Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Yes Chronicles, Part 21. The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection (2003).

"We started doing an acoustic idea that we'd talked about for a couple of years and never got around to. We realized an acoustic set, playing songs we hadn't played for a long long time, gave them a new lease on life."
-- Jon Anderson,

"We just did about a week's worth of recordings after we finished our touring cycle last year. We were in L.A. and we were doing a special show for the radio. We spent the week before recording some acoustic versions of well-known Yes songs like 'Roundabout.' 'South Side of The Sky' being another. We did a couple of new things to add a bit more interest for the listener." 
-- Chris Squire, Classic Rock Revisited

The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection
Rhino 2003
Rating: *** 1/2
Best song: South Side of the Sky
Produced by Yes
Engineers: Patrick MacDougall, Dave Dysart, Kam Dahlin
Mixed by Tim Weidner
"Australia" produced and engineered by Steve Howe, assisted by Oliver Wakeman
Cover by Roger Dean

Jon Anderson: vocals, acoustic guitar
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Rick Wakeman: keyboards
Alan White: percussion

Studio tracks (standout tracks in bold):
Roundabout (Acoustic)
Show Me
South Side of the Sky (Acoustic):
a. South Side of the Sky
b. South Side Variations
Australia (Solo Acoustic)
New World Symphony

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My original batch of Yes reviews ended with the 2001 Magnification album. But my love of this band never diminished in the intervening years, and their story didn’t end with that excellent record. Rick Wakeman returned following Magnification for yet another stint, giving the band a full-time presence once again in the keyboard slot. (Hired gun Tom Brislin had manned the keys onstage for the band’s Magnification tour.) And for the band’s 35th anniversary in 2003, Rhino Records put out a career-spanning compilation called The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection.

Save for some new mixes and edits, the compilation consisted of songs the fans had heard before. Every studio album was represented across two CDs, save for the eponymous 1969 debut and the two Keys to Ascension albums.

But American fans got a bonus third CD that included a handful of new recordings. They’re a reflection of the “unplugged” sound Yes was toying with onstage at the time, and the results here are mostly enjoyable. In about 20 minutes of new music, we get stripped-down and reimagined versions of two Yes favorites, a new track from Anderson that he’d been playing with the band in concert, a Steve Howe remake of one of his own solo-album tunes, and a beautiful bass interpretation of a classical piece from the great Chris Squire.

First up is a four-minute take on “Roundabout,” done in a surprising blues-shuffle style. Alan White pins down the swinging triplet-based groove with some bright and lively playing, but Wakeman is the real star here. His tasty piano licks dominate the performance and really pump new life into an old warhorse of a song. The highlight of his work is the piano solo that takes the place of his joyful Hammond organ outburst on the original version. Anderson, whooping it up between verses and during the instrumental sections, also sounds as if he he’s relaxed and brimming with enthusiasm.

Squire, of course, makes his presence known, but in a different way from usual. In the videos I’ve seen of similar unplugged “Roundabout” performances, he’s playing a four-string acoustic bass guitar. That’s probably the case here as well, as his performance lacks the thunderous bite of the Rickenbacker. It’s still good, just not what you’d normally expect.

You might be thrown off a bit at the beginning, as the intro skips over the iconic backwards piano chords and the acoustic-guitar harmonics. Instead, it starts with Howe’s descending line that moves directly into the full band section, similar to how the band often played it onstage in the ’70s. And this version wraps up with a section pinned down by the “swirling wind” riff that appears in the midsection of the studio version.

Some of Howe’s work, unfortunately, comes off sounding stiff and slow and lacking in vibrancy. At times he’s picking through his parts note by note with an exaggerated articulation, as if he’s a student learning from a piece of sheet music. The way he flicks through the harmonics when he plays the regular version of this song in concert, rather than letting them ring out as he did on the studio version, has long made me suspect that he’s just sick of this song and can’t be bothered to put any heart or feel into it anymore. It’s a shame the song has to suffer as a result, even though it does remain otherwise enjoyable.   

Overall, it’s a fresh, inventive arrangement that hits the right spots.

Next up is “Show Me,” the new Anderson tune. The arrangement vaguely calls to mind “Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence),” but with a much more somber mood. In a moderate 3/4 meter, Anderson gets things started on acoustic guitar. Squire follows shortly afterward with what sounds like a fretless bass, a rarity for him. It was nice to hear him take some new chances on these recordings. White adds some subtle percussive touches, and we don’t hear Howe until he comes in on mandolin during the bridge.

Lyrically, Anderson uses contrasts to illustrate how we can always find the opposite of whatever it is we’re seeking, yet we always retain the choice to take the brighter path. Show me something bad, and I can show you something good, and vice versa. All we have to do is be good to ourselves and remember not to shut the love out during dark times, when we need it the most. If we can do that, then we have all we need.

I’ve heard Anderson say his lyrics were reflective of the Iraq War that was going on at the time, and that can certainly be seen in certain lines. For example: “Show me the children who remember their own father now / Show me the children who just don’t sleep anymore.” The kids left behind think of their dad and miss him, so much so that it keeps them up at night. And they’re not alone in their pain: “I would show you a man who is lost and afraid.” The dad, thousands of miles away, just wants to be back home, where he knows he can find safety and love.

Our third track is another one from Fragile: “South Side of the Sky.” And again, Wakeman is the star. He opens the piece on piano, and after the band works through the first three verses, he takes over again, sounding at first as if he’s going to move into the piano solo and middle section as heard on the studio version. Instead, he spends a few minutes exploring some new variations, returning at times to the song’s melody to pin things down and keep them from straying off course. No aimless noodling here. In fact, Wakeman successfully paints a musical picture that captures the mysterious air of the original. By the time he closes things out, you’re left with a feeling of floating through the icy winds Anderson speaks of in the lyrics and rising up into the great beyond.

Howe’s Dobro work on this piece is tasteful and strikes the perfect mood. To my knowledge, this recording marks the only time he’s used a resonator guitar on a Yes recording. With his affinity for American country music, I’m surprised he hadn’t pulled one out before this. But it’s a nice complement to everything else going on in this track. Rounding things out are White on bongos and some other varied percussion instruments, and strong harmony vocals as always from Squire. Well done all around.

Next up is more from Howe. Here he takes out his acoustic guitar and reimagines the song “Australia” from his 1975 solo album Beginnings. The original piece had a full band arrangement, driven by Howe’s acoustic work and punctuated later on by an electric solo that’s, well, not among his best. Squawky, disjointed, unmelodic, and really just kind of ugly. The reimagining of his track here is slower, gentler, more meditative. No electrification; just solo acoustic guitar all the way through. And, mercifully, no singing: Howe’s vocals on the original are not easy on the ears. In places it actually bears very little resemblance to the original, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This take feels more like a cross between “Mood for a Day” and the acoustic bits in “The Ancient.”

And finally, we wrap up with Squire’s “New World Symphony,” taken from the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. This same melody was adapted many years ago into a spiritual tune called “Going Home,” and I can’t help wondering if that’s what influenced Squire to cover this piece, given his affinity for playing “Amazing Grace” onstage. 

In fact, his treatment of the Dvořák tune is similar to the way he played “Amazing Grace” in concert. It starts with the same slow, elegiac feel, not at all fast or fancy, but taking its time to linger over the emotion in each note as they build on one another. Some well-placed feedback leads us into the second half of the Dvořák piece, where the melody is repeated, but in a more emphatic manner. Suddenly, the musical atmosphere has become fuzzed out and double-tracked, adding a rumbling majesty in a way only Chris Squire could do. The powerful drama of the performance leads things to an emotional climax, creating an atmosphere that’s equally spiritually uplifting and awe-inspiring. And then the last ringing notes fade away, and our album is complete.

Squire would die 12 years after this recording was made. His passing makes the emotion contained in this piece all the more bittersweet. It takes on an even greater poignancy if you imagine the verses of "Going Home" being sung over his signature growling bass lines:

Quiet light, some still day
I'm just going home

It's not far, just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more

Mother's there expecting me
Father's waiting, too
Lots of folk gathered there
All the friends I knew  

Nothing's lost, all's gain
No more fear or pain
No more stumbling on the way
No more longing for the day
Going to roam no more

Morning star lights the way
Restless dreams all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life has begun

There's no break, there's no end
Just a living on
Wide awake with a smile
Going on and on

Going home, going home
I'm just going home
It's not far, just close by
Through an open door

I am going home
I'm just going home
Going home, going home

Going home, going home
Going home.

Chris Squire’s death left behind a gaping hole in the band. As heartfelt pieces like this one remind us, he was the soul of Yes, every bit as much as Jon Anderson was its heart. Yes carries on today without either of its founding members, and their absence is sorely felt. In fact, these recordings were the last ones Anderson would ever make with Yes. He would fall ill in the years to come, and the rest of the band chose to carry on without him. That’s where the next chapter in the Yes story will pick up.

Farewell, Chris Squire. You don’t know how sorely you’re missed.
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