Eagle Records, 2009
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/05/2009
This will be the 27th album or DVD by Yes we’ve reviewed on the Daily Vault, and my 22nd review of a Yes release. Whether this qualifies as enthusiasm or masochism is for you to judge; from my perspective, it veers between the two extremes on a semi-regular basis, depending on the quality of the release. Which is one more reason why Symphonic Live feels like such a brilliant, welcome surprise.
I honestly wasn’t crazy about the whole Yes-with-an-orchestra concept when they deployed it for 2001’s Magnification studio album. For a lot of bands it might feel like a stretch, but for Yes, who included orchestral backing on their second album Time And A Word back in 1969, it felt almost old hat, not to mention somewhat of a surrender to the fact that in 2001 the band had, as has so often been the case over the years, just parted ways with a keyboard player.
On the ensuing tour, the band recruited local orchestras in each city they visited to play with them. This meant the orchestras often had almost no time to rehearse with the band itself, but could only learn the music and hope for the best when the bell rang at performance time. Personally, I skipped the tour and also skipped the DVD that subsequently came out, though I read various postings about a supposedly formidable rendition of one of the band’s more neglected opuses, “The Gates Of Delirium.” And then the brand-new double-CD recording of the very same 2001 Amsterdam show captured on the DVD showed up in my in-box.
Oh, sure. Why not?
After a brief and somewhat puzzling orchestral overture -- why would Yes choose a new piece of music over the “Firebird Suite,” a recording of which they’ve used as a prelude to their shows since 1970 or so? -- the band charges out of the gate with one of their most impressive accomplishments, “Close To The Edge.” “Edge” (hereafter CTTE) is a magnificent opener, though you do hear some differences. Whether it’s a fresh approach or concession to age, guitarist Steve Howe’s playing is not as aggressive as it used to be – he plays it a little more jazzy, a little more Wes Montgomery and a little less Jimmy Page than he did 35 years ago on Yessongs. This does nothing to diminish the song’s essential beauty.
What’s interesting is how Yes -- Howe, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White and cosmic flower child lead voice Jon Anderson -- have chosen to approach this and the rest of the classics, not by using the orchestra to replace the keyboards, which on CTTE are irreplaceable in any case, but by augmenting their core guitar-keys-bass-drums sound with it. Thus when you get to the soaring church organ section around 14:00, guest keyboardist Tom Brislin might be a little lower in the mix, but his lines are still there, albeit doubled by horns and strings.
Later in the track, Brislin – a hired hand who played on just this one tour and then returned to fronting his own band, New Jersey’s own Spiraling -- comes up in the mix for the big synth solos and sounds wonderful. Brislin is a step removed from original CTTE keyboard man Rick Wakeman stylistically, a little sharper and a little less fluid (which you might expect with all of Wakeman’s classical training), but the fact remains that he’s a tremendous and very enthusiastic player whose work meshes wonderfully with the rest of the band.
It’s the orchestra that, by contrast, can sound a little out of place at times. For example, with “Long Distance Runaround” the band choose not to incorporate the orchestra so much as to work around it, giving it space for a brief prelude before it disappears for most of the song itself. It’s an awkward approach that tells you that the band never completely figured out how to incorporate an orchestra into their back catalog, even after making an entire studio album with one. Of course, the same is true of most rock bands who’ve attempted to make live albums with orchestras, but most bands aren’t Yes, who’ve always had a strong classical influence and an orchestral flavor to many of their arrangements. Toward the end of “Long Distance Runaround,” the strings do reappear and work into the song, adding some ascending, almost “Lady Madonna”-esque lines to complement the guitar line.
Eight years after it was first released, “Don’t Go” still gets my vote for one of the worst Yes songs ever, a frankly rather sad attempt at writing a pop single by a band that was never good at writing pop singles in the first place, and certainly wasn’t good at them in their late 50s. It’s ironic, too, to hear Jon Anderson sing pleadingly “We were supposed to be friends forever / Don’t go” while fronting a band well-known for its fractious internal politics and nearly constant entrances and exits of personnel…
A big plus here is the opportunity to hear some non-Wakeman material, which rarely gets played when he is with the band. A bigger plus is that when they do, the band and the orchestra finally click, and the results are nothing short of astonishing. The performance of “The Gates Of Delirium” from 1974’s Relayer album is indeed almost too magnificent for words; hearing the big bassoons and French horns drilling out the opening fanfare over the top of Howe and Squire is awe-inspiring. If you’ve known and loved this song for as long as I have, it gives you chills to hear it like this, with the full measure of grandeur the composition itself always contained; it literally feels like the definitive way this song was meant to be played. At the finish, the crowd goes righteously nuts.
Steve Howe’s solo is Steve Howe’s solo; technically brilliant and utterly superfluous. But what would Yes be without ego? The second disc opens with a solid version of “Starship Trooper” featuring no orchestra, but an extended “Wurm” jam where Brislin again holds his own dueling with Howe (“take that, old man!”). “Magnification” is inoffensive and inessential, unlike the entirely essential “And You And I,” whose core of sweet melodicism is only accentuated by the fullness of sound provided by the orchestra.
The epic “Ritual” sums up the pros and the cons of the infamous Tales From Topographic Oceans album from which it is taken; parts of the song are brilliant and cool, but it’s just too long and doesn’t hold together the way CTTE or “Gates” do (...and it was the best of the four tracks on Topographic…). To compound the issue, they use the percussive late section of “Ritual” as the stepping-off point for Squire and White’s solo spotlights, ballooning the track from a bloated 22 to a patience-trying 28 minutes in length. It’s skillfully performed, with terrific musicianship – it’s just not nearly cohesive enough to sustain its girth.
For what seem like obvious reasons, the band regroups from there to play three of their most recognizable and (in relative terms) radio-friendly tunes, “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Roundabout,” all with minimal or no orchestral backing.
I’ve read plenty of gripes from Yes fans complaining that the band tends to play the same songs over and over again live, and “I’ve Seen All Good People” has often been one of the ones they complain about. Listening this time, it occurs to me that the problem is this -- it just sounds like a really fun song to play. It’s got two distinct sections, the first part’s very pretty and serious, the second part’s very bouncy and goofy, Steve Howe plays both acoustic and electric, the bassline is completely infectious, and Squire and Anderson are singing these great tandem harmonies. Never mind the fact that it’s one of the few Yes songs that still gets played on the radio; who wouldn’t want to play this song every night?
It’s quite the curiosity to hear Steve Howe playing on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” He’s repeatedly turned up his nose at playing any of Trevor Rabin’s 80s Yes material; when Billy Sherwood was in the band in the late 90s, he would always play lead on “Owner” and “Rhythm Of Love” because Howe wanted nothing to do with either song (or at least that was his loud-and-clear body language on stage). And now, here’s the band without Sherwood, with Anderson, Squire and White clearly having outvoted Howe and demanded to play their biggest hit. Howe acquits himself respectably, as always, though he doesn’t play like Rabin or even try to, and the ultimate irony is that for all its arena-rock wankishness, “Owner” is a hundred times better song than anything ever produced by Howe’s 80s band Asia.
“Roundabout” is where Tom Brislin makes you question once and for all why the band didn’t bring him on board as a full member. The song in its original form has three stars: Howe’s guitar, Squire’s bounding bassline and Wakeman’s amazing organ runs. It takes a hell of a player to stand in for Wakeman on this cut, and Brislin absolutely nails it. His solo three minutes in the song takes Wakey’s stunning original and adds his own flourishes, infusing it with a rippling energy that helps drive the song all the way through to a powerful close.
While hardly flawless, this package would be well worth whatever it’s retailing for solely for the version of “The Gates Of Delirium” found here. As a whole, Symphonic Live is in fact the strongest Yes release since Keys To Ascension 2 in 1997, which was their strongest since Going For The One in 1977. That’s good company to be in.