Some 45 years ago, English progressive rockers Yes recorded a song whose title encapsulates the band constituency: “Perpetual Change.” The chorus of another Yes tune from a different age put it even more succinctly:
“Change taking place, root yourself to the ground…Changes!”
The boys behind “Roundabout,” “Heart of the Sunrise,” and “Wondrous Stories” have been blessed and cursed by a revolving-door membership since its 1968 formation. For instance, it’d probably have taken longer for the world to enjoy the six-string prowess of Steve Howe Were it not for the 1970 departure of guitarist Peter Banks. Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman might’ve remained a studio ace-for-hire if organist Tony Banks hadn’t absconded after The Yes Album. Alan White’s resume would look different if drummer Bill Bruford not bailed and joined King Crimson in 1971.
You get the idea. People come and go, sometimes infusing the music with fresh energy and unparalleled virtuosic, but sometimes taking the magic with them.
They’ve sold millions of albums, inspired countless alternative bands, and are overdue induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—but remain confounded by inconsistency. Longtime singer Jon Anderson—often cited as the band’s spiritual center—once described the band as a bus driving down the road.
“If one person doesn’t like where the bus is going, he gets off,” opined Anderson in the 1991 documentary Yes Years.
Perhaps not so ironically, Anderson isn’t a Yes member today. The alto tenor took a break from the band (along with Wakeman) after a botched attempt at a new album in 1979, not returning until 1983—by which time bassist Chris Squire and then-new guitarist Trevor Rabin were hip-deep in sessions for 90125 (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”). Wakeman and Howe wouldn’t come back until the mid-‘90s.
At various points throughout Yes history the lineup looked downright bizarre—at least to outsiders. When Anderson and Wakeman flew the coup in ’79, the three remaining members (Howe, Squire, White) joined forces with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of The Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) for a cyberpunk version of Yes. They split after one album, the unfairly-slighted Drama; Howe and Downes then conspired with John Wetton and Carl Palmer in Asia (“Heat of the Moment”).
Two factions of Yes vied for attention (and income) in 1988-89. One group—“Yes West” featuring Squire, Rabin, and White—toured as Yes proper even as the “Yes East” of Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford and Howe hit the road under their own names. Rather than issue competing studio albums in 1991, the rival units joined forces on 1991’s Union and performed in concert as an eight-man supergroup.
Kaye and Bruford haven’t been in Yes since. Rabin spearheaded the 1994 album Talk, and has since enjoyed a successful run scoring blockbuster movies (Con Air, National Treasure). Wakeman contributed to the two-part Keys to Ascension in the mid-‘90s and toured with Yes in 2003-04 before submitting his walking papers. Again.
The story only gets stranger: Suffering from respiratory illness in 2007, Anderson quit (or was expelled from, depending on the source) the band he co-founded with Squire and was replaced by a sound-alike vocalist discovered on You Tube. Said surrogate—Benoit David—acquitted himself marvelously on the road and on record, participating on 2011’s Fly From Here (which featured music written and performed by Downes, who was back in the fold). Fans divided over this Anderson-free iteration Yes didn’t have long to argue; David was ejected sometime in 2012, his disappearance ascribed to (wait for it) respiratory illness.
Enter Jon Davison.
Formerly of prog stalwarts Glass Hammer and Sky Cries Mary, the Los Angeles singer / songwriter hopped the Yes train in 2012—just in time to join Squire, Howe, White, and Downes for an extended tour, whereon they performed three entire LPs: The Yes Album, Close to The Edge, and Going for The One. Possessing both a name and voice that’ll placate devotees awaiting the return of Jon Prime, Davidson is the rare American in roster comprised of almost entirely of Brits (save Rabin and Billy Sherwood).
The 2014 edition of Yes—Davison (vocals), Howe (guitar), Squire (bass), Downes (keyboards), and White (drums)—is on the move again this summer, this time playing the classic albums Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972) front-to-back. They’ll also work in a medley of hits, and perhaps a few selections from their just-released 21st album, Heaven & Earth.
Arguably the group’s most flowered-powered platter since Time and a Word, Heaven & Earth nonetheless contains a few beloved Yes hallmarks: Squire’s thick, melodious bass dominates, and Howe’s dusted off his Fender pedal steel once more. Davison evokes latter-day Anderson on extended pieces like “In a World of Our Own” and “Subway Walls,” and both Downes and White sound like they’re having fun.
The disc is devoid of the draw-dropping instrumental passages of yore, however, and lacks the cosmic vibrations (and quasi-religious undertones) of Anderson’s soaring verses. There’s disappointingly little on hand to satisfy diehards longing for another Close to The Edge (or Tales From Topographic Oceans, for that matter) beyond the eye-popping Roger Dean cover art.
Opening cut “Believe Again” is probably the closest this bunch comes to embodying past Yes, and concertgoers attending the July 23rd show at Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park can expect to hear it at some point during the night. Billowy? Sure. But better than most of 1997’s Open Your Eyes and 1999’s The Ladder.
By most accounts (including ours) today’s Yes men still turn out remarkable renditions of the old epics, and it’ll be interesting to hear White interpret Bruford’s drum parts on “Five Percent For Nothing” and Downes riffing on Wakeman’s “Cans and Brahms.” It’ll be worth it just to hear “South Side of the Sky,” “Siberian Khatru,” and “And You And I” live onstage again.
Yes. Wednedsay, July 23, 2014 at Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park (10777 Northfield Road, Northfield OH 44067). Tickets $74.90-97.00. Doors at 6:30pm, show at 7:30pm.