Monday, August 13, 2012

Concert Review: Yes at Snoqualmie Casino, Aug. 12, 2012

Roundabout sign near the entrance to Snoqualmie Casino. How fitting for this night!
If I had to choose a Facebook relationship status with Yes, it would most certainly be "It's Complicated." This has been my favorite band for nearly 30 years, and they were my gateway drug into progressive rock. Their songs awakened me to what was musically possible to do in a rock-and-roll context. Chris Squire made me fall in love with the bass guitar, Bill Bruford awed me when I was a young drummer, and Jon Anderson's mongrel spirituality opened my mind to possibilities beyond the religion I was raised in. They were a huge part of my life when I was growing up, and they had a hand in shaping the person I am today.

But then the band moved on without Anderson several years ago. Yes had been inactive for quite a while, in part because Anderson had a different vision for what he wanted to do with the band than the other members. When he fell gravely ill, the band took the opportunity to hire a singer from a Yes tribute act and got Yes back on the road. Crass? You betcha. But Yes has always been notorious for ruthless personnel changes, with the belief that the music came above all else, and if one guy wasn't pulling his weight, they'd just go off and audition someone else.

So Yes went out on the road and eventually cut an album with Benoit David, a French Canadian guy who actually even looked a little like Jon Anderson. But covering Jon Anderson's vocal parts is no easy task, and it was obvious after a while that Benoit had to sing right at the outer edge of his range to mimic Anderson's soaring countertenor parts. At times he was a vocal dead ringer for Jon, but he paid the price for it. As the touring ground on and on, the embarrassing YouTube clips came rolling in with evidence of how Benoit's voice was cracking from the strain.

The band's solution? During a lull between tours, Yes went out and hired another tribute-band singer -- and Benoit says he first heard about the change on the Internet, not from anyone in the band. Classy. Anyway, the new guy is named Jon Davison, and from what I'd seen online, he slipped into the Jon Anderson role with ease.

So when Yes came around again, I decided to go and give them another try. After all, Chris Squire is still one of my favorite living musicians, probably only behind David Gilmour. And I wanted to give this Davison guy a fair shake, especially after what he had to say about one of Yes' most regal pieces of music, "Awaken," on the website for Glass Hammer, another prog band he sings with. So sayeth Mr. Davison:
I recall being a teenager and gazing out my bedroom window at the long stretch of canyon below our house and toward the sunset over the ocean while listening to "Awaken" by Yes. I would daily listen to that majestic and inspired epic several times in a row, longing for a spiritual connection of some kind. When a song like that can move and uplift you to a transcendental state, you know you've witnessed one of life's artistic gems.  

Jon D. seems like an interesting guy. He was childhood best friends with the Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins, and he eventually moved up here to study at the Art Institute of Seattle, before he ended up playing bass with a local band called Sky Cries Mary. (Current drummer Alan White has ties to Seattle, too -- he lives here, somewhere out around Bellevue.) Not long before he got the Yes gig, he tried out as the bass player for the Queen Extravaganza show. He's also singing with Glass Hammer (apropos of nothing, wouldn't a glass hammer be about the most useless tool you could ever own?). And I also happen to be Facebook friends with a guy who was in Roundabout, the Yes tribute band, with him. So hey, cool! I know someone who knows the guy who sings in Yes.

So anyway, the show starts, and Jon Davison seems perfectly relaxed as the singer of Yes. He's not straining to hit the notes, and his love for the music shines through. But the funny thing is, he really doesn't sound like Jon Anderson at all. He can sing in the same range, but his voice has a lighter touch than Anderson's did. Which is not a bad thing, really. Unlike Benoit David before him, he doesn't seem to be trying to mimic Anderson. He's letting himself be his own person onstage, giving the songs what they need from a technical standpoint but also adding his own little vocal flourishes here and there. I like that. Jon Anderson has recovered from his illness, but I've since seen him at a solo show in Seattle, and his voice is raspy enough that I'm not sure it would hold up to the rigors of a full-blown, amplified rock tour -- so if we can't have Anderson back, Jon Davison is the next best thing. No complaints on that front at all.

Chris Squire is still Chris Frickin' Squire, making his bass chug and growl and clang along at full speed, the way he always does. He's as much a rhythm guitarist as he is a bass player, and his sound has always been so integral to the Yes atmosphere, I just can't imagine it without his presence. He's still a superb backing vocalist as well, and he's the consummate showman, hamming it up with glee whenever his bass takes center stage in the music. I've been to probably a dozen Yes concerts over the years, and I never tire of seeing him strut and prowl around the stage when his bass groove kicks in during the long intro to "Heart of the Sunrise." Seeing him at the top of his game even in his mid-60s was worth the price of admission alone.

Alan White is too nice of a guy not to like. He's no Bill Bruford, but then no one is. He remains a solid, reliable timekeeper who knows how to rock out on the drums.

Now you know how I said my relationship with this band is complicated? That's where Geoff Downes and Steve Howe come in. Downes, half of the Buggles ("Video Killed the Radio Star") back in the day, and a founding member of Asia with Steve Howe, came onboard with Yes for the recording of their latest album, Fly From Here, after the band unceremoniously dumped keyboardist Oliver Wakeman, son of Yes legend Rick Wakeman. Downes had performed with Buggle-mate (and now famous producer) Trevor Horn on Yes' 1980 album Drama, so he had some history with the band. But when Yes hit the road with Downes and Benoit David, and fans took to cyberspace to complain both that Jon Anderson had been shafted and that the band sounded under-rehearsed for their first shows, Downes publicly tore into anyone critical of the band. And it wasn't even constructive feedback -- his comments were juvenile, retaliatory, and personal. The guy did a serviceable job on the keyboard parts he had to cover at the Snoqualmie show, but I still think he's a big jerk. I'm sure artists get tired of sniping, nit-picking fans, but you don't bite the hand that feeds you. You act like a professional and take the high road. And if someone says your playing isn't up to par, maybe you take that into consideration instead of lashing out at the critics.

Finally, Steve Howe. I admit, I've always liked Yes in spite of Steve Howe, not because of him. He's always come off as a self-righteous, joyless, pompous ass, and on this night he was in typical form, as he stepped to his mic to moan in the middle of the show about the venue's "toy PA" system. The thing is, I could probably overlook his unpleasantness if he could pull his weight in the band. For years, fans have complained that the tempos in live performances have been dragging, and at the Snoqualmie show, it was painfully obvious who the culprit was. Steve seemed to strain to hit every note that he squeezed out of his guitar, and he was audibly falling behind the rest of the band as he tried to pick his way through his leads. I realize the dude is 65 years old (though he doesn't look a day over 80 -- he seriously has to be the ugliest man in rock music), but if anyone else couldn't hack it musically in Yes, their days have always been numbered. Yet I don't see anyone trying to push this guy, the unholy love child of Skeletor and Gollum, out the door. I discovered Yes when Trevor Rabin was the guitarist, and I still miss him, even though I know he has zero interest in ever returning to Yes. He's making too much scratch writing and performing movie soundtracks. Too bad, because he can play rings around Steve Howe.

Amazingly, the band didn't play "Owner of a Lonely Heart," which is only their sole No. 1 song in their entire history. But perhaps it was for the best, since Steve always butchers the solo in that song anyway.

So my interest in Yes was piqued, but I can't see myself attending any more shows. Jon Davison is living a dream, and I wish him well. Chris Squire is still the god of the bass guitar, and Alan White is just good old Alan White. Good luck to them all, but I'm spending my money elsewhere next time.

Side note: Procol Harum was the opening act, and they sounded pretty sharp. I think Gary Brooker is the only remaining original member, as most of the rest of the band didn't look old enough to have been born when PH started off in the late '60s. Brooker said he had a cold, but you'd never have known it. His voice has aged beautifully. I only know four PH songs, and the band played two of them -- "A Salty Dog" and "Whiter Shade of Pale." No "Conquistador." Brooker teased us all with the opening line from the PH epic "In Held 'Twas In I," but then he said, "No, we can't play that one. It's 20 bloody minutes long!" And this is a problem how?! Anyway, quite an enjoyable hour of music.

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