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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Concert Review: A View From the Balcony

Yes return to New York for this critic's "night off."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yes 2016 (clockwise from left) Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Jay Schellen, Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison)
unlock the secrets of the universe at the St. George Theater on Staten Island on Tuesday night.
Photo (with an iPhone 6) by the author.
The British progressive rock band Yes returned to New York City on Tuesday night, with a three-hour show at the St. George Theater, a gorgeous 1929 palace located on Staten Island just a short climb from the Staten Island Ferry. The band's current show featured two whole sides of their 1973 opus Tales from Topographic Oceans and the entire Drama album, a 1980 record that has been largely forgotten by fans.

Since the 1970s, Yes have had as many as fifteen different musicians joining, departing and returning. This lineup featured stalwart guitarist Steve Howe, (now a grandfather) Geoff Downes on keys, and drummer Jay Schellen, a temporary replacement for Alan White, who is undergoing back surgery this summer. Recent additions Jon Davison and (bassist) Billy Sherwood handled vocals, creating the high vibrations and harmonies necessary to the celestial Yes sound.

With so many strange faces in the band, the question for fans remains: "is this Yes?" At Tuesday's performance, the answer was a resounding affirmative. Yes opened with the thunderous heavy metal chords of the ten-minute "Machine Messiah," placing Mr. Howe's guitar heroics front and center. Without a pause, Mr. Davison and Mr. Downes quickly segued into  the brief "White Car", at 1'19" the shortest song in the band's vast catalogue. It was followed by the driving "Does It Really Happen?" propelled by Mr. Sherwood's bass and Mr. Schellen's intricate, but energetic drumming.

"Into The Lens" is an old track reworked from when Geoff Downes was keyboardist in The Buggles, its lyrics once dated but curiously appropriate to today's cell-phone culture. (Indeed, following the Drama set, Mr. Howe addressed fans who were using an iPad to film his performance down front, saying "that's just a bit much.") It was followed by "Run Through the Light" (with Mr. Sherwood switching to fretless bass and the pounding "Tempus Fugit," a song that remains the strongest cut on this underheard, under-played album.

Visually, this was the best Yes tour since the Roger Dean-designed "underwater forest" of 2004. A double LED proscenium showed inventive graphics that engaged the eye but didn't distract from the complex music. Projections on the risers for the keyboards and drums added to the trompe l'oiel effect. This was especially effective in the first older cuts of the night, an enthusiastic "I've Seen All Good People" and a propulsive "Siberian Khatru" complete with vistas of snow and ice.

The band took twenty minutes, returning with a gentle and lovely reading of "And You and I" from Close to the Edge. Here, Mr. Davison's contributions enabled this song to be performed in its original key, as he hit notes with his voice that Yes fans have spent many years yearning to hear again. The cheerful "The Preacher, the Teacher" section even featured Mr. Sherwood on harmonica, a nice tribute to bassist and band founder Chris Squire, who died in 2015.

All that was warmup for "The Revealing Science of God" and "Ritual", Side One and Side Four (respectively) of the double album Tales from Topographic Oceans. In the capable hands of these musicians, these long-derided songs were not behemoths but epic works, shifting moods and colors over vast landscapes. Mr. Davison and Mr. Sherwood worked through the mystic lyrics with help from carefully placed iPads, but the impact of these huge songs was palpable and real. The graphics helped too, with projections of Roger Dean's album art, swimming jellyfish and waving anemones adding to the unearthly atmosphere.

Even the "drum circle" part in the middle of Ritual worked in this setting, with three of the Yes-men having a merry bash before the  crescendo of the finale. This was all about Mr. Howe's guitar tone doing battle with Mr. Davison's voice, soaring through the simple, almost child-like song that ends this 23-minute track. A double encore of "Roundabout" and "Starship Trooper" sent the audience home happy, the latter gaining speed and barrelling like a freight train before coming to a majestic return to the song's original stately pace.

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