Weeks in advance, well before the venerable British progressive-rock band Yes took to the stage last night, members of the group had told the media that their show would include a tribute to Chris Squire, the late bassist, singer and songwriter without whom they had never performed since convening in 1968. What shape that salute might take when the lights in the Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, went down on Friday, was a subject for passionate speculation among fans.
For many, the notion of a Yes without Squire must have seemed unthinkable. A towering presence, he was the band’s lodestone in bright days, its anchor in turbulent times. Diagnosed with acute erythroid leukemia earlier this year, Squire directed his bandmates — singer Jon Davison, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Geoff Downes and drummer Alan White — to undertake a planned summer tour alongside Toto with Billy Sherwood, a multi-instrumentalist and former Yes man, in his spot. Prior to his passing in June, Squire urged Yes to carry on without him for the long term.
When the time finally came, you felt as if it could have been no other way. With “Onward,” the sublime ballad that Squire contributed to the band’s 1978 album, Tormato, floating out from the P.A., a single spotlight picked out Squire’s signature white Rickenbacker bass, positioned on a stand in the spot where Squire started countless shows. Photographs of the late bassist through the years appeared on a screen overhead, aswirl in rainbow colors and constellations.
The gesture conveyed the gravity of the situation with dignity. Grown men wept aloud.
From there, though, Yes took to the stage with an almost desperate glee, kicking off the first set of an unanticipated new chapter with “Don’t Kill the Whale” (also from Tormato) and “Tempus Fugit,” from 1980’s Drama — the still-divisive cult favorite that resulted when another founding member, vocalist Jon Anderson, departed for the first time, and when Downes initially came aboard.
For observers who expected Yes to play it safe with a handful of canonical classics certain to go down well with listeners who drifted in from the slot machines, this was a gamble that showed the group isn’t ready to be relegated to the oldies circuit. If what followed was the stuff of countless set lists, including nothing more recent than “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” from 1983’s 90125, the diverse song selection still strayed well beyond the band’s most verdant years.
As has often been the case at Yes shows during the last decade, the band didn’t jell immediately. The gait of “Whale” was more lumber than limber, and “Tempus” was afflicted with timing issues. But on “America,” a durable recasting of the Simon & Garfunkel song, Yes felt dialed in and confident, qualities sustained and reinforced during a rowdy “Going for the One” and an airy, wistful ‘Time and a Word.”
No one could fill Squire’s shoes fully, but Yes was fortunate to have a longtime friend who was up to attempting the task. Sherwood, who worked closely with Squire for years and served a brief stint with the band in the late Nineties, handled intricate bass parts and backing vocals with assurance. He was low in the mix for much of the show, but finally came to prominence during a sure-fire home stretch of “Siberian Khatru” (during which an animated Howe practically levitated), “Owner,” “Roundabout” and the inevitable “Starship Trooper.”
The notion of Yes sharing a bill with Toto wasn’t as hard to fathom as it might have seemed at a glance. Members of the two bands have intersected meaningfully since the Eighties. Sherwood guested on Toto’s 1992 LP, Kingdom of Desire, and briefly led Yoso, a band fronted by ex-Toto singer Bobby Kimball that covered songs by both groups. Toto’s Steve Porcaro, meanwhile, was among a small army of sub rosa contractors on Yes’ contentious 1991 effort, Union.
At Foxwoods, Toto strutted through a tautly paced mix of hits (“Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” “Africa”), funkier fare (“Georgy Porgy”) and ambitious, proggish cuts from its newest album, XIV. Lead singer Joseph Williams was in strong voice throughout a show that provided founding keyboardist David Paich and guitar hero Steve Lukather ample space to show off. Lukather’s fiery version of the Hendrix classic “Little Wing” might have converted even the sternest album-rock cultist.
Early in the evening, Lukather dedicated the proceedings to Squire, and to Toto’s own recently fallen bassist, Mike Porcaro, who died of complications from ALS in March. Somewhere up there, Lukather told the crowd, Chris and Mike were having a drink together, and hopefully looking on with satisfaction.
Yes Set List:
“Intro / Firebird Suite”
“Don’t Kill the Whale”
“Going for the One”
“Time and a Word”
“I’ve Seen All Good People”
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
Toto Set List:
“Running Out of Time”
“I’ll Supply the Love”
“Hold the Line”
“Without Your Love”
“On the Run / Goodbye Elenore”