Embarking on a tour to celebrate their 50th anniversary, YES deliver a stunning set full of prog’s greatest masterworks, played to virtuosic standards even all these years later.
After a wander through the historical tour posters and merchandise scattered around in the various lobbies of the Palladium, the surprisingly diverse (yet obviously leaning towards the older) crowd take to its seats in the small auditorium. I can’t help but think one of the biggest prog bands of all time could go bigger.
With no support band and only an excerpt from Stravinsky’s Firebird suite to call them to the stage, YES, led by the evergreen Steve Howe, stroll out to an enthusiastic standing ovation. Kicking off with the opener from ‘The Yes Album’, ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ is possibly the best track to start with, individually spotlighting each member by the end of its 9 minute duration. Steve Howe, one of the most recognisably faces of prog, is clearly the focus of the crowd, but briefly ex-YES keyboard player Geoff Downes, frequent multi-instrumentalist (and in this case bassist) stand-in Billy Sherwood, Jon Anderson sound-alike/lead vocalist since 2012 Jon Davidson, and live drummer Jay Schellen all do an exceptional job covering for more recognisable absent members. Such an amalgamation of alumni and stand-ins risks sounding like a star studded cover band, but luckily, that isn’t how it sounds, especially as they launch into the vocal harmony that introduces ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’.
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The incredibly catchy ‘Sweet Dreams’ follows, moving towards a more standard song form with its mere 4 minute run time, while ‘South Side Of The Sky’ takes us back into it with 8 minutes of proggy virtuosity from every member. We see Geoff Downes moving around his towering 9-keyboard set-up between dense synthesisers, digital pianos and even analogue samplers used to pulse out the live sfx that YES songs so often call for. After a fade to blue, the band exit and Steve Howe takes a seat centre stage to perform his acoustic guitar solo- ‘Mood For A Day’, which gets the most appreciative standing ovation yet. Not to say that a new member of the audience hasn’t stood up after each song so far, because they have, and you can pretty much feel the love for this band emanating from these fans.
Loving tribute to the late YES bassist Chris Squire is provided in the form of ‘Wondrous Stories’, while Parallels is a jump back into the mystifying and weird world of YES, through the introductory reverb heavy guitar solo accompanied by church organ. It makes you notice how, in their old age, the band have ditched their elaborate costumes but not their elaborate sound. After a strange spiel about art often being about nature from Steve Howe, one of the bands most recognisable tracks (‘And You And I’) ends the first half, and thanks to the clearly excellent sound system in the Palladium sounds impeccable, from the haunting opening harmonics to the epic, almost orchestral middle section.
After a well-deserved interval, the Topographic Oceans half of the show begins, with the full 20+ minute long first side. To pull off such a dense, textural and complex track that last so long is an incredible feat. Howe pulls it off with ease, taking every section and time signature change in his stride as if he’s doing no more than playing ‘Smoke On The Water’. Contrastingly, less experienced members such Schellen and Sherwood seem openly impressed with themselves as they pull off the complex time signature changes every single time without fail. The excerpt from side 3 of their number 1 album is ‘Leaves Of Green’, which begins with Howe again placed in his central chair, but gradually introduces Davidson and Sherwood to provide warm vocal harmonies.
The near 25 minute performance of side 4, ‘Ritual/Nous Sommes Du Soleil’ is simply stunning. It is relentless and aside from their live performance of the masterpiece, it is hard to believe that the definitive line-up of YES (Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, White) managed to write such an intricate and ever changing work all that time ago in 1973. Yet it is simultaneously tragic that ‘YES featuring ARW’ will be performing later this year, rather than patching things up with Howe and White and combining their musical genius- though Squire’s passing means a Pink Floyd-esque reunion is now unfortunately out of the question. It sadly seems more comparable to Roger Waters story about performing his solo shows while Pink Floyd played down the road to a bigger crowd. But at least for now, White returns to the band. Donned in a black hat, he slowly makes his way up to the kit and takes over from Schellen for a slow, fragile drum solo. His ill health is noticeable, and it is probably a good thing that he isn’t attempting to take on the entirety of these shows, but he nonetheless receives warm applause and huge appreciation from the audience and is supported by his bandmates as they take their bow to end the main show.
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The very predictable encore begins with the introduction of Trevor Horn, long term producer, to perform the ‘Tempus Fugit’ from ‘Drama’, which was also the only album he sang lead vocals on. Aside from Sherwood on bass, this performance is the only one of the night to include the band who played on the original studio recording, so it was quite special to see, really. Following Horn’s enthusiastic words about YES, they dive into ‘Roundabout’, a true masterpiece from the slow acoustic guitar intro, to the masterfully handled and well respected bassline, to quite simply the best keyboard solo in the history of music. Downes reproduces it well, considering he’s no Rick Wakeman. They wrap up with ‘Starship Trooper’ and the entire crowd on their feet throughout, dancing, clapping and singing along.
For a band who have been around for 50 years (though no one on stage has actually been in the band for 50 years), the immaculate reproduction of classic and very complex tracks is stunning, and the level to which the audience still worship the music is a great hope for prog as a genre.
YES take their 50th anniversary tour across Europe for the rest of the month.