Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 2, 2010: It had been 35 years since I had seen the quintessential prog-rockers Yes, led by the recently departed Chris Squire. For some reason, I had been on a bit of a Yes revival during the past few months, picking up used copies of Close to the Edge, Yesshows, and a copy of one of the myriad of best-of collections – The Ultimate Yes – a good-but-not-perfect three-disc overview of the band. The strangest part of the renewed interest was my close re-examination of their work Tales From Topographic Oceans, which they were playing the first time I saw them in concert, in January of 1974.
So, when son pointed out that Yes was going to be playing at the same large outdoor stage for Milwaukee’s Summerfest where we had seen Elvis Costello the previous summer, I was interested. I was also surprised that these boys were playing one of the free side stages. However, Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest is good about getting large if fading names for their entertainment. I was, to be honest, somewhat concerned about seeing the band live. I remember seeing a concert video of the group from a few years ago and was not especially impressed.
We arrived at the Summerfest grounds in early afternoon, so had about 7 hours before Yes would play their 10 p.m. set. We enjoyed a fine time, seeing a marginal Steely Dan tribute band, followed by an excellent set by the Heavy. But we were getting pretty tired and the decision had to be made: boogie quick after the Heavy set to the far end of the grounds to try to get seats for Yes, or head for home. We were there; let’s go see Yes. I rushed us through the increasing crowds and we were able to get some bench seats. Good. We were all tired, and I’m not sure I would have fired-up to stand for 45 minutes waiting for the band to come on. But as I say, we did have a place to sit and chill.
As I looked at the stage, I thought about how the mighty had fallen. This was a bare bones set-up with a single large projection screen behind it. Gone were the elaborate sets that I had seen years before. I guess that makes sense; there was no longer any point in putting together complicated (and expensive) Roger Dean-designed stage props. They were on the road to make some money and to play for the faithful, who were at an age where the extraneous stage trappings mattered less than just having the band show-up and play. And this is exactly what happened.
The quintet took the stage right at 10 p.m., accompanied by the dramatic conclusion to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” a concert prelude they have used for decades. Pretentious? Arrogant? At this point it really doesn’t matter; it’s what they use for an entrance. Yes launched into the first song. It was one I barely remembered, “Machine Messiah,” but I was impressed with the sound, the tightness of the band and the fact that their lead singer sounded a whole lot like Jon Anderson. A whole lot. The fact that Anderson is not with the band for this lengthy tour is a bone of contention with some fans and with the singer himself. No matter. I wasn’t expecting Anderson, and vocalist Benoit David had his part down.
During this first number, we were able to move down the bench a bit, away from some talking drunks and into far better sightlines. I would say better seats, but this was a standing concert. Not just standing, but standing on the benches. Fine; my son didn’t mind at all. We were both tired from a long day, but the music lifted us up.
After this first tune, drummer Alan White laid down a slow, steady beat. I was amazed, then, when the band hit the opening chords of “Yours is No Disgrace,” a very fast number in its recorded versions. I truly wondered, “Can this really be the tempo they mean to take it?” Clearly, it was. They smoldered on this tune at less than half speed for probably 15 minutes. A full version, to be sure. Guitarist Steve Howe looked like an aging history professor, but played like he was on fire. I must have said aloud no less than four times: “Howe is really having a good night!” Unlike the sluggish renditions offered-up by the Steely Dan tribute band from that afternoon, Yes meant to play “Yours is No Disgrace” at this tempo. Very unexpected, very fresh, and very great.
We had talked earlier about watching part of the set and then heading out when Yes hit material we didn’t know. Never happened. At one point, my son tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Is this their third tune?” “I think so,” I replied. “They have been playing for 45 minutes!” It seemed to me like about 10.People around us also stared in disbelief when this time reference was given. I learned later that my son was also a bit uncertain about attending this concert. He likes Yes a great deal, but had been at Summerfest earlier in the week and saw the Moody Blues on this same stage. He departed after only a few songs. “No spark,” he said. He would later indicate how glad he was that we stayed for the Yes concert and for their full set.
Speaking of which, as I gushed on the bus ride home, “This was a set list from heaven!” Following the opening pair of numbers, Chris Squire and company performed excellent versions of “And You and I,” and later “I’ve Seen All Good People.” I kept expecting some material I didn’t know, but the most recent tune they touched after the opening number was “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was a No. 1 Billboard Magazine hit for them in 1984. A very impressive, brief number.
Another pleasant surprise came when the late Chris Squire introduced a change of pace and most of the band left the stage. Guitarist Steve Howe then played a 10-minute set on acoustic guitar. Seated, it was clear that Howe had listened to a lot of Chet Atkins as he ripped through country finger-style guitar licks during this medley comprised more of brief themes than of actual songs. This respite was welcome too because the entire audience sat down for a few minutes during the acoustic interlude.That helped.
Steve Howe, a long-time guitar collector, showed class later in the evening by pointedly acknowledging Wisconsin as “the birth place of the great Les Paul,” before the beginning of “Perpetual Change.” This song was noteworthy as a real showcase for the interplay between Howe’s electric and Chris Squire’s famous Rickenbacker bass guitar. It also featured Benoit David’s vocals on the beautiful lyrics and surprisingly gentle melody which make-up the song.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, we heard the opening acoustic harmonics to “Roundabout.” I knew this had to be a set-closer, and it was. Steve Howe had his unique method of keeping the electric guitar strapped-on while reaching over it to play an acoustic guitar mounted on a stand. Unusual but functional. He also played a bit of steel guitar in his way of making it sound unlike any steel player I’ve ever heard. They departed the stage and then returned to encore with a very hot rendition of “Starship Trooper.”
We saw a good set on a good night. I went on-line later and discovered that, perhaps surprisingly, the boys did not perform “Owner of a Lonely Heart” all that often these days. I was glad they did hit that one, as it is one of my son’s favorites and was the song that first grabbed his attention toward Yes. Also, they had not played “Yours is No Disgrace” in months. I was really glad for that one as well, and in retrospect that tune was my favorite of the evening. But they were all good. Although I had seen the band twice before this night, the previous shows were the specialty tours of Tales from Topographic Oceans and the subsequent Relayer tour, when they were rarely touching their back catalog. As such, the only tune Yes played at Summerfest which I had ever heard them perform live was “And You and I,” and even that was a very different arrangement. When we saw them, Chris Squire and company were far closer to capturing the more subtle elements of the studio recording, as opposed to the bombastic nature of the Yessongs version.
Another thing I learned after the concert – which really does not impact on my review – was how deeply some people feel that this was not really Yes. OK, but as I pointed out on the bus trip to the festival site, the only original member of the band still playing with them was Chris Squire. He acted as sort of de-facto group leader, while Benoit David served as the reserved front man, knowing that he was fortunate to have made the leap from singing with a Yes tribute band to singing with the real thing. It happens.
But make no mistake, this was Yes: Chris Squire, Steve Howe, drummer Alan White (although I do prefer Bill Bruford, I confess). The core of the popular line-up was solidly in place. There was a different vocalist in Jon Anderson’s absence, too, but he was more than capable, while the keyboards were handled by Oliver Wakeman – the son of the band’s other famous former member, Rick Wakeman. This, too, happens.
After this show, I went through a Yes phase of some duration. That very weekend, I’d already pulled their LPs off my shelf, ready for a return to duty.
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