August 24, 2014
Sure prog rock is so 1974, yet, the stuff holds up. Hear me out. The bongs and headphones crowd may have moved on to second wives/third mortgages. But, long before World of Warcraft and GOT, stoner nerds nursed their souls to music that was complex, epic in scale and classically influenced, inasmuch the twain ever met (confession, first time I really heard Stravinsky was the recorded opening of 1972’s “Yes Songs”). Emerson, Lake and Palmer may have grabbed my head, but Yes had me at “Your Move/All Good People”. Steve Howe’s 12-string laud, Jon Anderson’s lilting vocals, Chris Squire’s rowdiness pushing all the niceties out of the way. I even bought into the grandeur of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” the 1973 double album comprised of four sides/four tracks based on Hindu scripture (and clearly Jon Anderson’s dive into the deep end). And then there was Roger Dean’s cover art that seemingly made the other worldly accessible. Alas, by the late 70s, new wave and punk spat on such indulgences and Yes along with their prog brethren strove for the middle and drowned in the rebel yell of the time. Not that prog every really went anywhere. Bands from metal proggers Tool to jam proggers Umphrey’s McGee owe much to the 70s, if you ask me.
Flash forward 40 years, with the current Yes lineup revisiting “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge” in their entirety (while sprinkling in a few tracks from the new “Heaven & Earth”). Founding members Squire and Howe still anchor the group, along with longtime drummer, Alan White. Geoff Downes handles the obligatory keyboard wizardry and newish-comer Jon Davison fills Jon Anderson’s shoes.
A summer night at the Greek Theatre was a perfect setting for the Los Angeles date and the demo skewed obvious grey. While Yes has toured consistently since their inception (with the requisite breaks and turnstile personnel changes along the way), the gig had an air of anticipation. Both albums are deep tracks treasures and, like back in the day, were meant to be absorbed in one sitting. “Close to the Edge”, the group’s fifth effort, is quintessential Yes, with the 18-minute title track taking up all of Side 1, “And You and I” and “Siberian Khatru” filling the flip side. This tour’s twist is performing the album back to front and from the first strains of Steve Howe’s kinetic riff, “Siberian Khatru” was pretty close to stepping into the way back machine. Not the same, but really close. While Jon Anderson’s range and sound was always integral to the Yes experience (he of terminally boyish pipes carrying those beautifully nonsensical lyrics), Jon Davison impressed me for his ability to step right in, as he did on “And You and I”. “Close to the Edge” wrapped approaching 40 minutes, and the commitment to the material not lost on the full house of 6,000+. Before a two song break from the new album “Heaven and Earth”, Chris Squire cheekily welcomed everyone “to the VMA awards”, a nod to cross town happenings and an admission they come from a quainter Miley-less time.
“Fragile” was played in sequence, and predictably “Roundabout” had everyone on their feet. I marvel at bands that keep pumping life into their signature tunes for 40+ years and invigorate them with the now. Box checked, guys. But the middle tracks of “Fragile” I dug the most. The sing-songy “We Are Heaven”, Squire’s Rickenbacker rumbling through “South Side of the Sky” and the swirling “Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)”. “Long Distance Runaround” and “Heart of the Sunrise” stand on their own, but resonate even more alongside their album companions.
Encores of “Your Move/All Good People” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” capped the evening.
Hats off to excellent stage and lighting production, though the sound deserved better IMHO, especially for Geoff Downes, and some solos that all but buried his bandmates. Openers Syd Arthur, have been described as “British psych-rock” and made the most of their 30 minutes. Plenty of of circular jamming ensued from brothers Liam and Joel McGill, Fred Rother on drums and Raven Bush, with Bush switching between keys, violin and a mandolin sounding closer to a twisted, fuzzed out Tele. Even heard strains of Ummagumma era Floyd in there.
If I sound like a Yes fan boy, so be it. For a few hours on a warm summer night, I was 14 again. With an aborted ELP reunion seemingly it for that band, and a Genesis reunion also recently squelched, revisiting two seminal albums from Yes on the road is not a bad way to go. Then again, you can always spark one up, throw on the ‘phones and spin that platter on the ‘table. Because prog lives.