Anyone expecting the cosmic prog-rock journeys of this duo’s work as members of Yes must have been a little disappointed — and not just with the spare instrumentation. More striking than the lean, guitar-free musical structures was how intimate, even grounded this concert performance was.
If anything, though, this album speaks to both the individual trials and the shared will to overcome for both singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Each has had to grapple against some terrifying health problems, even as Yes continued on without them.
When they combined forces for 2010′s The Living Tree, passing recordings back and forth over the Internet from either side of the Atlantic Ocean, the results — and, really now, this was to be expected — had less to do with prosaic new-age fancy (and the expected billowing keyboard signatures) than it did a more grounded spirituality. Wakeman’s playing had a focused stateliness. Themes ran to the afterlife, preserving the environment for future generations, prayers for the end of war’s bloodshed — with nary a mountain coming out of the sky.
Their subsequent tour, which combined the best tracks from that recording with classic material from Yes, has now been documented on The Living Tree In Concert, Part One. The project underscores both the simple beauty and surprising emotional resonance of their initial collaboration, but also the difficulties in recreating their older music in a new duo context.
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In Concert features the best of The Living Tree, including its two-part title track, “House of Freedom” and especially the devastating “23/24/11,” and it is here that the two men’s uncanny musical symbiosis is best experienced. The songs, freed finally from an arid existence as emailed MP3s, leap to life in this crackling collaborative setting. Anderson, for the first time in a long time, seems to be having fun.
Less successful, unfortunately, were the redone Yes classics “And You and I” and “Long Distance Runaround.” It’s not just that they tended to expose the ragged edges of Anderson’s early-recovery vocal range. These legacy pieces sometimes sounded too carefully approached, too quietly constructed — almost like demos, at times. Best to skip over to the album’s ebullient, and wildly entertaining, reconstruction of 1970′s “Time and a Word,” as Anderson thrillingly intersperses lyrics from the Beatles’ “She Loves You” and Burt Bacharach’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love” over Wakeman’s lilting reggae-fied riff.
Off and on musical partners since 1971, this pair has every right to edit and transform their work with Yes that way, to re-calibrate it in the same manner that they’ve shifted their own compositional outlook after the ravages of time and illness. The only shame is that it didn’t happen more often on The Living Tree In Concert, Part One.
Here’s hoping Part 2 finds Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman continuing to push themselves and their art, but especially the old art.