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Concert Review / Interview with JON ANDERSON: “Doing YES Songs a Little Bit Differently Than The Norm Is Part of My Adventure of Life!”

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Before his show in Boulder, Colorado, Jon Anderson spoke to Sonic Perspectives correspondent Scott Medina about the tour and his new album 1,000 Hands. Below is a recounting of several of the highlights of the interview, interspersed with an overview of the show itself. The complete audio of the interview is also available underneath. The tour continues its run through August, still visiting the cities below. Jon is singing brilliantly while his band delivers a joyful and fully engaging show that will satisfy Yes & Anderson fans of every stripe. This is a tour not to be missed! 

Remaining tour dates:

  • Aug 23 Iliani Resort – Ridgefield, WA
  • Aug 24 Uptown Theater – Napa, CA
  • Aug 26 Harris Center – Folsom,CA
  • Aug 29 The Rose – Pasadena, CA
  • Aug 30 Libbey Bowl – Ojai, CA
  • Sept 01 The Cayon – Monclair CA

Scott Medina and Jon Anderson

“Boulder, Colorado! Best place in the world…today! [chuckles]” Jon Anderson and his 1,000 Hands band have just arrived in the beautifully sunny state of Colorado, getting ready to bring their show to the Boulder Theater as they make their way across the States in the second leg of their US Tour of 2019. Jon’s opening joke reveals several sides to the man: eternally optimistic and upbeat, he’s also used to living in the present moment and going with whatever flow life brings him. You truly feel that, for him, whichever moment he is inhabiting actually is the best place in the world. Having recently finished a couple of years touring with former Yes men Rick Wakeman and Trevor Rabin, and with no likelihood in sight of rejoining his other Yes family of Steve Howe, Alan White and Billy Sherwood on stage, Jon has taken to the road with his own 8-piece band to promote his new album 1,000 Hands. Happily, the material, production and performance on the new recording is one of the most polished and engaging achievements of his solo career, in no small part due to producer Michael Franklin who assembled a cast of thousands (of hands) to support Jon in realizing his vision. 
 
“Yeah, it’s quite remarkable!” says Jon. “The idea of the album took years and years to create. We made the music 30 years ago – most of it – and then found the tapes two years ago and started to listen to them and they still sounded good. So we decided to get it finished with the help of Michael Franklin, a great producer down in Orlando. There’s a lot of musicians in and around Orlando because of Disney World and Universal World and you name it, and he was able to get Chick Corea to play on the album, and Billy Cobham, Tower of Power brass and all these wonderful people. So it was quite a remarkable event for me. For example, Billy Cobham was a big influence in my life. He was in the band The Mahavishnu Orchestra. And I saw their first show, which was a remarkable evening because they opened up the show, we were on next and then The Kinks were the headliners. And to watch The Mahavishnu Orchestra rehearse was like seeing how to blow people’s minds! It was unbelievable music!
 
“We were able to record Chris Squire and Alan White on the album at the beginning, 30 years ago, and right at the very end [last December 2018]I was able to get Steve Howe to play on the last track, which was fantastic. I remembered how well we wrote great songs together, it was a wonderful experience. And you never know in this life when you’re gonna work together again!” 
 
Despite not currently playing with his Yes brothers, a highlight of the tour for Jon is the new band themselves: “Working with eight musicians…they’re very, very special people from all around the world. We have a girl who’s a violin player from Taiwan and a keyboard player from the Philippines who also plays trombone and harp and all sorts of instruments. So I have this collection of musicians that are able to create a full orchestra at times and then a full big band sound at times and then doing Yes songs where we can upgrade the production sound-wise. And they all sing, which is fantastic! So, musically speaking, the world is my oyster at the moment!” 
 
As the lights go down in The Boulder Theater, the audience is about to find out exactly what Jon can do with this excellent band at his disposal. The strains of “The Ocean Song” are played on the house speakers, a song which opened Jon’s first solo album in 1976, and the musicians take the stage to enthusiastic but polite applause. Drummer Rayford Griffin (from Jean Luc Ponty’s band) hits a memorable riff and the band instantly shifts from ’76 to ’83, opening up with “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. It’s an unexpected move, being one of Yes’ biggest charting songs ever and one that Yes themselves probably never chose to open a concert with. But as Jon enters the stage singing “Move yourself,” smiling widely and wearing a sharp outfit, the message is loud and clear: we’re going to have a good time tonight. The rousing version gets the crowd engaged and cheering. At the pop song’s conclusion the band wastes no time and shifts decades again, immediately hitting the intro of “Yours Is No Disgrace”. It’s a fantastic version with Tommy Calton hitting the important Howe parts and phenomenal bassist Tim Franklin getting Squire’s bass (and, at times, vocals) right. There is something undeniably ecstatic about hearing Jon Anderson sing these songs. Sure, the tone of his voice has its own character which can never be matched, but it’s his very spirit which occupies a unique place in rock and roll. 
 
There also is something new afoot. Other factors are creeping into the arrangements…was there ever a brass section in “Yours Is No Disgrace” before? Jon laughs during our interview. “Well, doing Yes songs a little bit differently than the norm is part of my adventure of life!” Did his desire to re-arrange Yes classics ever bother his former band-mates, who seem to be more wedded to the idea of performing songs exactly as they were recorded? “The last time I went out on the road was with Rick Wakeman and Trevor Rabin. When we started rehearsing I said, ‘Let’s have some more musicians (and basically do what I’m doing now)?’ And they didn’t really see that as a good idea. [laughs]So I thought, ‘Okay, don’t worry! I’ll do it one day!’ And I’m doing it now! At another time when we were working together on the Union album, I suggested changing an introduction for a song to surprise the people. And Steve said, ‘No, it’s gotta be like the record!’ And I thought, ‘Okay! I’ll do that when I get the chance with my own band!’ And I’m doing it now! I enjoy every second of the show. And our audiences are loving it like crazy.”
 
By the end of the the first two songs, the audience is indeed already crazed. It’s an almost overwhelming beginning to the show, a concert to which many people may have held lower expectations given that Jon is turning 75 next month and has no other Yes members in his current band. But these factors turn out to be strengths rather than liabilities as Jon’s years of experience give him the opportunity to shine in new ways while knowing how to build on the wisdom his history has gleaned. Everyone quickly realizes that the bar has in fact been raised, not lowered. Some of those new shining elements are the songs off of 1,000 Hands. The track “Ramalama” is a joyous piece that features Jon’s looped vocals which create a hypnotic sonic bed over which he sings lead lines. Most artists would play those looped vocals as a backing track in concert as it’s nearly impossible to recreate live. But with eight musicians in the band who sing, the band pulls it off impeccably. Astounding!
 
What’s the title of the song all about? I ask. Jon answers, “I think it’s subconsciously about the spirit world, the mystery of life, things like that. It’s always in my mind, questions about why we live, and I’ve always written about the spirituality of life in all my songs. It’s just the way I’m connected to that ideal. What happens is when I’m at home I get up, I make breakfast for my wife – we always have breakfast in bed which is wonderful – and then I’ll go and tidy up the kitchen and go to my studio, which is a cottage at the back of the house, and I start singing. What I call it is ‘vocalizationing’. I put on a groove piece of music and I start doing sort of vocalizing very much like the Pygmies do in West Africa. I actually saw a movie about them, they go out every morning foraging and they’re singing away, making these beautiful sounds with their voices. And so ‘Ramalama’ came out of that as did ‘Where Does Music Come From?’. I had written these about five years ago and I’ve written maybe a dozen more along the way. It’s just a way of exercising the voice in the morning, which is fantastic.” 
 
A blissful version of the Jon & Vangelis classic “State of Independence” follows, the engaged singing power of the band again being utilized to full capacity, eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd at its conclusion. Indeed, the crowd has been rising to its feet after nearly every song, if not staying on them to dance as well. Already on a high, the band go into one of the cheeriest sections of a very cheery set-list with “Makes Me Happy” where the non-more-chipper horn/flute player Billy Meether and Joe Cosas on trombone come running out into the audience with their respective horns during the samba section. This is followed by an elated version of “Your Move/All Good People” and the “single-edit” version of Yes’ cover of Paul Simon’s “America”, thrilling the audience to have the Yes material well-represented in such joyous renditions. After all that fun, Jon jokes that he’s ready for a nap and does indeed leave the stage to allow for the band to have a spotlight piece, a funky instrumental reading of “Chicken Soup” which features solos from every member. By the time intermission rolls around, the crowd likely feels they’ve already gotten their money’s worth with an unforgettable show. The second set is going to offer with a more acoustic approach, starting with “Flight of the Moorglade Mover” from Jon’s beloved first solo album Olias of Sunhillow. The album is somewhat of a holy grail for serious Anderson fans, but he’s only very rarely played any of it live until now.
 
This band seems particularly attuned to pull off Olias’ unique material; would he consider playing the entire album on tour some day with this band? “Well…well, that’s a good idea! I actually never thought about that. I think we were just testing the waters in the acoustic section in the middle of the show to see how it feels and everything. And I notice that maybe if you’ve got an audience of a thousand people, there’s probably about a hundred people that know Olias inside out…and they’re very excited about it! So it’s a delicate dance to go on stage and perform something that most of the people that don’t really know that well. But we’ll see what happens next year cause that’s probably the next time we’ll go out.” Maybe the idea of playing all of Olias in one special concert that people fly to see, rather than touring it? Jon thinks for a moment, “Like you say, to put together the Olias album with visuals and everything else that’s in my mind…if we were able to do it as a one-off concert and then invite people who know the album to come to that concert, that takes a lot of organization, I’m sure, but that wouldn’t be a bad idea. It would be fun!” 
 
There’s also a fabled sequel to Olias called Zamran that’s been years in the making but still not been released. Any updates on that, Jon? “Ha! I was thinking about that this morning! We were flying in from Chicago and I was watching the movie ‘Tolkien’, which is really a beautiful movie all about the Lord of the Rings guy and how he grew up and how he kept strong in his dreams and so on. I’ve been going through that quite a lot, the idea of sorting out Zamran. I’ve written it out four times now and it still doesn’t read correctly yet. It’s about the formation of the planet and how the ley lines were created and all the sacred sites were created and who did it, it’s that kind of an in-depth concept. So, watching that movie yesterday made me think, ‘I’ve got to get on with it!’ I got to get it finished cause I’ve got four hours of music based on it as well!” 
 
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Back in Boulder, “Flight of the Moorglade” really takes off for a transcendent opening to the second set. Rayford Griffin is up front playing a cajon, with percussionist Steady Joseph playing a djembe while Tim Franklin moves to stand-up acoustic bass and the vibe is simply magical. Given that Jon seems like a Hobbit out of Tolkien’s world himself, it’s obvious why that movie inspired him. That inspiration runs through this acoustic set which includes the delightful “Sweet Dreams” from Yes’ debut album in ’68, “To the Runner” from Olias, and perhaps the most beautiful renditions ever heard of “Long Distance Runaround” and “Wonderous Stories”. While the original studio versions will always be classics, there is wisdom in Jon’s approach of adding new arrangements and instruments in key places. There is new life in these songs, they sound fresh and relevant, and Jon’s emotion and love is the key ingredient that wraps the arrangement together and offers it as a gift to his audience. 
 
Two of the older tracks from 1,000 Hands are up next. The delightful “First Born Leaders” features an island groove and is a positive spin towards a happier state of mind. “In this song I’m singing ‘Everybody wants what they cannot have. Everybody needs what they cannot see,’ because they’re looking outside of themselves for happiness,” explains Jon. “They haven’t realized that it’s all in here,” as he touches his own heart. He teases the crowd a bit, vaguely referencing the challenges of the current state of the world and how true happiness started to be explored in the ‘60s. “But just wait!” he mischievously continues. “2020 will be just like the ‘60s again!” He dances a fine line of advocating for a different political landscape without alienating any of his audience. Still, a few remarks to smoking lots of pot comes with a price: he’s unable to remember the lines to “First Born Leaders” and references a cheat sheet throughout the song. No harm done, he’s grinning and laughing all the while. 
 
Unbelievably, the most transcendent part of the concert is yet to come. We start off with the epic track “Come Up” which was originally recorded with an all-star cast including Chick Corea, Chris Squire, Jean Luc Ponty and many more. Jon’s live band handles it flawlessly, the spacious elements of jazz providing a nice contrast to what has come before, but at its apex the song segues into the Yes classic “Starship Trooper”. This version somehow has an added element of special sauce that takes it even beyond where Yes has gone with it, the closing hypnotic section of “Würm” perhaps being one of the most intense versions ever. Sacrilegious to say, perhaps, but there it is. Jon explains, “We get into the end of ‘Starship Trooper’ and we go into the song ‘Solid Space’ which is from the Olias album, and it really works!” Jon is in a trance on stage during this part, guiding the arrangement like a conductor of the ethereal planes. So thunderous is the audience response that the concert could end here…it should end here! But lest anyone forgets, Yes really hit it big in the ‘70s with “Roundabout” and a cracking version is offered up to get everyone dancing again, complete with a (gasp) horn section killing it in the best of ways before the scorching iconic keyboard solo kicks in. There’s complete joyous abandon throughout the theater. After the rush dies down, Jon brings the evening to a close with an etheric version of “Soon”, again with a few tasteful fresh arrangements from the band. No finer, sweeter ending could have been dreamt up for a show as satisfying as this one. 
 
As a celebration of the world of Jon Anderson the evening is a total success, but it’s also one of the happiest concerts the audience has likely ever experienced. The tour has drawn rave reviews from the public and critics alike, including those who had previously written Jon off at this point in his career. With all of this momentum built, what’s in store for the future?
 
Jon hints: “On the next next tour I want to do ‘Close to the Edge’ – for some reason I think this band would really have a great time performing it – and maybe ‘Ritual’. And then maybe we’ll spread it around a couple of tracks from Olias as well, you never know.” And the second Chapter of “1,000 Hands”? “Well, I was working on it just before the tour. I’ve got four songs that we’ve got ready and Michael Franklin was doing some production on it. Then I found another song which is linked together with another one. When I get home, I’ll probably send Michael about 10 more! The idea of chapter two should be maybe a couple more ‘vocalizationing’ projects which I have. I know I’ve got a couple of large scale pieces that I’ve always wanted to get into production so I’ll throw them at Michael and say, ‘Sort that out!’” Jon says that he’s got another 20 years of creative ideas in front of him and after witnessing the show tonight, there’s little doubt that he’ll continue to realize that big dream. 

Article photographs by Matt Condon. Slideshows photographs by Matt Condon and Mark Caicedo

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Fantastic review! You described exactly what we experienced in Alexandria VA a few weeks ago! You really captured the essence of JA and his band, and the amazing spirit Jon brings to his shows – thanks!

  2. Avatar

    Excellent as usual, Scott. Just 1 thing to edit: Yes’ debut album was in ’69, not ’68.

  3. Avatar

    Great, great interview, Scott! I’m excited for the future great music! I heard Jon and 1000 hands Las Vegas concert has been canceled. Too bad, I’d have made effort to be there. Oh, and has anyone ever told you you look like a big Jon Anderson?!