The last time I saw Yes perform live was a year ago. It also marked the first time I saw this legendary prog-rock group. I then declared myself "won over" by a band I had never paid much attention to despite many years of love for peers like King Crimson, Genesis, and Pink Floyd. Their recreations of both The Yes Album (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972) seemed beyond note-perfect. The show included incredible moments of musical gelling that felt positively transcendent. I even had no trouble forgiving the absence of original frontman Jon Anderson (much to the offense of some commentators).
But then, something happened later that year. I interviewed Anderson and attended his solo show. His personality -- that which gave so much to the band's metaphysical and cosmic lyrics -- was extremely charming. He also expressed his hope to reunite with the band someday. Then there was his one-man show featuring tales of the construction of some classic Yes tunes, a light show, and mostly him on acoustic guitar and that voice.
So I carried that bias with me when I saw Yes on Friday, and some kind of magic disappeared. It didn't help that the band's first song was the intricate "Siberian Khatru," which came across decidedly disjointed. It was a shame, as it was a highlight of last year's performance. But, of course, Jon Davison's voice also was not the same because I have since had the Anderson vocal experience.
It was a moment of snuffed magic that was difficult to overcome. Making matters worse, there were two giant screens on either side of the stage that magnified the humanity and age of the musicians. Yes' music, with its references to the mystical and celestial, needed more abstract obscurity to work at its height. Like at last year's, the screens had animated bits of the vintage cover art of the two albums the band played and there were twirling images of figures in lotus poses meditating and glowing with stars worked better with the music. Those screens were still there this year, above the band, but muted by the larger screens focusing on the musicians.
But, for the most part, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, and keyboardist Geoff Downes had many consistent moments where their talents merged for some beautiful passages. By the second song, "And You And I," the night's first highlight arrived with some soulful slide guitar by Howe. Davison delivered the lines swaying with arms outstretched:
"Emotions revealed as the ocean made/As a movement regained and regarded both the same/All complete in the sight of seeds of life with yoooouuuu!"
Then some woman in the crowd yelled: "I love you, Jon Anderson!" She paused and corrected herself, "Oh, wait, I miss him." It just went to show that there is still enough in the current Yes that can still transcend the absence of Anderson, though it may not often last long.
Throughout the night, Squire and Howe were still able to bring their voices to harmonize with Davison for some grand instances of bombast, and things felt all right. Squire transitioned between various string instruments quickly enough to keep the dynamic songs going and not enough can be said about Squire's creative sonics via his bass guitar work.
After playing Close to the Edge in reverse order, the band performed a couple of songs off its new album Heaven & Earth released by the Italian indie label Frontiers Records, only two weeks prior to the show. "Believe again" and "The Game" represent a gentler Yes. They were meandering songs mostly featuring acoustic guitar and luscious keyboard work, and neither one was longer than eight minutes.
That Yes was still releasing music in the '90s felt weird and it feels even weirder that they are still creating 20 years later. Many music trends have come (and never really gone away) in the time between the early albums featured that night and these two new songs. But still, Yes seems to matter to a wide enough, though mostly aging, audience that they could sell out the Hard Rock Live on Friday night.
Just as no music genre ever dies, Yes can carry on without its original singer and still work. The guys did a marvelous job with the 1971 album Fragile, despite a rather chaotic interpretation of Bill Bruford's "Five Per Cent for Nothing," but that's just a tiny interlude of polyrhythmic slyness that hardly disturbed the flow of that genius album. Before capping the night with an encore featuring the band's two biggest singles, "I've Seen All Good People" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart," it was all OK and people left satisfied.
One guy leaving the venue with what appeared to be his son spontaneously turned to us and said with some assurance and a smile: "That was a great show, wasn't it?"
"And You And I"
"Close to the Edge"
"Cans and Brahms"
"We Have Heaven"
"South Side of the Sky"
"Five Per Cent for Nothing"
"Long Distance Runaround"
"The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)"
"Mood for a Day"
"Heart of the Sunrise"
"I've Seen All Good People"
"Owner of a Lonely Heart"
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.