Features

Getting To Yes: Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman Live

The Mountain Winery; Saratoga, CA, USA; August 28, 2017

by Jason Warburg

yesarw1_450Ah, the curse of high expectations. On Monday night I saw a very good band play a diverse set-list, delivering enthusiastic and well-received performances at an attractive venue. A good time appeared to be had by audience and performers alike. It should be that simple, shouldn’t it? But as with nearly anything connected to the almost 50-year-old progressive rock band Yes, the truth is more complicated.

The complications begin with the fact that there are currently two bands calling themselves Yes on tour: the official Yes led by longtime guitarist Steve Howe and longtime drummer Alan White, and this upstart Yes Featuring Jon Anderson (co-founder and lead vocalist), Trevor Rabin (1983-94 guitarist/vocalist) and Rick Wakeman (’70s-era keyboardist). Many Yes fans favor one lineup over the other, or at least one lineup’s narrative of what led to the current schism (which I won’t belabor here, having already done so more than once), while others insist on donning rose-colored glasses and showering both pseudo-Yesses with unconditional adoration. As a fan of the band for 43 years and counting, I fall in neither camp; I’m pissed at the principals in both groups for allowing such a ludicrous turn of events to repeat itself (we’ve been here before, circa 1988-90). Whatever grievances these men may be holding onto, it’s past time to let them go and do the right thing by the fans.

In the words of the old English saying, though, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." In other words: we must deal with the reality before us, which includes the existence of a talented band playing appealing music while going by the utterly ridiculous name of “Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman”. (Not exactly racing decal material, is it?)

The group—previously known as Anderson Rabin Wakeman, or ARW—is one that’s been rumored for several years, including in an interview with Anderson conducted by yours truly in 2013, but only finally came to fruition last year, with the announcement of a tour and the introduction of rhythm section Lee Pomeroy (bass and background vocals) and Lou Molino (drums and background vocals). With various song ideas kicking around, but no actual recording done, the band elected to go out and play live first, mounting a tour that began last year as ARW and morphed into Yes Featuring ARW following the band’s April induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The group’s first album of new music is slated for release in 2018; in the meantime they’re happily playing halls and small sheds spanning the globe, including this attractive 2,300-seat outdoor venue tucked into the hills above San Jose, which they filled to near capacity on a mild Monday evening.

Ironically, of the three principals on stage it’s Anderson, the eldest at 72 and the one who was sidelined by health issues from the 2008 Yes lineup, who appears the healthiest today. Bobbing across the stage, dancing and waving, his voice remains strong and energy high, while the majestically caped but rather weary-looking Wakeman hovers behind his keyboard stacks and the stoic Rabin fires off assertive bursts of guitar while grappling with a voice weakened by age.

The setlist this version of the band plays is about what you might expect, drawing half its songs from the more progressive “Classic Yes” period represented by Wakeman and half from the more commercial/AOR-minded Rabin period, with Anderson the bridge between the two eras. Each half of the band’s musical identity offers both highlights and lowlights.

Highlights from the ’80s include energetic opener “Cinema,” an atmospheric Rabin-era instrumental that gives Anderson a chance to make an entrance with the whole band on stage, and “Hold On,” another appealing tune from 1983’s 90125 album. The rest of the Rabin-era songs don’t hold up as well. Rabin’s turn on lead vocals for “Lift Me Up” is a rough go—he’s clearly lost considerable power and range as a vocalist—while “I Am Waiting” offers up a dim Journey-ish power ballad featuring one of the most insipid lyrics in the band’s entire catalogue. At least first-set closer “Rhythm Of Love” is freshened up a bit by a zippy mini-moog solo Wakeman has added to the original arrangement.

The Classic Yes-era tunes generally fare better, with exceptions. “Perpetual Change” brings drive to the opening sequence, and they give a terrific reading of “South Side Of The Sky,” a dynamic and challenging prog mini-suite from 1971’s Fragile album that showcases Wakeman’s rippling keyboard work and some of Anderson’s most powerful vocals. By contrast, “And You And I” is tough to sit through, a song whose gentle majesty just doesn’t seem to be within guitarist Rabin’s musical vocabulary. To his credit, Rabin is spot-on later in the set with “Heart of the Sunrise,” one of the strongest numbers of the night, as his tendency to hammer power chords fits right in with this naturally thunderous tune.

As the set winds down, they throw some muscular extra bits into “Awaken” that feel out of character for the song, but the four-fifths of it where they stick to the original arrangement is terrific, again showcasing Wakeman’s tremendous chops. (This is the song where, when I saw the other Yes in 2013, I really pitied Geoff Downes. The man gave it everything he had, but there’s only one person on earth capable of playing “Awaken” like Rick Wakeman.)

yesarw2_450The main set closes with “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” setting the crowd dancing and a few among us wondering if maybe Rabin was under the weather, as his vocals are barely audible and feel off-key. The principals ham up the group’s one true hit single for all they’re worth, with Rabin and Wakeman taking a ramble through the midst of the crowd (as seen in the photo, they happened to meet up right in front of me). They encore predictably with “Roundabout,” the short version with no acoustic intro. Like “Perpetual Change” at the start, it’s, well, fine. There’s good energy, Rabin sounds like Rabin, Wakeman sounds like Wakeman, Pomeroy and Molino push and pull throughout, and Anderson sings enthusiastically of “Ten true summers we’ll be there / And laughing, too.”

Special kudos are due to Lee Pomeroy and Lou Molino, each stepping into big shoes and acquitting themselves admirably; Pomeroy is a superb bassist with a bubbly, enthusiastic stage presence, and Molino is a powerhouse behind the kit.

All well and good, then, but the core issue still remains. Try as they might to make the slipper fit, this is not Yes; it’s half-Yes, or at least, half the “classic” lineup that many fans would prefer to see. Should we be grateful that there’s any band at all left playing Yes music now that co-founder and keeper of the flame Chris Squire is gone, let alone two? If we fans are destined to be beggars rather than choosers, then I suppose. There’s no question these talented veterans of the scene have earned a few moments of joy on stage in their latter years and I won’t begrudge them that for a minute. It’s just that, for a fan who knows what these songs can sound like, it’s impossible not to feel a little let down. The show I witnessed Monday night was good, solidly good. But Yes isn’t supposed to be good. Yes is supposed to be great.


*****

Setlist

1. Cinema
2. Perpetual Change
3. Hold On
4. South Side of the Sky
5. Lift Me Up
6. And You and I
7. Rhythm of Love
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8. I Am Waiting
9. Heart of the Sunrise
10. Awaken
11. Owner of a Lonely Heart (with Make It Easy intro & Sunshine Of Your Love outro)
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12. Roundabout

*****

Additional photo gallery

All photos below (c) Matt Bolender of CCRock.com.

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