This was not what I expected. Ten minutes in and I was ready to go to the box office and ask for my money back for a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act (1968). The ticket clearly states “Jon Anderson and...” Where was Jon Anderson? Why was I sitting through excruciatingly awful Euro-pop, as though transported back to some TV studio from the 60s or 70s with a TV orchestra and some crooner starring in his own variety show, and singing in Slovakian? I was embarrassed to be there, as I’m sure the other prog aficionados were but, like the other Brits who made up about 25% of the audience, I was convinced that things would take an upturn...
To be fair, I quite enjoyed the first two pieces, pastoral orchestration that could have been performed on a couple of Mellotron 400Ds accompanying poetic-sounding singing from Miro Zbrika, who (apparently) first found fame with the Czechoslovak band Modus during the 1970s. Then his electric band came on and my spirits sank as the Euro-pop started up and there was still no sign of Jon Anderson. What made the situation worse was that 75% of the audience seemed to understand the between-song banter but I didn’t. They would chortle appreciatively at his carefully delivered lines and I had the uneasy feeling that they were laughing at me: (In Slovakian, “look at the British waiting for Jon Anderson. Shame he’s not going to turn up!” followed by rippling laughter from the Slovaks.) After about an hour, culminating in a quick burst of the Beatles’ Hey Jude which brought to mind the awful scenes of Paul McCartney singing along at the Olympic velodrome, he finally announced the arrival onstage of the voice of prog. Only he didn’t come on stage immediately and I fleetingly imagined myself in another Kafka-esque nightmare, until Jon Anderson responded to the prompts and delivered us from hell.
As Anderson was being called, an entire row of the audience stood up and vacated their seats near the front row of the stalls, confirming my belief that a high proportion of the audience had not come to see the same show as me. I guess the signs had been there all along: the proportion of women to men was stacked in favour of women and they were all stylish and mostly young. I had originally thought that they were Islington fashionista with season tickets to Sadler’s Wells, not immune from the effects of the global financial meltdown but attempting to put a brave face on the effects of austerity and desperate to wring as much out of their membership as possible.
Zbirka introduced Jon Anderson by relating the tale of listening to The Yes Album for the first time as a young man, so it was fitting that the important half of the show opened with perennial favourite Starship Trooper. When I first heard this live in 1978, introduced as “this is for all you Starship Troopers out there” I felt as though he was talking to me. Mathematically speaking, as one of over 12000 people present at that show, the chances he was addressing me were actually pretty slim. If he’d used the same introduction at Sadler’s Wells (maximum capacity 1560) where those of us with upper circle tickets were encouraged to take more expensive seats in the first circle in an attempt to make the venue appear more full after relatively poor ticket sales and also taking in to account that the vast majority of the audience had only been interested in the first hour of the show, he probably would have been addressing me directly.
Next was one of a handful of Jon and Vangelis songs, I’ll Find My Way Home which despite its synthesizer-rich heritage translated pretty well into an orchestrated number.
Anderson has become something of a raconteur in recent years, possibly influenced by his tours with Rick Wakeman, chatting about the music as a way of introduction. At one stage he joked that the next song to be played was Gates of Delirium. I’ll Find My Way Home was followed by a song from 2010, Earth and Peace, full of the green language that marks him out as a deeply spiritual individual, followed by a brilliant though truncated version of Long Distance Runaround featuring some nice orchestral counterpoint. The surprise of the evening was the Nous Sommes du Soleil coda to Ritual, disguised with a short orchestral prelude that I found quite stunning because I’m one of the “Tales is the ultimate progressive rock album” brigade.
It’s not surprising that there was something of an Olympic Games theme going on throughout the evening. It has been suggested that seats for the show had been block-booked for Slovakian athletes; Jon Anderson is good friends with Vangelis Chariots of Fire Papathanassiou. Consequently, it was hardly any shock when Anderson related a tale of how his son rued the decision not to use his lyrics with the Chariots of Fire theme tune (“think of how much money we’d have made!”) and then sang Race to the End, the Jon Anderson song version of the iconic track. This was appended with the orchestra playing Barry Stoller’s Match of the Day theme tune.
The next song was, for me, the most disappointing of the set. Anderson’s appreciation of world music is beyond doubt and one of the reasons why Yes-music is so brilliant, but I’m not a fan of Anderson-style Reggae. Not Teakbois from the eponymous AWBH album and not his next song, Music is God. Though the lyrics once more demonstrated the Jon Anderson approach to pantheism, the Accrington accent tinged with LA really doesn’t suit this musical style.
He even attempted to woo the crowd with some audience participation but I felt embarrassed for him, because he’d announced that it was a new song and it wasn’t going to work with his core audience.
The ecological/spiritual theme continued with Change We Must from 1994, a song that had been orchestrated for release. It was pleasant but in my opinion, throwaway. Things got back on track with a shortened version of And You and I, and though he forgot his lines towards the end this didn’t detract from the audience appreciation of the song. He also forgot the names of the musicians when he introduced the band, including long-term collaborator keyboard player Peter Machajdík and the conductor Adrian Koko.
The final song of the set was State of Independence and I thought that this had withstood the test of time (and cover versions). After very briefly leaving the stage, literally only seconds, he returned for an encore of the Beatles’ All You Need is Love with Miro Zbirka. I’m sure that a large proportion of the audience really liked this rendition, but I’d rather have heard Wondrous Stories.
I thought that the orchestra fitted most of the songs – I had thought that the show would be more of a The Living Tree experience but I had no idea how Zbirka was going to fit in – and I’d rate the second half of the concert as four out of five stars.
It can’t be denied that this was very different from your run-of-the-mill gig, prog or otherwise. Shame about losing an hour of my life, but the main thing was that Anderson’s voice seems to have returned to near normal after the respiratory arrest.
Jon Anderson is still the voice of prog.