When it comes to the Yes shows I've caught since I first started attending in 2004 (late start, I know), as well as those I've heard via various audience-sourced recordings floating around on the Interwebs, there's a simple, fairly reliable rule of thumb: As goes "Siberian Khatru," so goes the band. When that staple from the 1972 LP Close to the Edge runs well, it's generally a sign that the band is locked in and prepared to deliver a solid show. When it's anemic, the concert often reflects that state. When I reviewed Yes at the Beacon Theatre for The New York Times last year, I called the song "generally a reliable barometer of Yes’s health," and noted that it "sounded rock solid if not particularly urgent."
Theirs is no disgrace in my saying that tonight's show-opening performance at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion was much along the same lines: not the fiery sort of rendition Yes might have produced in the '70s, or even the stately beast of the late '90s, but the kind of solid, all-pistons-firing rendition that has signaled a characteristically strong show during the band's latter-day stretch from 2004 onward – and especially in its post-Jon Anderson, post-Rick Wakeman period from 2008 to now.
It wasn't flawless – Geoff Downes doesn't handle the fiddly harpsichord-patch curlicue bit with the authority that Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz or Igor Khoroshev did, but he's usually a match for his very good immediate predecessor, Oliver Wakeman (son of Rick). Still, the rendition augured well for this date, the third in Yes's current American tour and the second to feature a complete set list (the first, at Tioga Downs Racino in Nichols, NY, was a truncated casino set).
The hook for this year's tour is that the setlist features two classic albums in their entirety, Fragile and Close to the Edge. That the latter album would sound secure was to be expected; Close to the Edge was also played alongside The Yes Album and Going for the One on last year's three-album tour. The main difference this time is that the band is playing it back-to-front, starting with "Siberian Khatru" and proceeding through "And You and I" to end with the title suite. That "And You and I" went well almost goes without saying; this is one of those anthemic pieces that stands out during any set it turns up in. But last year at the Beacon – and on several earlier occasions – "Close to the Edge" wasn't quite the magnificent assemblage it should be.
Here, it was – in my ongoing Twitter commentary, I ventured to say it was the best "Close to the Edge" I'd heard since 2004, and unless an audience recording proves that my ears were on vacation, I'm sticking to that story. It's as if playing the album in reverse provided sufficient warm-up time for the band (and its engineers) to allow for a performance that actually built on the strength of "And You and I," rather than the reverse.
In Albany on Sunday night, Yes followed Close to the Edge with two songs from their forthcoming new album, Heaven & Earth, a respectable addition to the canon, and one that I expect many fans will deem slight. (You don't have to search hard to find "fan" reviews of unwarranted brutality already.) I was intrigued that the band selected "To Ascend" and "The Game" instead of the well-promoted first single, "Believe Again."
Here, the single is what the band delivered, mostly to strong effect. And oddly, it was guitarist Steve Howe, a musician capable of buoying a dullish Yes show singlehandedly through skill and determination, who sounded out of sorts in his twangy exposed runs late in the song. The notes were there; they just didn't all fall where they were supposed to with Howe's characteristic precision.
Then, onward into Fragile – which, as I mentioned in my Boston Globe interview with Howe, is an odder choice than it seems. Yes, it's the source of longtime set staples like "South Side of the Sky," "Long Distance Runaround," "Heart of the Sunrise" and the obligatory "Roundabout," plus the durable Chris Squire set piece "The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)." All those pieces were present and accounted for; all came across with the authority that "Close to the Edge" had, save for a narrowly averted timing breakdown between Downes and drummer Alan White late in "South Side of the Sky."
But the rest of Fragile is devoted to tracks centered around a single member of Yes, and three members of the band that made the album are no longer present. Even counting "The Fish" and Howe's "Mood for a Day" as no-brainers, how the balance would go down is this tour's biggest risk.
On balance, the challenge was well met. Downes not only faithfully played "Cans and Brahms," Rick Wakeman's puffy romp through the Allegro giacoso movement of Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 4, but managed to make it sound fresh with his voicings and phrasings. Singer Jon Davison likewise paid due tribute to original singer Jon Anderson with his respectful, animated rendering of "We Have Heaven." As for "Five Per Cent for Nothing" – well, all respect to White, whose supple fusion chops were documented on vintage LPs like Relayer and Tormato, but this version of Bill Bruford's compact, hiccuping jazzbo lark was all hiccup, little jazz and no lark. The tune amounted to a contractual obligation, dispatched and dispensed with.
After a heroic "Heart of the Sunrise" came the show's oddest turn: Yes sang the a cappella intro to "I've Seen All Good People," but instead of easing into the song's stately opening ballad, "Your Move," the band plunged straight into the rollicking "All Good People" portion of the song. Time efficient it might have been; satisfying it wasn't. That odd choice was compounded by the first song in the encore: "Owner of a Lonely Heart," the sole representation of the band's "YesWest" era with guitarist Trevor Rabin, and a cut that Howe long eschewed.
Me, I'd have traded it in a heartbeat for a complete "I've Seen All Good People." But the audience response was suitably ebullient, and here even Howe seemed swept up in it, following a surprisingly Rabinesque intial solo with a longer chaser all his own. Predictably – and would we have it any other way? – the encore closed with "Starship Trooper," with Squire on stomping form in "Wurm" and Downes strapping on a keytar for the final flurry of traded solos.
Throughout, as in previous encounters, the newly scruffy Davison was a marvel. Many a Yes fan seems all too willing to write off the present-day band entirely because of Anderson's absence, and perhaps that's to be expected. But Davison does more than just sing Anderson's notes accurately; he shares the ethereal spirit and affirmative warmth that Anderson brought to the band, a far rarer commodity, while bringing a youthful vigor to a band that could easily be going through the motions by now.
Heaven & Earth, an album to which Davison contributed mightily, won't likely change the minds of those who've already decided to abandon ship. But with its concise songs and detailed arrangements, it proves that there's new gas in the old battleship's tank now. What happens from here should be well worth watching.
Syd Arthur, a young English quartet that puts a fresh spin on Canterbury psych-prog, played a brief but terrific 30-minute opening set, mostly consisting of material from the recently released LP Sound Mirror. Afterward, I happily purchased a copy of the album – on vinyl, yup! – and got the band members to sign it at the merch booth. Anyone headed out to see the current Yes tour is hereby advised to turn up punctually, and pay attention. A nice article from the New York Daily News tells you what you ought to know about the group.
Setlist and more photos after the jump.