YES certainly isn’t the first band to continue on without all their original members. Name any group formed prior to 1990, and aside from U2, there’s very few that still remain. But with a song catalog as vastly underrated and cherished as the one YES has built over the course of 40 plus years, their repertoire remains vital even today with a lineup that only includes two musicians from their 70’s period (Steve Howe and Alan White).
So without the twin pillars often described as the YES sound- Chris Squire and Jon Anderson – the band is approaching their 50th anniversary and just recently received long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At their August 25th Phoenix, AZ in the round at the Celebrity Theatre as part of the YESTIVAL, YES continued to prove they can conquer the material no matter what lineup incarnation presents itself.
The first part of the YESTIVAL was Carl Palmer’s ELP Experience that was made up of the legendary powerhouse drummer and only living member of the iconic prog rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer. Still looking and sounding twenty years younger than his age, Palmer along with a young bassist and guitarist displayed a muscular virtuosity during his 30-minute set that featured instrumental hits of ELP completely reinvented for guitar, bass and drums. The set saw barely recognizable renditions of “Hoedown.” “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2,” “Knife-Edge,” “Lucky Man,” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
While Hearing ELP songs without a keyboard might be like Van Halen without a guitar, these songs were reestablished as new instrumentals that were a vast departure and creatively re-composed. The set concluded with a vibrant drum solo that had the elder crowd on their feet for a standing ovation, as Palmer relished in the glory.
While many might consider ASIA or TOTO more ideal fits for a spot on the prog influenced YESTIVAL tour, Todd Rundgren filled the middle spot with an hour set that touched on the bizarre. Rundgren’s contributions to rock as producer and artist make him long overdue for a hall of fame induction, but it’s obvious his voice hasn’t held up over the years. As the same guy who won over fans with FM/AM radio staples “I Saw The Light” and “Hello It’s Me,”Rundgren often hit some off hitting notes but as an artist in the truest sense, the rocker has earned a few mulligans.
With a band of notables including Prairie Prince (drums), Kasim Sulton (bass) and Greg Hawkes of the Cars (keys), Rundgren delivered art rock that mirrored post-Eno Roxy Music. With the band dressed to the nines in shirt and ties, Rundgren visited newer abstract songs off his 2017 LP White Night, and even more adventurous compositions like “The Ikon” from his Utopia project.
Two leggy female singers/dancers gave the set a sense of Rober Palmer flair, that was almost a Nagel painting come to life. You have to hand it to Rundgren for being a career artist and while he can play his “hits” on the ongoing Ringo Starr Allstar Band tour, his own shows serve as a platform to push boundaries. By his guest appearance with The Lemon Twigs at 2017’s Coachella, Rundgren remains a cult hero, whose catalog, like YES, still holds treasures most music fans have yet to lend their ears upon.
If anyone is confused about the two current touring camps of YES, you aren’t the only one. For the prior two years, the core members of the rock and roll hall of fame progressive rock band have been touring with drastically different set lists and eras. While Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman have been crossing the country as Yes featuring ARW, this evening’s YES is still the official YES, despite what conflicting camps and fans regard them as.
The 2017 tour is led by longtime guitarist Steve Howe along with Alan White, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood and this summer’s newest addition, Dylan Howe, eldest son of Steve. When the festival was announced, it was said to feature a set list of greatest hits from all of the band’s studio albums up to 1980. While calling the song choices “hits” might be a stretch, each album was creatively represented from 1970’s cathartic “Time and a Word,” to the serene “Leaves of Green” section of Tales from Topographic Oceans and the assertive steel guitar propelled “Going For The One.” Each song choice represented a different mood shift this night that happened to be keyboardist Downes’ 65th birthday.
Drummer Alan White, often had to take a breather between songs but was helped mightily by Dylan Howe who gave a rapid fire kick in the butt to the rhythm section as the two drummer setup was reminiscent of the band’s 1991 Union tour with White and Bill Buford on drums. Although Squire can never be replaced, Sherwood is as fitting a bass player for this new era as anyone: never going indulgent on the bass lines but giving the fans and the music the grace and respect the songbook deserves. While Davison will never replace Anderson, he too, is growing more into his role as the YES frontman, elegantly singing the notes as they were born to be transported.
But the muscle of YES remains the diminutive Howe, who remains one of the most nimble fingered guitarists ever. The author of these musical phrases continues to deliver a mystical mix of jazz, classical and rock that remains adventurous. From the shenanigans in “Machine Messiah” to the rock edge of “Don’t Kill The Whale” to the neatly wounded passages of “And You And I,” Howe remains the rock of the YES family. As the band enters its 50th year, let’s hope more original musical possibilities appear and the songbook invites another generation of fans into the fold “soon.”
Photos by Nick Imholte