Thursday 9 August 2012

Jon Anderson & Miro Žbirka at Sadler's Wells (8 Aug 2012)

Jon Anderson's set (55 minutes):
orchestral intro
“Starship Trooper” (abbreviated, ~7 mins)
“I’ll Find My Way Home”
“Earth & Peace”
“Long Distance Runaround” (abbreviated)
“Nous Sommes du Soleil” (with orchestral intro)
“Race to the End”/“Match of the Day” theme excerpt (orchestra only)
“Music is God”
“Change We Must”
“And You and I” (abbreviated, ~6 mins)
“State of Independence”
joint encore with Žbirka: “All You Need is Love”

I arrived at Sadler’s Wells to find the foyer full of beautiful, young people – my first clue that this wasn’t a typical prog concert! You see, this event was a double bill: Slovak singer Miro Žbirka for an hour, then Jon Anderson for just under, and a joint encore. The venue (capacity 1560) was about 60% full. All the Yes fans had the same story: we logged on pretty much as soon as tickets went on sale to find most of the stalls already sold – some sort of mass booking by the Slovaks – and that’s pretty much how the ticket availability remained with further tickets going slowly. [10 Aug: Apparently, this was a block booking to supply free tickets to the Slovaks as part of the Olympics.]

While disappointing that the show had sold poorly – lack of promotion? high ticket prices? – this meant all of us in the second circle (good seat, £45) got upgraded. I ended up with a great seat, front row of the first circle.

First on, then, was Miroslav Žbirka, who first came to fame in successful Czechoslovak band Modus in the 1970s. But I only know that because I just looked it up; he was an unknown quantity to me. Sixties-tinged pop, he sang well, a nice stage presence. And, excepting a cover of “Hey Jude”, he sang in Slovak and most of his song introductions was in Slovak too. I’m sure he’s a lovely man – and the Slovak fans, as I indicated, are a more attractive lot than us ageing Yes fans! Judging by who laughed when Žbirka said something funny, maybe 2/3 of the audience were there for him. But the concert made no sense with little stylistic similarity between the two singers. The other 1/3 of us, here for Anderson, sat bored and restless for an hour. And the Žbirka fans were, it seems, as uninterested by Anderson as we were by Žbirka. I saw a fair few trickle out early in Anderson’s set.

Žbirka was backed by Cappella Istropolitana (the Bratislava Chamber Orchestra), conducted by Adrian Kokoš: 11 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 1 double bass, 6 brass, 4 woodwind and 1 keyboard player. For some numbers, he had additional support from a rock band (two guitarists, bassist, drummer). Finally, his set (60 minutes) ends and he introduces Anderson, talking about getting The Yes Album as a young man. Cappella Istropolitana also backed Anderson, but he had a different supporting band led by Peter Machajdík (keys, backing vocals). A few years back, Anderson guested on a great piece entitled "Sadness of Flowing" on Machajdík's album, Namah. (You can read my interview with Machajdík about the collaboration with Anderson here.) And Machajdík previously headed a band who played with Anderson in Slovakia in 2009. Joining Machajdík were a guitarist (plus backing vocals; possibly Juraj Burian?), a backing vocalist (plus additional percussion) and a drummer.

The last time I saw Anderson live was at the end of the last UK Anderson Wakeman tour, about two years ago, and his voice was a disaster. Thankfully, his voice tonight was fantastic (and I’m told he sounded even better in the soundcheck). This was the best I’ve heard him since 2008, very nearly back to his pre-morbid state. He perhaps opted out of holding some of the higher notes as long as he once did, but that was barely noticeable. This was the voice we love: precise, powerful, warm. A joy to hear.

On the other hand, the musical context around that glorious voice was hit and miss. I felt the orchestra could have been tighter. The guitarist was weak in places. “Starship Trooper” made for a poor opener: it didn’t seem to translate well to the orchestral context and lacked energy. “I'll Find My Way Home” was better, but the orchestra seemed superfluous. However, the show improved: newer piece “Earth & Peace” was reminiscent of The Living Tree, but had a role for the orchestra too. "Long Distance Runaround" and particularly "Nous Sommes du Soleil" really lifted the set, although both were rather short.

Anderson talked about the beauty of Bratislava, the Slovak capital. He had had four days rehearsing with the orchestra. He was often flustered between songs, but in a good-natured way. He forgot the song order, had lyrics on a music stand for a couple of pieces, had to be reminded of the names of his backing band and the conductor. But he had a good rapport with the audience – least, those of us who knew who he was! Anderson's personal guests in the front row – I think Damion was there, and Jade was also around – led the applause. But having a big chunk of the audience there for Žbirka rather sucked the energy out of the crowd response for Anderson.

Žbirka had played his classic hits. OK, I have no idea if Žbirka had or had not played his greatest hits, but the audience reaction suggested he did. The Žbirka fans had sung along in places, and we’d all sung along to “Hey Jude”. Anderson tried to get us to sing along to “Music is God”. No. Everyone knows “Hey Jude”. Only hardcore Anderson fans have heard “Music is God”. That didn’t work. And Anderson introduced “Music is God” saying he wanted to get an orchestra to play a reggae song, pointing out the absurdity, but his point was rather proven by how poorly the orchestra fit the song!

But mostly the set list worked. The strongest pieces were the later Vangelis-composed numbers, where the orchestra had a clear role behind Anderson's soaring vocals: “Change We Must” a particular highlight. “And You and I” was orchestrated well, ending nicely with Anderson accompanied by a single violin, if again rather on the short side.

The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” was a joint encore, with Žbirka and his supporting band joining Anderson, his supporting band and the orchestra. A good choice of song, everyone fitting together, making a lovely finale.

For a concert just over two hours long, we had maybe 30 or 40 minutes of great music with Anderson, although it was a delight whenever Anderson was singing. In all, this concert feels like a metaphor for Anderson’s career. That voice is back. He’s got new material – both “Earth & Peace” and “Music is God” are growing on me – but he needs to find the right context to work in. The match-up with Žbirka made no sense and the set list choices didn't always fit with an orchestra, but when it worked – with songs like “Nous Sommes du Soleil”, “Change We Must”, “And You and I”, “State of Independence” and “All You Need is Love” – this was well worth it.

[13 Aug edit] Anderson's supporting band were: Juraj Burian (guitars, backing vocals), Peter Machajdík (keys, backing vocals), Igor "Ajdži" Sabo (drums, percussion), Andrea Zimanyiová (vocals, hand percussion)


  1. Nice review, though I thought the fit wasn't the train crash I imagined it would be, and the Slovaks I sat next to enjoyed quite a bit of Jon's set - notably "I'll Find My Way Home," "Change We Must" and "Music Is God" (they even sang along to the last of these). It certainly was patchy, but overall a rather special evening, I thought.
    Punj Lizard

  2. Henry, a good review and much agreed. It really was rather disparate as an artistic pairing which served to deny Jon the full audience support and rapport that he deserved. Jon's set was of mixed quality I felt but some of it was stunningly beautiful - Nous Sommes du Soleil, And You and I and especially for me Change We Must. I think we have to be grateful now for any opportunity to hear Jon and this performance provided some moments to savour. Tim Baldwin