Editor’s note: At the beginning of September, Rob Bailey reviewed Yes at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. The piece—which ran under the headline “The mess that is Yes proves a sad shadow of its former self in Vancouver” , sparked so much outrage that Bailey couldn’t leave home without worrying about a good old-fashioned prog-rock beating. In the interest of keeping things balanced, it only seemed fair to have him review the other touring edition of the band as a companion piece. That he went to Toronto to do so speaks volumes about his devotion to the job at hand.
YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman
At Massey Hall in Toronto on September 16
What a week. First, I see the official Yes play in Vancouver. (See review here.) Shortly after witnessing what was essentially a high-priced tribute band play somewhat credible covers, I was given the opportunity to see the unofficial Yes play Massey Hall in Toronto. Naturally, as any lifelong Yes fan would, I leaped at the opportunity and caught a flight to Toronto, landing just in time to snag a ticket.
This is a band with a long and storied history. Members coming and going. Internal squabbles. Fights over ownership of the band’s name. Death and injury.
One thing most ardent fans can agree upon is the classic lineup of Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Chris Squire, and Bill Bruford being responsible for what are now regarded as the band’s golden-era opuses: Fragile (apparently named after the state of the ego of official Yes member Geoff Downes) and Close to the Edge. Other albums certainly had high points, but these two stand as the definitive Yes works for many.
After the Vancouver Yes show on September 5, my expectations were somewhat lowered, having experienced a bad case of buyer’s remorse. Truth is, anybody expecting to see Yes as it might be remembered in its heyday would be let down at least a little by either of the two currently touring franchises.
The alchemical magical combination that created the band’s most seminal works can never be recaptured. So big news flash: you’re not going to see and hear Yes. You’re going to go and see a sliding scale of Yessishness. So the intro music starts in Toronto for YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman. Gone is Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”—a telling sign we are once again deviating from traditions of the past.
From stage left, a towering Rick Wakeman appears to great applause, shrouded in a massive sequinned cape. Now, the cape always seemed a pretentious thing to me, an affectation worthy of disdain. However, after becoming somewhat more familiar with Rick’s absolutely wicked sense of humour via YouTube videos of his fabulous BBC rock-star talk show and his hilarious acceptance speech when Yes was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it dawns on me that perhaps he’s taking the piss and having a laugh, only I wasn’t always in on the joke.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the cape serves to effectively mask his not-inconsiderable girth, perhaps the byproduct of years of prodigious beer intake (he no longer drinks) and the odd on-stage curry. The curry is another story. (Google “Rick Wakeman Curry”. I’m sure he’s tired of hearing about it...)
Standing authoritatively like a slightly younger and paunchier Gandalf behind several stands of modern digital keyboards, Wakeman lets the audience know from the first flurry of notes that he hasn’t slowed down a bit. His technique absolutely dazzles. Unlike his counterpart Downes in the other touring ensemble posing as Yes, he demonstrates a working familiarity with the precise 32nd note, a concept which seems to escape Mr. Downes completely.
However, the growl of a Hammond organ through a Leslie speaker with overdriven tubes simply can’t be effectively replicated digitally, especially in iconic tunes like “Perpetual Change”, which was the YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman opening number. I missed that a bit.
The venerable Mellotron, a crucial component of the classic Yes sound, also doesn’t translate well to samplers. Perhaps a necessary evil, as the Mellotron’s mechanical delicacy and propensity for dramatic tuning shifts with stage voltage fluctuations made it somewhat impractical for touring.
And the less said about sampled pianos the better. They all suck… But that’s nitpicking. Thankfully, the two fully analogue Minimoog synths on-stage still deliver the goods.
Here it must be said: Wakeman is truly a wonder to behold. As he conducts the band at times with subtle eyebrow gestures, I don't hear the guy miss a note. Plus, he creates his Minimoog patches on the fly.
Unexpectedly tearing it up at stage right is Trevor Rabin, a South African relative newcomer to the Yes fold who replaced Steve Howe on the 1983 release 90125. Rabin is not Steve Howe. He brings a more rock and pop sensibility to the mix, contrasting Howe’s more angular style, yet his technique is equally virtuosic.
Thankfully, he opts to not go the cover-band route entirely, and reinvents some of Howe’s guitar parts, injecting some welcome personal flair along the way. Purists might complain, but the last thing you want to hear live is a cosmic karaoke machine. We heard that at Yes in Vancouver.
Rabin is also a strong singer, as evidenced by his vocals on “Changes” and “Rhythm of Love”. YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman also has strong singing from drummer Louis Molino. Bassist Lee Pomeroy ably covers Chris Squire’s bass (and he plays a Rickenbacker—yay!) and contributes to the truly wonderful four-part vocals, which at times go all contrapuntal on our asses with two separate harmonized lines.
I'm beginning to come around. Is it possible to enjoy YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman? Hmmm… perhaps yes.
And then there is Jon Anderson. This guy is without a doubt the beating heart and enduring soul of Yes. Dude could sing the freakin’ phone book and it would still sound like Yes. He exudes a contagious aura of almost relentless, childlike positivity—so much so, that I swear that if an Uber driver squished my dog, all it would take would be for Jon to hum a few bars of “The Revealing Science of God” and within minutes I would have dismissed the whole pet ownership thing as unimportant to my spiritual development. And then offered to buy him shots.
On-stage at the age of 72, despite a serious illness that almost cut his life short a few years ago, Anderson is singing perhaps better than he ever has. Standing centre stage on a special platform (perhaps to bring him into scale with the towering Rabin and Wakeman), he not only sings, but also plays some rather idiosyncratic hand percussion.
At several times during the set, Anderson cradles these tiny Tibetan temple bells in front of his mike, one in each hand, as though he is cupping the balls of Buddha himself. Eyes closed, lost in the moment, each tiny timed tinkle seems to generate another orgasmic wave of blissful inner visions of some fantastical Roger Dean landscape that apparently only he can see.
Mind you, I’m only guessing at that. It is sure fun to watch.
And then of course, there’s the Celtic harp that gets trotted out during an absolutely epic version of “Awaken”. Not many people can pull off the same two notes for eight minutes. Then there is the tambourine playing that no doubt proves vexatious for the front-of-house engineer. And then the handclaps in unorthodox places in the bar.
Finally, there is the perfunctory acoustic-guitar strumming that I’ll be damned if I can hear in the mix. While I find all of these things actually rather endearing—like some old hippie uncle who still speaks fondly of his time on the commune—it is the transporting sound of Anderson’s voice that is the glorious through line from the band’s storied past to the here and now.
YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman powers through a two-hour plus set that includes not only the epic version of “Awaken” (which proves that it’s possible to swing in 11/8 time), but also tunes like “South Side of the Sky”, “And You and I”, “Heart of the Sunrise”, and of course, the big hit single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, which hilariously morphs into “Sunshine of Your Love” for 32 bars or so before getting back on track.
The encore of “Roundabout” is predictable, of course, but hey, ya gotta play the hits to keep the punters happy.
The thing that strikes me the most about YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman is that this is a band that plays really, really well. Like an actual band, and not a contractual obligation or money grab.
The on-stage communication is evident, and the band’s members seem to be having genuine fun in a way that isn’t forced—even with minor hiccups like pedal-board malfunctions and the odd arrangement clam. That kind of energy is contagious. Although not the official Yes, to my mind, YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman is the most authentic Yessish experience today’s informed music consumer can purchase.
Is it Yes? No. Is it fun? Yes.