Yes to Yes at State Theatre New Jersey

English prog rock stalwarts celebrate 50th anniversary of “Close to the Edge” album and other classic tunes

When I learned a few weeks ago that Yes would play right in my backyard, I spontaneously decided to get a ticket. After all, what would be the chances that would happen again anytime soon or perhaps ever? Plus, prices were fairly reasonable and State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick is a nice midsize venue only 20 minutes away by car from my house. But as the show was coming up, I started second-guessing myself. After all, Yes have seen multiple lineup changes over the decades, and none of their current members are original. Plus, while I’ve generally come to dig their music, there’s only so much love I have for prog rock. It turned out to be a good decision, so let me share my wonderous story from last evening (October 9)!

Yes are among the few exceptions of prog rock I’ve sufficiently come to appreciate to a level where I dig them, though it did take me a while. My journey started in 1983 when the English group scored their biggest mainstream hit Owner of a Lonely Heart and released 90125, their most commercially successful album. Both marked a significant departure from the band’s original sound. In fact, by the time that music appeared, Yes had ended their initial 13-year run from 1968-1981 and reunited with a modified line-up: Jon Anderson (vocals), Trevor Rabin (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Tony Kaye (organ, electric piano), Chris Squire (bass, vocals) and Alan White (drums, percussion, backing vocals, synthesizer).

None of the musicians who recorded 90125 was on stage last night, though White who sadly passed away this May at the age of 72 after a short illness did have a presence. In addition to being listed on the tour poster, he was remembered with a video at the beginning of the night. In 1972, White replaced the group’s original drummer Bill Bruford. The currently performing line-up of Yes features longtime members Steve Howe (guitar, vocals), Geoff Downes (keyboards, vocals) and Billy Sherwood (bass) who first joined in 1970, 1980 and 1989, respectively; together with Jon Davison, lead vocalist since 2012 (also acoustic guitar, percussion, keyboards) and Jay Schellen (drums, percussion), who first toured with Yes in 2016.

Yes: Left: Steve Howe; right (clockwise from upper left corner: Geoff Downes, Jon Davison, Jay Schellen and Billy Sherwood

The concert was part of the ongoing U.S. leg of the band’s tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Close to the Edge, their fourth studio album released on September 13, 1972. In addition to performing the record in its entirety as the second set, Yes played an introductory set that mostly drew from their ’70s catalog, including Time and a Word (July 1970), The Yes Album (February 1971), Fragile (November 1971), Relayer (November 1974), Going for the One (July 1977) and Tormato (September 1978).

The set also featured two tracks from The Quest, the most recent Yes album that came out in July this year, their first in seven years. While it was a legitimate reminder the current version of Yes is more than their own touring tribute band, perhaps somewhat selfishly, I wished they would have kept it to one new song and instead included Owner of a Lonely Heart or thrown it in as an encore. For the latter, the band picked two other excellent tunes from Fragile and The Yes Album.

I’d say it’s time to finally get to some music. Capturing clips of a group performing songs ranging from approximately four to 19 minutes in length is a challenge. I’m not only talking about physical endurance but more importantly the real possibility of testing the patience of people seated around you. Luckily, the conditions turned out to be great, so I decided to rely on my own clips for the most part.

Let’s kick it off with Yours Is No Disgrace, the opening track from The Yes Album, which was credited to all members of the band at the time including Steve Howe. Jon Anderson told Songfacts the song’s lyrics were about “how crazy we can be as a human race to be out there flittering money around and gambling, trying to earn that big payout, when actually that’s not what life is truly about.” Another influence was the Vietnam war: …Death defying, mutilated armies scatter the earth, Crawling out of dirty holes, their morals, their morals disappear… Killing is brutal and cruel, but the disgrace falls not on the soldiers, but on those who orchestrated the war. This is the only footage I didn’t capture myself, and I could only find a partial clip on YouTube. It still nicely illustrates this line-up of Yes has the necessary chops to master the band’s complex tunes.

Next up is a tune that at under 5 minutes presented a good opportunity to film in its entirety without overly taxing my arms from holding up the phone. Why can’t prog rock acts have more tunes with that duration? No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed was co-written by Richie Havens and Jerome Moross. As such, the song held the distinction of being the only cover in the set. It originally appeared on Havens’ sophomore album Something Else Again, which came out in January 1968. Yes also chose their second album Time and a Word to include their rendition.

Wonderous Stories, off Going For the One, was the shortest song of the night. Therefore, I decided to, well, go for it and record it as well! Penned by Anderson, the beautiful ballad also became the album’s first single in September 1977. Peaking at no. 7 on the Official Singles Chart, it remains the band’s highest-charting single in the UK to this day. Anderson said he wrote the tune on “a beautiful day” during a stay in Montreux, Switzerland, “one of those days you want to remember for years afterwards.”

While the night was mostly a celebration of the band’s ’70s catalog, as noted above, Yes did include two tracks from their most recent album The Quest. At first, I was going to ignore it. Then I changed my mind. After all, when listening to some of its tunes back in July, I thought they sounded pretty good. Here’s Dare to Know, written by Howe.

After Yes finished the first set with Heart of the Sunshine, a track from Fragile, and took a short break, they returned for the main reason of the night, to perform the Close to the Edge album. I decided to film the third and final track on that record, Siberian Khatru. In retrospect, I wish I would have recorded And You And I, the album’s second tune, which I thought was the highlight of the set. Yes also did a great job with Siberian Khatru, co-written by Anderson, Howe and the amazing Rick Wakeman, who in 1971 had replaced the group’s original keyboarder, Tony Kaye.

And then it was time for the encore, a terrific one-two punch with Roundabout and Starship Trooper. Since the former has become one of my all-time favorite Yes tunes, it was an easy decision to pick. Co-written by Anderson and Howe, Roundabout was the opener of Fragile. A single edit was also released in the U.S. in January 1972. It climbed to no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the group’s highest-charting ’70s single there and the second-highest to date. I guess you know the one tune that beat it: Owner of a Lonely Heart.

This was my first Yes concert, so I don’t have a comparator. I think while it’s fair to say that with Chris Squire, who died from blood cancer in June 2015 at age 67, and Rick Wakeman two essential members of the band’s ’70s line-up were missing, the current incarnation of Yes sounded pretty solid to me. I’m not only talking about Steve Howe who remains a great guitarist. Geoff Downes, Billy Sherwood and Jay Shellen demonstrated impressive chops as well. I must also call out Jon Davison, an excellent vocalist who perfectly nailed Jon Anderson’s parts.

Here’s the setlist:

Set 1
On the Silent Wings of Freedom [Tormato]
Yours Is No Disgrace [The Yes Album]
No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed (Richie Havens cover) [Time and a Word]
To Be Over [Relayer] (Steve Howe solo acoustic performance)
Wonderous Stories [Going For the One]
The Ice Bridge [The Quest]
Dare to Know [The Quest]
Heart of the Sunrise [Fragile]

Set 2 (Close to the Edge)
Close to the Edge
And You and I
Siberian Khatru

Encore
Roundabout [Fragile]
Starship Trooper [The Yes Album]

I’m also throwing in a Spotify playlist of the setlist:

I’d like to close with a quote from Steve Howe included in Guitar Magazine’s September cover story about the 50th anniversary of Close to the Edge: “Our spirits were very high,” Howe says. “We were young, enthusiastic, and adventurous, and we had this incredible breakthrough success with Fragile. We saw our next album as a real opportunity to prove our worth as a band. The door had been opened and we weren’t going to go backward. We wanted to sharpen our skills as far as writing and arranging.

“Concerts come and go, but a record is forever. I think we all had a sense that whatever we did next, it had to feel like some sort of definitive statement. A record like this was destined to be made, and we wanted to be the ones making it.”

If you’re curious about the remaining U.S. tour, which closes on November 19 in Westbury, N.Y., here’s the schedule.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Guitar Magazine; Yes website; YouTube; Spotify

24 thoughts on “Yes to Yes at State Theatre New Jersey”

  1. It’s funny… When I saw that Yes was playing at a similarly mid-sized theater near me, my first thought was that I’d read it wrong — that it had to be a Yes tribute band. In my mind, they’re still filling arenas!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Their arena days may be behind them, but I feel they’re definitely more than their own tribute band.

      Have you checked their latest album they put out in July? Sure, while it’s not another “The Yes Album” or “Fragile”, “The Quest” isn’t shabby either!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As long as you don’t expect the equivalent of another “Sgt. Pepper”, go for it!

        I would also be curious how you feel about it. The first think I found striking is how similar Jon Davison sounds to Jon Anderson! Also remarkable they share the same first name!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you got to see it and enjoyed it! I’m not a really big fan of Yes, though I do love ‘Roundabout’ – think that’s a stellar tune – and a handful of others by them. But they are/were all very talented and were known for being a good live band, so good on ’em for still making the rounds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I loved “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from the get-go, their classic ’70s music was an acquired taste.

      In general, prog rock and I haven’t become close friends. I find most of it too long-winded. Yes and Genesis – and I guess you can also count Pink Floyd – are among the few exceptions I’ve come to dig!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. have you ever heard Jon & Vengelis ‘Friends of Mr Cairo’? It has Jon Anderson’s distinctive singing & Vengelis (‘Chariots of Fire’ ) doing the instruments. Bizarre, quirky song which is an homage to ’40s and 50s cinema noir… I’ve come to find that somehow it was a uniquely Canadian hit. Massive hit there in ’81, few others outside Canada ever heard it even though Jon is British and Vengelis… well, not Canadian, that much I know!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy that you got to see them Christian. I wonder why Anderson is not touring with them? He is touring with someone else I think. Steve Howe is a great guitarist…I always thought of him as an original member for some reason…but I have to say I don’t know much about them. My favorite member was Chris Squire…man was that guy great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Max, me too. I really figured the opportunity to see them at such a close-by venue may not come back, and the ticket was quite affordable!

      If you think about it, it’s kind of mind-boggling that Howe who first joined in 1972, i.e., 50 years go, isn’t an original member! The keyboarder (Geoff Downes) and bass player (Billy Sherwood) first joined 42 years and 33 years ago, respectively. Lead vocalist Jon Davison who really sounds very similar to Jon Anderson has been with the group for 10 years. Their youngest member is drummer Jay Schellen who has “only” toured with them since 2016. Add to that the fact that Yes released a new album in July this year, and I feel you have a group that’s more than just their own touring act tribute band.

      As to Jon Anderson, yes, you are correct, he also did a “Close to the Edge” 50th Anniversary Tour earlier this year, teaming up with The Paul Green Rock Academy. In fact, our fellow blogger Music Enthusiast saw them in the Boston area. Apparently, it was a nice show.

      Not sure whether there is any bad blood between Ian Anderson and his former band mates. Or whether it’s simply a reflection of the fact the band has had another excellent lead vocalist for the past 10 years. In a way it would have been awkward, had the group told Jon Davison to step aside for the tour to make room for Jon Anderson – especially given they had just recorded a new album with Davison.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The reason it came to mind because at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Anderson did join them and everything looked good… I guess they are all probably happy doing their own thing.
        Yea I’m glad you didn’t pass it up… No they have been together too long to be a tribute band.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Good point, in fact I even watched the induction at the time. ELO were also inducted that same year (2017). I still remember their great performance of Roll Over Beethoven. I have to look for Yes. I recall they were there and performed. I don’t remember any of the songs they played – so much for my love of Yes!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. He was great! I didn’t know he was like that. That is one of the best inductions I’ve ever seen. It should have been earlier though…Squire completely missed out.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. You know…it looks .like they would. They must rotate it with another song or was it JUST that album?

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      5. I assume because Trevor Rabin, their guitarist at the time of 90125, was at the induction, so they let him play the guitar. Though Geddy Lee who I thought did a great job on Roundabout probably would have been a better choice – at times it looked like Steve Howe was struggling a bit. After all, bass isn’t his instrument.

        BTW, none of the line-up that performed last night played on 90125. The one guy would have been Alan White, but sadly he passed earlier this year. Perhaps this explains why they didn’t play “Owner of a Lonely Heart”.

        I’m currently listening to 90125, which I haven’t done in a while – really good stuff. And, as much as I love some of the early Yes music, 90125 is way more accessible, especially if you’re not much into prog rock.

        90125 isn’t as complex, most of the tunes are less than 6 minutes, and the music is a more pop-oriented type of prog rock.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Thats what I thought at first but Trevor Rabin played on Roundabout as well…so it was kind of confusing but hey…it worked!
        Yea in the 80s I couldn’t believe that was Yes with Owner of a Lonely Heart. It just didn’t have their sound but it helped boost their career that is for sure.

        Prog music in the 80s was out mostly….even the Allman Brothers live cut out the jamming in their concerts in the early eighties.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Oh well, so much for my clever comment. We may never know what went on behind the scenes. And whether Rick Wakeman gave the others a heads-up of his remarks!😆

        I will say Owner of a Lonely Heart has some ‘80s sound elements I’m less fond of. But even with that I still think it’s just a great tune.

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  4. It’s cool you got to see them – it’s kind of weird that 4/5 of that Close to the Edge lineup are still alive, but only Howe is still in the band. Although Downes is a great player and first played with Yes more than 40 years ago, so I guess he counts.

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