Yes - Royal Albert Hall
10th May 2016 (with Jim Knipe)
I was at the Royal Albert Hall for the last night of the UK leg of the Yes 2016 ‘The Albums’ tour playing both Fragile and Drama in their entirety and considering that I’m still one of those people that aren’t fully convinced by the idea of Yes without Jon Anderson, I was pretty impressed.
Apart from the musical emphasis, the major difference between this performance and the last time I saw them, from the same seat in 2014, was the absence of Yes founding member Chris Squire, whose death in June 2015 year left the band without any original members. During treatment for the leukaemia that ultimately killed him, Squire had passed on his wishes for Yes to continue and with Steve Howe and Alan White who had joined for the third and sixth studio albums respectively, and with Downes who had rejoined the band for Fly From Here (2011) after his earlier very brief stint for Drama, there was sufficient heritage for the name and spirit of the group to continue. Squire had also anointed his successor, sometime collaborator and former Yes member during the Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Ladder (1999) period, Billy Sherwood.
The gig began with a short set from Swedish support act Moon Safari. Musically they come across as a hybrid of (late 70s) Genesis and Yes with some remarkable vocal harmonies, ending with Constant Bloom, a truly stunning a cappella dedication to Chris Squire. Then before Yes took to the stage we were treated to the rather poignant Squire tribute which has been a feature of the tour since the bassist passed away; a single spotlight on Squire’s Rickenbacker as Onward was broadcast over the PA accompanied by images of the man himself throughout his Yes career on the big screen behind the stage.
I’ve seen them play material from Drama before of course but it was interesting to witness the entire album in running order, including the very short but amazingly well-formed White Car which somehow manages to fit a whole symphonic suite into one and a half minutes. The bass parts on Drama are typical Chris Squire and it was here that Sherwood showed not just how good a bassist he is but how he’d adopted Squire’s mannerisms, from the prowl to the upright stance and the way he held his instrument. At the end of Run through the Light it was left to Downes to descend from his keyboard rig and announce the special guest for the evening, his former Buggles partner and Yes producer Trevor Horn for probably the highlight of the album, Tempus Fugit.
Next, Steve Howe paid tribute to his predecessor in Yes, Peter Banks, who died in March 2013. To be fair, Banks didn’t bear any grudges and before they played Time and a Word, Howe acknowledged the uniqueness of Banks’ playing. The next song was the immensely enjoyable Siberian Khatru and the sequence of unannounced numbers continued with Soon, the movement of resolution from Gates of Delirium which was disguised by a few introductory bars, followed by Howe announcing that this particular version of Yes weren’t frightened to play music from any of the incarnations of the band and ploughing into Owner of a Lonely Heart.
Normal service was resumed with Fragile, in album running order. Roundabout was brilliant; it was odd to see Downes performing Cans and Brahms but this was one of the pieces that turned me on to classical music in the first place; this short piece was followed by the even shorter We Have Heaven with Jon Davison helped out by his band mates and, after a very satisfying rendition of South Side of the Sky, we were treated to Alan White performing the Bruford-penned Five per cent for Nothing which has to be the shortest song in the Yes canon, coming in at under 40 seconds. Following the musically playful art-song Long Distance Runaround, The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) was another showcase for the talents of Sherwood, complete with audience baiting ending; Howe’s rendition of Mood for a Day was a little hesitant at times and I thought that throughout the evening there were times when the guitar parts ran on ahead of the rest of the ensemble but ending a gig with Heart of the Sunrise and an encore of Starship Trooper is never going to be anything other than deeply satisfying.
Any gripes that I have are inconsequentially minor: The big screen was rather low-tech; the sound wasn’t quite as clear as it was in 2014; Jon Davison sang in tune but occasionally seemed out of key. All this is irrelevant because they recreated the albums with a remarkable degree of accuracy considering both the complexity of the music and reproducing it in a live setting. I’m grateful for Downes’ ear for accuracy, too, as he uses early 70’s keyboard sounds and not the thin sounds that crept into Yes music when polyphonic synthesizers first appeared on the scene and even continued to be used in the live setting up to and including the 35th Anniversary tour; I certainly don’t envy Davison stepping into the Anderson shoes... No, this was a really enjoyable show.
Is performing material in album running order a reaction to the download-dominated music scene, reimagining the concept of listening to a suite of songs as you would have done thirty or forty years ago, sitting with the album sleeve in your hands and getting up to turn over the LP on the platter? Cynics might suggest that the band are resting on their laurels and deserve their ‘dinosaur’ tag; certainly Yes are appealing to their original fan-base but with the reappraisal of progressive rock that has set it in a favourable new light and seen the iPod generation sign up to the progressive sounds of the 70s, I think it works for both the band and the fans. It certainly works for me.