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For guitar legend Steve Howe, YES is the answer

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Give or take a star or two, sky gazers figure that there are pretty close to 300 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Or slightly less than the number of superlatives that have been used to describe the astronomically gifted Steve Howe over the last 50 years; “inspired,” “luminous” and “overpowering” among them.

But it’s pretty safe to assume that the “YES man” has never been branded a “guitar tech” – which is exceptionally ironic given Howe’s matchless technical virtuosity. There’s a reason after all that the shaman of the fretboards has been named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Top Guitarists of All Time.

The iconic musician chatted with me recently as he and his celebrated YES bandmates – bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geoff Downes and singer Jon Davison – prepared for their ambitious 35-date 2014 Summer Tour. The renowned progressive rockers will prove once again that the only thing better than a live album from a legendary band is a live performance of a legendary album by a legendary band.

And this time around the fabled rockers will not only play one of their celebrated albums in its entirety but two. For the far-reaching tour, YES will be performing every influential track from 1971′s “Fragile” as well as 1972′s “Close To The Edge,” followed by an encore of the band’s greatest hits and material from their highly anticipated new studio album, “Heaven and Earth,” due out on July 8.

This summer’s tour is an encore to YES’ successful 2013 rock triple-header where concertgoers were treated to three of the iconic band’s immortal albums in their entirety at each remarkable show: “The Yes Album,” “Close To The Edge” and “Going For The One.” Last year’s tour marked the first time since 1973 that the multi-platinum band – who have sold close to 50 million albums worldwide – performed any album onstage in totality, much less three of them.

Touring bands typically play a combination of music from their entire catalog with an emphasis on recent material. Playing an album from first note to last provides for an extraordinary musical dynamic – a welcome one according to YES’ brilliant axeman.

“They’re two different experiences. Just playing songs is relatively hedge hopping. You’re hopping about. You’re playing a song from here, you go back to there, you go forward to there. It’s what’s normal. But since we’ve joined other bands in doing albums, we find it more conceptual. We have a chance to get into a particular mood that doesn’t just last for five or 10 minutes – it lasts 40 minutes. It’s a plot. It’s a story and tells a lot more.”

Knowing that the “plot line” calls for two complete albums, YES fans may come to this summer’s shows expecting the band to play the records note for note – in seeming contrast to the talented artists’ interest in improvisational freedom. Howe professed that the music veterans learned a long time ago how to drive on the ostensibly diverging roads.

“Well, if there’s an area of improvisation that always existed in a song, then part of it should always coexist. I always think that there’s a recognizable structure or melody about the beginning of some break, whether it’s Geoff or me – like when he plays ‘Wonderous Stories.’”

“A lot of what Rick (Wakeman, former YES keyboardist) played on that was actually improvised. But it’s become part of the melody and I think we have to respect that. So for the most part I’d say we stick to the record much more than people might think, allowing shorter moments to improvise where improvisation always did happen.”

With a setlist mostly consisting of three of their most influential albums, the 2013 tour was particularly appealing to the band’s most loyal legions – those most familiar with the YES catalogue. One could easily argue however, that the 2014 shows will have broader domestic appeal given that “Fragile” and “Close To The Edge” represent the core of the band’s U.S. breakthrough period.

As Howe acknowledged, choosing which of the band’s million-selling albums to play is a daunting task, however it’s sliced and diced. “Well like you say, we know that kind of stuff but we can’t adhere to it totally. We didn’t want to do ‘The Yes Album,’ ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’ as the first triple album tour. We wanted to do something that covered across the years and didn’t just feature one particular part. So that was a consideration.”

“Another was the realistic possibility of getting a whole album together. If we tried ‘Relayer’ that would be a tough call. If we tried ‘(Tales From) Topographic Oceans,’ that would be a tough call. We’ve got to come across those albums in their own time when we’re ready for them too. ‘Going For The One’ was relatively adventurous when we put that one together. ‘Close To The Edge’ or ‘The Yes Album’ was somewhat easier.”

Howe’s guitar brilliance was a big reason for the stateside acceptance that “Fragile” and “Close To The Edge” afforded the rockers. It’s human nature to want to place things in neat little boxes – as in “Steve Howe is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time.” But there’s much more to the fabled artist than just his work with YES. Of course, the talented musician has learned to “endure” the musical stereotyping.

“One learns to live with what one’s reputation has made people think you are (laughs). And I'm definitely what most people think I am. But people who really do know YES music and also know my solo work know that I am more than what it is in YES. So I can't expect people who don’t know that to see me any differently.”

“I'm quite happy to take it at face value and say, ‘Yeah, to some people I'm a YES guy’ and I've got that going. But to other people, they have a better understanding of the depth and the enjoyment I get with people like Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery and a lot of young guitarists who are inspiring. Hopefully there’s always more to an artist than you see on the surface. We all to some extent get typecast and sometimes it’s accurate and other times it’s less accurate.”

As should be obvious from the allusion to Messrs. Atkins and Montgomery, Howe is a man of diverse influences. That goes a long way in explaining his extraordinary versatility. But Howe’s matchless ability to effortlessly move between musical styles can’t be explained simply by examining the guitarists that he listened to as a youngster – or can it?

“I think it’s really the luck of the draw,” he confessed. “I've got to say it was a plan, obviously, that I would become a guitarist who incorporates different styles because I love them so much. But how I've moved between them and how I'm able to do that and how well I do that is really just the kind of thing that I've taken for granted.”

“It does happen like an automatic car, you know. I'm in drive with YES and then I'm in another sort of drive. Maybe I'm in ‘four-wheel drive’ (laughs) because in a way, solo guitar playing is musically more important to me. It’s more about my development as a guitarist than anything else.”

“On the other hand, Asia the other projects I've done – the music I did in the ‘60s – it’s very much part of me. It isn’t like I exclude one part or feature one part, even though YES is predominantly more visible. In most ways, all my musical ventures are evenly important.”

Howe is equally adept at offering an impressive performance regardless of the style. But to hear him perform an acoustic work along the lines of “Clap” live is beyond breathtaking. It allows the concertgoer the unique opportunity to witness the subtle nuances that are sometimes lost in electrified translation.

“Well, acoustic works better as a solo idea,” explained Howe. “I've tried lots of different electric things. I do a few of them I like. But acoustic is my solo voice if you like, so I kind of run with that. What I do with other bands – particularly YES – certainly is very compelling. It’s how I got interested in the guitar.”

“But over the last 20 or 30 years, I've started to accumulate a solo writing repertoire. I've noticed how important that is to me. Having a solo on ‘Fly From Here’ (2011) was quite important, because it showed I am a good writer.”

“I write with other guys, but I also believe that the fuel, the energy that pushes me along isn’t so much about groups. It’s more about me as an individual guitarist and how I stand up in a group and play. I would be lacking considerably if I didn’t continue forging ahead with my solo guitar work because that is really becoming of great importance to me.”

“So there’s ‘me solo guitarist’ or there’s ‘me in a group’ (laughs), obviously, not wishing to make this sound like a conversation about ego, but about me as an individual and me as a musician. Those are the things that are very, very important.”

Howe certainly must know what he’s doing, because even after playing for over half a century, the gifted guitarist continues to learn. “The most important thing is that I keep re-finding that thread of the reason of why I am doing this.”

“Every now and again I forget that and I go along thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Then I do come back to it, sometimes through solo playing. I come back to the fact that I can tell a story through music. It’s a very loose story. But it’s a story about me as a guitarist that’s important to tell.”

And it’s a story that millions of music fans around the globe continue to want to hear.

YES fans will get the opportunity to witness Howe’s mastery during the summer tour. Concertgoers in Arizona will get two chances to hear the rock legends with an Aug. 11 Tucson stop at the The Rialto Theatre and an Aug. 12 show at Mesa's Ikeda Theatre.

Tickets are currently on sale. The band is offering special show packages which include near-stage seating, a meet and greet with the band, exclusive limited-edition gifts from YES, and more. For more information on prices and to purchase YES packages/tickets, go to www.yesworld.com. Here is the full itinerary:

July 8 Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, Mass.
July 9 Radio City Music Hall, New York, N.Y.
July 11 Toyota Oakdale Theatre, Wallingford, Conn.
July 12 NYCB Theatre at Westbury, Westbury, N.Y.
July 13 Newport Yachting Center, Newport, R.I.
July 15 Warner Theatre, Washington D.C.
July 16 Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, Hampton, N.H.
July 18 Seneca Allegany Casino, Salamanca, N.Y.
July 19 Tower Theater, Philadelphia, Pa.
July 20 Carnegie Music Hall, Munhall, Pa.
July 22 Meadow Brook, Rochester Hills, Mich.
July 23 Hard Rock Live Northfield Park, Northfield, Ohio
July 25 Overture Hall, Madison, Wis.
July 26 Copernicus Center, Chicago, Ill.
July 28 Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tenn.
July 29 Louisville Palace, Louisville, Ky.
July 30 Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Ga.
Aug. 1 Seminole Hard Rock Live, Hollywood, Fla.
Aug. 2 Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Aug. 3 Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, Orlando, Fla.
Aug. 5 Bayou Music Center, Houston, Texas
Aug. 6 Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie, Grand Prairie, Texas
Aug. 7 Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland, Kansas City, Mo.
Aug. 9 Paramount Theatre, Denver, Colo.
Aug. 11 Rialto Theatre, Tucson, Ariz.
Aug. 12 Ikeda Theatre at Mesa Arts Center, Mesa, Ariz.
Aug. 13 Legends Theater at Route 66 Casino, Albuquerque, N.M.
Aug. 15 The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nev.
Aug. 16 City National Grove of Anaheim, Anaheim, Calif.
Aug. 18 Humphrey’s Concerts By the Bay, San Diego, Calif.
Aug. 19 City National Civic, San Jose, Calif.
Aug. 21 Tulalip Amphitheatre, Tulalip, Wash.
Aug. 22 Spirit Mountain Casino, Grand Ronde, Ore.
Aug. 23 Thunder Valley Casino Resort, Lincoln, Calif.
Aug. 24 The Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, Calif.

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