Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Boy, this is a tough one. I’m pretty sure I saw the seminal prog-rock band Yes play a great show in Milwaukee. And yet … it’s complicated.
One undisputable fact: There were no original members present on stage. That is, musicians who were on the very first Yes album, from 1969. Current drummer Alan White joined Yes in 1972 and, as such, has over 40 years of band cred. But White missed the Milwaukee gig because of back problems, replaced by Jay Schellen. Singer John (later Jon) Anderson chooses not to perform with Yes any longer. Famous Rick Wakeman was absent, but he was not the group’s original keyboard player anyway. Geoff Downes is now on keys. Founding member Chris Squire died in 2015, so we will give him a pass for not making this gig. Instead, Billy Sherwood now plays bass.
Then there is Steve Howe, the band’s much loved lead guitarist. With Squire’s passing, Howe is now the cornerstone of Yes. Howe’s importance to the band’s current line-up cannot be overstated. Let me put it this way: without Steve Howe, this would have been a well-rehearsed, authentic-sounding tribute band.
Hold on, though: Steve Howe joined the group in 1970, and first appears on the third Yes album. [I know, I know — Howe is pictured on the sleeve of the band’s second album, Time and a Word. It is guitarist Peter Banks who actually plays on that record, though. Long story.] While not an original member, it is Steve Howe’s presence that gives indisputable credence to this assemblage calling itself Yes.
Jon Davison did a good job of replicating the original vocal lines of Yes’ original co-founding lead singer Jon Anderson. But wait a minute. The current tour features a live performance of the entire Drama album. Anderson had parted company with Yes for that project. So, I guess Davison is giving his interpretation of Trevor Horn’s Anderson-inspired vocals for these songs, since Horn is Anderson’s substitute vocalist on Drama. Hey, I warned you it was complicated.
Group genealogy aside, how was the concert?
It was great! As they have done for decades, the quintet uses a pre-recorded classical piece for its entrance music. Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” is no longer the group’s prelude of choice. Instead, an excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” was heard. Also changed were the stage graphics, which often featured bright geometric shapes illuminating the entire concert hall. Appropriate scenes from different albums were displayed for specific songs; the distinctive artwork of Roger Dean appeared only occasionally.
As the concert began, the audience’s roar of approval was replaced by the opening strains of “Machine Messiah,” the first selection from Drama. This album contains no hits, and it is not considered one of the band’s “classic” releases. Even so, this is strong material, and the group performed it well. After six songs and 45 minutes of intense musical interplay, the band members surfaced to acknowledge the ecstatic crowd. Both Davison and Howe briefly spoke to the audience before counting off the a cappella opening of “I’ve Seen All Good People.” This song contains the perfect meld of Yes’ strengths: a gently acoustic and melodic beginning section — almost wistful — followed by its hard-rocking ending. Whether or not Drama was familiar to some in the audience, everybody knew this one.
When the applause subsided, Steve Howe told the audience that they were going to take an intermission, “but first—how about this?” So saying, the guitarist immediately kicked into the piercing chords of “Siberian Khatru,” the memorable opening selection from the Yessongs album. Here was why people had come to the concert. Howe primarily used his large, wine-colored Gibson, especially noteworthy on a lengthy guitar solo during the song’s rhythm-driven conclusion. The number also included Howe’s use of the steel guitar to extend the upper range of his Gibson’s highest frets. As the musicians acknowledged the crowd and left the stage, any doubt about whether these guys were up to the task of performing the Yes catalog had been completely dispelled.
In addition to Drama, the concert was to feature two full sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans, a landmark in the history of prog rock. But even 42 years after its release, the jury still seems to be out on whether this recording is a remarkable achievement or a failed experiment. If the songs on Drama are not well known, the music of Topographic Oceans is oftentimes impenetrable.
Before attempting the two lengthy pieces from Topographic Oceans, the second set began with another enthusiastically received favorite, “And You and I.” Howe again demonstrated distinctive skills, reaching over his strapped-on guitar to play a second guitar, attached to a metal stand. This would smack of gimmickry except that the sounds Howe produces from these different instruments are perfect for the song.
It was time. Graphics of fish on an ocean blue screen were projected behind the band. The risky part of the evening was about to begin. Tales from Topographic Oceans was a gutsy move for Yes back in 1973. It was a double album that contained four long pieces — one per side. The release had cost Yes their keyboard player, for Rick Wakeman quit the band as soon as the Topographic tour was over.
This ambitious project may have cost the group some fans, as well. It was a dense affair. The music was worth the concentrated effort of a close listening, certainly. But it was an effort, nonetheless. Yes perhaps realized this, for after Topographic Oceans they began to scale back the length of their songs. As a group, Yes never disavowed Tales from Topographic Oceans, but neither did they perform much of it following its featured tour. They kept side four’s concluding piece, “Ritual,” in their live shows for a year or two afterwards. But I always felt that was partly to save face. Side two (“The Remembering”) and side three (“The Ancient”) were no longer performed at all, and side one (“The Revealing Science of God”) was not reintroduced to Yes’ live show until decades later, and even then it was rarely played. Now, however, as Yes continued their various tours called The Album Series, they were scheduled to perform sides one and four of Tales from Topographic Oceans.
The stage darkened and the work’s opening monotone vocal lines began, backed by sparse instrumentation. Lyrics of incomprehensible meaning, even by Yes standards, were articulated by Jon Davison. The full band hit their cue. A 20-minute excursion containing some of Yes’ finest musical moments and a few compositional missteps followed. Undoubtedly a difficult work to play live, the talented group thrived in the lushness of this complex piece. Various time changes were deftly handled, and the entire performance seemed inspired. The impressed audience rewarded the musicians with a sustained ovation.
During the applause, Steve Howe seated himself mid-stage with an acoustic guitar. This was unexpected, but perhaps he would play an instrumental interlude before the group proceeded to side 4 of Topographic Oceans. More unexpected was when Howe began to play the concluding section of side three, an excerpt known as “Leaves of Green.” Davison soon joined Howe in the spotlight, as they recreated this welcome and unbilled portion of the Topographic album. Howe’s acoustic work is always a treat, and “Leaves of Green” contains one of the strongest melodies of the entire Tales from Topographic Oceans project. It was also nice to hear Davison’s clear voice with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment.
The rest of the band resumed their places as they prepared to play side 4. This is the hardest-rocking section of the album, by far. But as the group began “Ritual,” the playing seemed a bit listless, as if the band had suddenly run out of steam. The performance especially paled when recalling the live version on Yesshows. Perhaps new bassist Billy Sherwood was a bit intimidated in attempting to recreate Chris Squire’s dominant and flailing bass lines — so important to this number. Whatever the reason, “Ritual” never really took off. And that was too bad, for this was the concluding number of the concert proper, and should have been the peak of the set.
Yes encored with the mandatory “Roundabout,” but made it sound fresh. This led directly into “Starship Trooper,” a favorite pulled from The Yes Album. Especially welcome was one final, substantial guitar solo from Steve Howe at the end of this last number. Shaking hands and waving to the audience, the quintet walked into the wings.
The night was a success. The concert had been enthusiastically received by a theater of discerning fans. The musicians had presented over two-and-a-half hours of expertly performed and frequently exciting music. But was it Yes? Well …
Did I miss Chris Squire’s distinctive Rickenbacker bass and showmanship? Yes.
Did I miss Jon Anderson’s spacey presence as front man? Yes.
Was Steve Howe’s presence critical to the evening? Yes.
The question remains: Is this Yes?
Individual answers may vary, but when the group calling itself Yes come through town again, I plan to be there.
Tom Wilmeth is author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ focusing on 40-plus years of writings on rock, jazz, country and more. Jazz legend Gary Burton called the book “insightful,” saying ‘Sound Bites’ “gets at the heart of what is happening in music.” It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.
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