Howe is completely on point during the whole piece, from his uniquely stylistic acoustic guitar opening section, following Davison’s angelic vocal runs in perfect unison, to his majestic electric guitar playing in the middle as the vocals rise higher and higher, and back to acoustic to finish the piece with breathtaking poignancy. The masterpiece leaves the audience gasping, including Gigi who has tears of joy in her eyes, viscerally moved. 

As the tour’s title implies, there is an offering made from the divisive “Tales Of Topographic Oceans” album, but it is unlike what the band have played before. Instead of playing one of the four 20 minute pieces from the double album, they instead have created a 20 minute medley of all four pieces. Howe came up with the idea and the edit, which is most interesting considering that he has taken Jon Anderson to task any time Anderson has even hinted at rearranging a Yes classic. But tonight the chopping block is on full display and what results is a kind of “Greatest Hits of Topographic”, jumping from one chorus to another. For those of us who love “Topographic“, this is a double edged sword. One one side, the medley is packed with choice material, going from one strength to another. On the other side, it is jarring to suddenly have a beloved piece abruptly stopped and go into another one. The jury is still out as to whether the ends justify the means on this one, but is was gratifying to at least hear some parts of “The Remembering” which have hardly ever been played live before. 

The band leaves the stage after a surprisingly short set, returning with the traditional encores of “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper”, the crowd finally coming to their feet. They’re good versions of the songs but nothing remarkable given their extensive histories. On “Trooper”, for example, there’s no Wakeman keyboard solo during “Würm” to build up the tension before Howe’s climactic guitar solo, so that solo hardly feels as though it enters with maximum impact. Downes performance throughout the night has certainly been solid, but it doesn’t go beyond that to the next level that other Yes keyboardists have reached. 

With that, let’s talk for a moment about the band’s current incarnation. Tonight’s concert certainly proves that they can play Yes songs satisfyingly and convincingly. How wonderful that we can still enjoy this music by some of its creators. It’s okay if there’s not as much fire as 50 years ago, that can’t realistically be expected. The younger generation of 3/5 of the band do keep things fresh and sparkly – Schellen captures White’s approach and has the energy to deliver, Sherwood is the epitome of Squire’s protege, and Davison sings the pieces very well. 

But let’s be honest, there’s nothing like the tone in Anderson’s voice and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit behind his voice which is what Yes was founded upon. There’s a thousand good reasons for the current lineup to stay intact, not least being that they are making good new music such as featured on the new release “Mirror To The Sky”. But the reality is that they only played ONE song off that album (“Cut From The Stars”, played well but otherwise unremarkable), and this tour wasn’t called the “Mirror To The Sky” tour, it was called “Classic Tales of Yes”. 

If you’re primarily going to play Classic Yes, all the good reasons in the world don’t seem to overcome the obvious option: play with classic Yes members. Anderson is hard to work with? Fine, don’t write new albums with him, tour in a separate bus, but get on stage with him. Plenty of other bands do this. Maybe Wakeman, too, if he’ll do it. You want to respect all that Davison and Downes have given the band the past 14 years? Fine, have a section of the concert with the current 5-piece playing, and play a bunch of those fine NEW SONGS they’ve written. Then bring out the old guard and play the classics. (And more snarkily I would add – if you argue that Anderson will ask for a larger percentage of money, fine give it to him. You’re going to bring in more than enough additional people to the shows to counterbalance that. The Paramount wasn’t exactly filled for this concert, attendance is clearly on the decline.) 

Okay, that’s my brief rant, and my suggestions. Love live Yes, in all its many colors, textures and high vibrations! 

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2 Comments

  1. Scott Medina…good article till you started kissing Anderson’s ass. He’s not coming back…deal with It. Downes has been on fire the entire tour..Just another worthless article written by a gack.

  2. I feel the ever present tug from this ‘Yes’ legacy if not through my technical abilities, then through my ears. I really appreciate your passion for this music Scott. It’s infectious!

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