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

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On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 21

Dare I say it, it looks like my irregularly recurring music history feature is becoming more frequent. But with nearly 300 dates left to cover, I still have a long way to go, so it’s safe to assume this series won’t end anytime soon. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the events in music that happened on January 21 over the past six decades or so. I would also like to briefly acknowledge the untimely death of operatic rock artist Meat Loaf, which was reported overnight. He was believed to have been 74 years old. The cause of death has not been revealed.

1963: Since nearly everything in my little music world starts or finishes with The Beatles, let’s get this bloody item out of the way. According to The Beatles Bible, the ultimate source of truth about the band, On this day The Beatles appeared on the EMI plug show The Friday Spectacular, at EMI House, 20 Manchester Square, London. They chatted to hosts Shaw Taylor and Muriel Young, and studio recordings of ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ask Me Why’ were played. The show was recorded before an audience of around 100 teenagers, and was broadcast live on Radio Luxembourg. The overwhelming crowd size tells you this was still pre-Beatlemania. Though their press officer Tony Barrow said that during the recording, “I was finally convinced that The Beatles were about to enjoy the type of top-flight national fame which I had always believed that they deserved.” Side note: Three years later on that same date, George Harrison married his first wife Pattie Boyd, with Paul McCartney serving as best man.

1966: The Trips Festival, a three-day landmark event in the development of psychedelic music, kicked off at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, Produced by Ken Kesey, Ramon Sender, and Stewart Brand, the event is largely recognized as the first to bring together what would be called the “hippie” movement. The sold-out festival, which drew 10,000 people, featured the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane, among others. And some 6,000 people drinking punch spiked with LSD, who witnessed one of the first fully developed light shows of the era. I also found this trippy clip!

1978: Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack album of the 1977 motion picture starring John Travolta, stood at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first of 24 weeks on top of the U.S. mainstream chart. It also reached no. 1 in Canada, the UK, Australia and many other countries. Saturday Night Fever became one of the best-selling albums in music history. With more than 40 million copies sold worldwide, it remains the second-biggest selling soundtrack of all time after The Bodyguard. But, as oftentimes is the case, what goes up must come down. Not even three years later, the Bee Gees, the group most associated with the soundtrack and disco, called it quits, finding themselves caught in the furious backlash toward disco including bomb threats – something you could sadly picture nowadays as well! I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care whether you call Bee Gees music disco, R&B, disco-influenced or anything else – I dig it!

1984: British progressive rock stalwarts Yes hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Owner of a Lonely Heart. Co-written by band members Trevor Rabin (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Jon Anderson (lead vocals) and Chris Squire (bass vocals), together with co-producer Trevor Horn, the catchy pop rocker was first released in October 1983 as the lead single for the group’s 11th studio album 90125, which came out the following month. Owner of the Lonely Heart became Yes’s first and only no. 1 on the U.S. mainstream chart. It also did well in Europe, especially in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 2. While earlier singles like Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout and And You and I are great songs as well, they simply weren’t radio-friendly. Yes, Owner of a Lonely Heart has a commercial ’80s sound, but it’s a hell of a catchy tune!

1987: Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards during the Rock Hall’s second annual induction ceremony. Here’s what the Rock Hall posted on their website: Lady Soul. The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remain anthems that defined soul music. Long live the Queen. And here are The Rolling Stones guitarist’s live remarks from that night – let’s just say it was a classic Keith Richards speech!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube