"It's strange, you know," former Yes drummer Bill Bruford once told me. "Songs like 'Siberian Khatru' sound really hip these days."
Bruford was right. The six studio albums that British quintet Yes released between 1971 and 1977 have aged well, standing today as a paradigm of progressive rock and its infinite ambition: the desire to stretch the concept of rock & roll to the limit, incorporating elements of jazz, classical music, sweet psychedelia, noisy dissonance and Eastern mysticism.
Decades after prog rock was vilified as a bourgeois disease in need of an antidote (namely, the Sex Pistols), albums like Fragile and Relayer surprise with their edgy sensibility, an almost compulsive need for experimentation and, most importantly, the relentless beauty of their soundscapes.
Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, the current incarnation of Yes embarked on one of its most ambitious projects to date: performing three of those classic albums – Close to the Edge, Going for the One and The Yes Album – in their entirety, following the original song sequence. For studious fans of the band, it was a sumptuous treat.
But was this really Yes? In 2007, when original vocalist Jon Anderson faced serious health issues and a lengthy recovery, the remaining bandmembers – in a decision of Spinal Tap-like genius – enlisted Canadian singer Benoit David from a Yes tribute band. When David experienced health problems of his own last year, Jon Davison from neo-prog outfit Glass Hammer was brought in.
Interestingly, this incarnation doesn't quite feel like Yes with a new vocalist. Instead, it sounds like a Yes tribute band with some of the original instrumentalists as guests. (When Peter Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, the remaining members briefly considered turning the band into an instrumental act. Such is the staying power of a charismatic lead singer.)
As the concert progressed at the Orpheum, you could feel your brain scrambling to block Davison's singing and focus, sometimes desperately, on the vocal harmonies by bassist Chris Squire and the virtuoso guitar lines of Steve Howe. Not surprisingly, the brief instrumental passages performed by Squire, Howe and drummer Alan White were the highlight of the evening. Howe was the protagonist throughout, using an arsenal of stringed instruments to conjure up the ghosts of bluegrass, flamenco, jazz fusion and primal rock & roll.
Davison sounded alternately goofy (the 20-minute epic "Close to the Edge"), raucous (bravely attempting the breathless dynamics of "Going for the One") and genuinely affecting (a fine job evoking the delicate pastoral mood of the underrated gem "Turn of the Century"). Putting any of the blame on him would be cruel. The original vocal lines by Anderson are just too specific and richly textured to be emulated, and in retrospect, Anderson had a strong presence as an MC, even with his occasional New Age musings. By contrast, Davison chose not to address the crowd between songs.
Keyboardist Geoff Downes added more problems to the mix. A founding member of the Buggles and Asia, he excels at the intersection where prog rock meets early Eighties new wave. Downes programmed the keyboard menu lovingly, playing basically the same notes but adding subtle variations of sound. When the songs required chunky organ chords heavy on the bass, everything was fine. But when it came to playing the baroque, spidery lines originally performed by resident genius Rick Wakeman, they sounded frantic and sloppy.
It is debatable whether Yes is tarnishing its legacy by continuing to tour with a lineup that is still able to generate excitement, perhaps, but is imperfect in so many ways. In interviews, Anderson has expressed his disappointment at having been cast aside. Since he is currently touring the world as a solo act, he could theoretically rejoin the band and perform a select number of shows.
Yes was once known for its spirit of inclusiveness (remember that 1991 tour with eight dudes on a revolving stage?), so it wouldn't be out of the question keeping both vocalists on the fold. In the spirit of good old fashioned prog rock integrity, perhaps it's time to take a deep breath and pick up the phone.