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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Concert Review: They See Perpetual Change

Yes celebrate fifty years of music on Staten Island.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The men of Yes (Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, John Davison, Jay Schellen, Alan White (obscured) and Billy Sherwood)
play "Awaken." Photo by Paul J. Pelkonen.
The membership of the seminal British progressive rock band Yes is anything but stable. Yes musicians have  entered, exited, joined, quit , rejoined, quit again and even been replaced by whole symphony orchestras in the course of a stormy and complex  narrative. Every tour is different from the one before, not just in terms of setlist but in terms of personnel. Adding to the complication: the fact that there are currently two touring bands calling themselves Yes. One of these, referred to on Facebook as "Yes Official" is playing North American theaters this summer. That lineup took the stage at the gorgeous St. George Theater on Staten Island on Sunday night. The show was a three-hour celebration, drawing music from all five decades of the band’s thorny existence.

This Yes is led by guitarist Steve Howe, who replaced Peter Banks as the band's guitarist in 1970,  the first of many lineup changes. It is fronted by American singer John “Juano” Davison. His high, clear countertenor sounds uncannily like original singer Jon Anderson. Now with five years as their singer , he sounds and acts more comfortable in the role of frontman, sharing an easy onstage chemistry and rapport with his bandmates. He was faced with a setlist that included some of the sternest vocal tests in the band's songbook. The band is completed by keyboardist Geoff Downes, bassist Billy Sherwood and drummer Alan White, although his current health issues have made it necessary to split time with drummer Jay Schellen.

Taking the stage to the closing strains of Stravinsky‘s Firebird (a longtime Yes curtain-raiser) this version of the band wasted no time in establishing its bona fides. Mr. Schellen and Mr. Sherwood drove the opening chords of “Close to the Edge.” Mr. Howe’s trademark guitar tone soared sharply overhead. The band took the first movement of this twenty-minute piece at a relatively slow tempo but the build-up of energy paid off. The slow ascending scale of “I get up, I get down” (sung over Mr. Downes' organ) settled any doubts about Mr. Davison's vocal abilities and the slashing chords of “Seasons of Man” were played at its proper galloping speed.

It was with the next selection of the evening that the band’s design became apparent. “Nine Voices (Longwalker)” is a deep cut from the mostly forgotten 1999 album The Ladder with exposed singing over Mr. Howe’s Portuguese guitar. After the band blasted through "Parallels", Mr. Howe switched to six-string for the gentle “Mood For a Day” and “Leaves of Green” with vocals from Mr. Davison. This extract from the album Tales from Topographic Oceans (it is the last part of that mammoth record's third movement) has quickly become an audience favorite in the Davison era.

The first half of the show ended with the new and the old: the 2011 cut “We Can Fly From
Here” and the 1969 track “Sweet Dreams”. But it was in the thunderous clickety-clack attack of “Heart of the Sunrise” where Mr. Sherwood confirmed his identity as the chosen heir to Chris Squire. The supercharged  opening paved the way for a stratospheric vocal, with Mr. Davison moving easily and confidently up the ladder of notes. At this point (he had been singing for an hour and a half) he only seemed to gain in power, strength and intensity as his upper r foster elevated the music, the band and the audience.

When Yes wrote “Perpetual Change” they had no idea that that phrase would aptly describe their revolving door lineup. This is a complicated track from The Yes Album that shows the band in an unexpectedly jazzy frame of mind. It was followed by "Soon", drawn from "The Gates of Delirium", a larger track on the Relayer album. This featured Mr. Howe's prowess on that most unusual instruments: pedal steel guitar. Here its keening, honest, homely tone combined with Mr. Davison's his vocals and Geoff Downes'  impressionistic keyboard washes to create a majestic sound that was truly out of this world.

Mr. White then arrived, taking over the drum stool that he has occupied in Yes since 1973. Mr. Schellen moved over to tambourines for "Awaken", the 15-minute track that concludes the Going for the One album and spent most of the rest of the show rocking out with Jon Davison in the instrumental passages. In the song's dreamy middle section, Jon Anderson’s harp part was replaced by Mr. Davison playing a small electric piano. Mr. Downes was able to reproduce the pipe organ through his enormous keyboard rig but the power and the fact of this track was essentially preserved. The most moving moment was when Mr. Davison stepped forward, silenced the applause and sang the final lines. After all the thunder and bombast, the simple plaintive power of this music held true.

For the three-part encore the six musicians were joined by the seventh: original Yes keyboard player Tony Kaye appearing as a special guest. Mr. Kaye played his Hammond organ parts on an added Roland keyboard. He seemed to have a great time with Mr. Sherwood as they tore through "Yours is No Disgrace" and "Roundabout." The finale was the majestic three-part "Starship Trooper," its final crescendo turning into a long and thunderously loud jam led by Steve Howe's guitar. With their lineup in the state of perpetual change, Yes may well last another fifty years--particularly if they continue to give shows like this.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.