Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Yes @ The Hammersmith Apollo, Tuesday 17 November 2009

It's been about 5 years since I last saw Yes... and this was my girlfriend's first Yes show. I've seen Steve Howe numerous times of late, with Asia and his Trio. I've seen Squire with The Syn. I've seen Jon Anderson solo and a show with Rick Wakeman. I've even seen Trevor Horn's band The Producers playing “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. But not Yes and not the controversial new line-up.

I've read hundreds of reviews of shows by the new band, hundreds of screens of online discussion about whether they should be called Yes, whether they should have taken this route, who's to blame for this or that… I've listened to a few boots too, but this was my first opportunity to actually judge for myself.

The last time I saw Yes, sort of, was a line-up with Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Alan White, Trevor Rabin and Geoff Downes at the Produced by Trevor Horn event. I very much enjoyed the performance, but what I was seeing did not feel like a real band. It came across as it was, a line-up assembled for a charity performance. This new line-up, with BenoƮt David and Oliver Wakeman, they felt like a real, viable band. I don't know quite how to describe it, but whatever the (many, many) arguments online, they convinced me that they are Yes. And they gave us a performance that is comparable to the Yes shows I've seen in the past (my first live Yes experience having been the Union tour).

Not only did they feel like a real band, but they looked happy. Like Howe on recent Asia and Trio shows, like Squire in The Syn at their 2005 London show, and unlike the 2004 Yes shows with Jon and Rick, the band at Hammersmith looked pleased to be there and to be there with each other.

I can, in theory, worry about the lack of new material (there was nothing played that was written since my girlfriend was born), or that for most of the set only two of them had played on the original recordings (for only three songs was the majority of the recording band now on stage), but we enjoyed a great night with great music. And the audience cheers were biggest for the much-played oldies.

On boots, David sometimes sounded quite like Anderson to me, yet oddly live he didn't sound at all like him. He was hitting the notes, but with a distinctive voice. And I just do not get the critiques that he looks or acts like Anderson on stage. His stage moves could be a little hokey at times, but they were all his own. That distinctive voice, there's a certain Quebecois squeaky quality that comes out on occasion, but he sang well and he shined on “Heart of the Sunrise”. My girlfriend argued he was closer to early '70s Jon Anderson than Jon Anderson is now.

The other new boy – if I call someone in his late 30s that! – was Oliver Wakeman. He impressed me, particularly after several negative reviews. Ignore the complaints you've heard about his stage presence. Oliver is not an ostentatious player, but he was mostly a good player, more so perhaps on material not originally played by his father. He brought Downes' parts on the Drama tracks to life, he was great with Kaye's part on “Astral Traveler”. And he's got better sounds than Rick. I'd reserve some criticisms: I felt he didn't get Kaye's feel on “Yours is No Disgrace” and the girlfriend complained he made mistakes on “South Side of the Sky”.

Again, ignore the negative reviews about Alan White. Maybe the band took several dates to get into their stride on this tour, but White's playing was fine in Hammersmith. Where you should listen to the reviews is with Steve Howe. Like they all say, he is on fire: passionate, inspired playing throughout. He is even enjoying “Owner of a Lonely Heart”; at the previous show in Birmingham, he described 90125 as “a great album”!

That leaves Chris Squire, who was... well, Chris Squire. He plays so many complex bass parts effortlessly, even the likes of “Machine Messiah”, a piece he's complained was difficult to re-learn. His singing was to the fore. That said, the biggest thing that would have improved the whole evening would have been a ban on alcohol! There was a bit of stumbling and slurring from Chris that I'm guessing was connected to whatever was in his cup. And no booze would have made for a better viewing experience without half the audience constantly getting up and down to buy more beer, or to piss away the previous batch!

Overall, this was comparable to other Yes shows I've seen. A friend at the show said this was the best he'd seen them play in 10 years. I wouldn't say that: I'm going to stick with Masterworks (2000) as my favourite tour. But I've seen weaker Yes shows than this. My occasional flatmate and I were sitting in almost the same spot in the Hammersmith Apollo on the Open Your Eyes tour (March 1998), and this was the better show. That might just be down to the mix, which was mostly good this tour, although I'd echo the common complaint that David and O. Wakeman could be a bit higher.

To be honest, yes, I would prefer Anderson's vocals. However, despite some comments Anderson has made in interviews, I just do not believe he is fit enough to sing at that volume, for that long, on this sort of tour schedule. Maybe some compromise arrangement would have been possible if the parties were getting on better, but the reality still appears to me that a tour like this just is not possible without a replacement singer. To be honest, I would prefer Igor Khoroshev's keys, but Oliver impressed me more than I expected. This is Yes; this show convinced me.

(But I can't see how they could lose Howe or Squire and keep going.)

Yes @ The Hammersmith Apollo, Tuesday 17 November 2009: Part 2

The show song by song:

Siberian Khatru: As always, and this is a perennial complaint, the band took a song or two to get going. The mix was still improving through “Siberian Khatru” with David far too quiet. The performance was so-so.

I've Seen All Good People: It feels like an odd position to be playing “I've Seen All Good People”, second on the set. “All Good People” works well as a closer or an encore, but as a way of introducing the band? And I still wasn't quite convinced by the new line-up at this point, worried my girlfriend would not enjoy her first Yes experience.

Tempus Fugit: here was the first “new” song, “new” only in the sense of not being a regular in the set and new to me, I've never heard it live before. By now, things had come together. The band were in good spirits and they played tightly.

Onward: “Onward” feels odd in this context; its balladry makes it quite unlike the other songs in the set. The Drama songs fit in very well with the Fragile material; even “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is not as different. Still, it was a good performance; Howe most of all.

Astral Traveller: A great performance, Howe and Wakeman both shone. However, the drum solo did nothing for me; it just seems pointless!

And You and I: The band were well in their stride by now: another strong performance.

Yours is No Disgrace: As ever, a good excuse for Howe to go crazy!

Steve Howe solo: A fantastic performance of “Corkscrew” began Howe's solo slot. I think of the piece as “Countryside” (released as a bonus track on Tormato) and Howe's performance made me wish for a full band version of this song. Next was “Sketches in the Sun”, another lovely performance.

Owner of a Lonely Heart: Howe introduced this tune explaining the band had done it “while I was away doing something else”. With his Trio and the cover versions in Asia's set, Howe is becoming a keen interpreter of other people's material, and he does it well, with gusto. Howe was having fun at being an 1980s guitar god with some great solos.

Machine Messiah: Another highlight, even if they had to extend the intro when Squire was late to come in.

South Side of the Sky: Those great songs, they just keep on coming. Oliver Wakeman was good on the piano section. However, as in the early '00s, I'm not convinced by the trading solos at the end and here Wakeman's work was disappointing.

Heart of the Sunrise: The opening remains effectively a Squire solo spot. Overall, another highlight.

Roundabout: A good performance, but forgive me if I find it too familiar.

Starship Trooper: A good closer and a rousing finale.

The show, as with most on this leg, is available to buy on MP3. I got it at the venue straight afterwards (with the last few songs available for download afterwards). It's a nice souvenir, if no Yessongs. Like the show, it suffers from an uneven mix at the beginning (Squire's vocals are almost louder than David's on “Tempus Fugit”), but it's good to have some of these performances preserved, like Howe's take on “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Astral Traveller”.