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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.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Concert Review: The Survival of the Fittest

Yes bring their touring "Yestival" to Coney Island.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yes go close to the edge. L.-R.: Steve Howe, Dylan Howe, Jon Davison, Geoff Downes, Alan White, Billy Sherwood.
Photo by the author, graphics by Roger Dean.
Yes, the British progressive rock band known for long Byzantine songs and perpetual lineup changes, rolled through Brooklyn last night, bringing their tour, dubbed "Yestival", to the Ford Amphitheater on the Coney Island Boardwalk. The veteran band, who are celebrating their past due induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, brought yet another lineup change, and a set that featured ten carefully chosen songs, one from each of] their first ten albums, played in chronological order.

Yestival included two opening acts. First up: veteran drummer Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy, which featured Mr. Palmer, the last surviving member of the prog trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, flanked by two enthusiastic and virtuosic musicians. Mr. Palmer's drums, complete with orchestra gongs and double kick drums was the clear star here, and they roared through old band favorites like "Karn Evil 9 (First Impression, Part II)" and the ballad "Lucky Man." The set was bookended he bewildering ELP arrangements of Aaron Copland's Hoedown from the ballet Rodeo and the set-ending Fanfare for the Common Man, capped (as expected) by an extravagant drum solo. So far, so good.

Next onstage was Todd Rundgren. Known for his skills as a record producer (Bat Out of Hell) a quirky string of albums and the odd genuine radio hit. He took the stage in a black '80s-cut suit, red necktie and shades, flanked by a stellar band decked out in the same outfits and two svelte singer-dancers in tight latex dresses. The ensemble roared through thirteen songs, veering from hard rock to electronica and lounge-lizard soul. "Buy My T" might be the funniest rock commercial since The Who Sell Out and cynical love song "Hello, It's Me" (his big hit) got the crowd singing along. The band, featuring drummer Prairie Prince, guitarist Jesse Gress, Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes and bassist Kasim Sulton were tight, especially on two old tunes from Utopia, Mr. Rundgren's old band.

Yes took the stage to grand fugue from of Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. With a wave to the crowd, they launched into "Survival", the closing track on the group's little-known debut album. Guitarist Steve Howe is very much the heart of this version of the band, which also features veteran drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geoff Downes and bassist Billy Sherwood. Jon Davison, whose high register reminds one of original singer Jon Anderson is even more comfortable in his role as frontman. Moving like a hippie Jesus, he connects with the crowd and hits those big money notes in "Time and a Word," the title track from their second record.

New to the band on this trek: second drummer Dylan Howe, who is the younger son of the band's guitarist. He played a small kit on stage right, reminiscent of the one Bill Bruford played in the band's earliest days. In fact, the younger Mr. Howe seemed very much in the Bruford groove, playing the complex parts from "Yours is No Disgrace" with gusto. The two-drummer lineup is never easy to pull off, and there were a few rhythmic misunderstandings that Mr. White, the canny veteran, did his best to obscure. There were also occasional level problems with Steve Howe's guitar rig, and an important keyboard solo from Mr. Downes was at one point, drowned out by the guitar and bass.

The set followed a chronological arc, with one track selected from each of the band's first ten albums, ranging from 1968's Yes to Drama in 1980. Although the twenty-minute epics were left aside in favor of shorter excerpts (the acoustic "Leaves of Green" from Tales from Topographic Oceans and the soaring "Soon" from Relayer) the band did play three songs that clocked in over the ten-minute mark. These: "Yours is No Disgrace", "South Side of the Sky" and "And You And I" came as a powerful trilogy smack dab in the middle of the show. Also of length: the set-closing "Machine Messiah", which acted as an exclamation point to the entire show.

When Jon Anderson was still the singer, "Machine Messiah" was never played, as it came from Drama, the one album that featured Trevor Horn on lead vocals. Now, the song has become a concert staple, with Mr. Howe and Mr. Sherwood digging into the fat cascading riffs as Geoff Downes' fingers dance down his wall of keyboards. Following this assault, the encore was relatively gentle. Mr. Davison and Mr. Howe duetted on the deep cut "Madrigal" (from the Tormato record) and the whole band returned for the crowd favorite Roundabout. At about 90 minutes, the show felt more like a sampler platter than last year's three-hour Yes-athon. It is likely that next year's tour will return to the longer format as the band prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

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