THESE ARE STRANGE times. Last week, three hippie pensioners called Crosby Stills & Nash performed at Henderson’s Trusts Stadium, and this week, one of the premiere ‘70s progressive rock bands, Yes, replete with a Jon Anderson imposter straight out of a Yes tribute band, did their thing to “half of Vector arena”; in other words, sections of the seating were draped and off-limits in accordance with the crowd numbers being rather smaller than those commanded a few weeks before in the same venue by Taylor Swift.
Still, it was a sizeable and appreciative audience for a group that never made it down to these parts in the heyday of progressive rock, and it demonstrated that – despite the erroneous vilification of the genre that came with the punk era and lingered on here years after it dissipated everywhere else – there are still ardent followers of the genre down here in New Zild.
Crosby Stills & Nash are a few years older than Yes, but unfortunately, the years have been less kind to them, and those dulcet three-part harmonies were frequently off-key or simply failing to fly. (Their concert did, however, have its moments. See my review of that over at Granny Herald, here.) One of the several astonishing things about Yes – a band I had never considered for their harmony vocalising – is that their three-part harmonies were utterly brilliant. But then, almost everything they played or sang carried the signature of virtuosic and highly disciplined musicianship.
So, here we are at “half a Vector”. It’s 8pm, and there’s an orchestral fanfare building to crescendo before the band take the stage. (As with other Stetson Productions concerts, it seems support acts are surplus to requirements.) A projection above the band deftly mixes live performance action with psychedelic swirly colours, and adds considerably to the set-up; the frequent use of super-bright audience spotlights don’t.
The group begins with a 20-minute epic from one of their classic early albums (The Yes Album) and it’s captivating. I’ve tried to get into Yes over the years and never quite broken through the veneer, but on ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’, everything I love about progressive rock is in place: indescribable twists and turns and cool riffage and complex interweaving and a huge dynamic range and the inevitable roaring climax. This really is a rock orchestra in action, and all those pathetic pop groups that employ symphony orchestras to saw mindlessly through their ditties could learn a thing or two from Yes, who genuinely play “classical rock”.
On record, in my experience, too often Yes sound too nice. My favourite progressive rock bands are the ones with a very dark streak running through them: groups like King Crimson, ELP and Gentle Giant. Yes and Genesis, on the other hand, generally avoid the dissonance, the splenetic rupturing, the gothic horror element produced by those ungodly minor chords.
Having said that, in performance, the attraction of Yes was in full force. They came across as considerably more muscular than on record, with Chris Squire’s bass really scraping the depths, and Steve Howe’s guitar work simply godlike. Howe continued to wow the audience throughout the two-hour-plus set, including a sit-down solo acoustic interlude, and a seemingly endless volley of incredible notes during the course of the evening. Sometimes you could still hear the young guitarist who manned psychedelic groups Tomorrow in the late ‘60s, and there were echoes of Hendrix in some of the wah-wah sounds. Most of all, he came across with all the nimbleness and astounding ability of latter-day Jeff Beck, another guitarist who is at his best in his 60s.
This is a band whose essence was defined by the fragile high voice of Jon Anderson, whose lyrics sailed perilously close to New Age hogwash, but have to be commended for showing an ecological bent back when few knew what that meant. (At one point, to be a member of Yes you had to be a card-carrying vegetarian. Going by the portly disposition of bassist Chris Squire, I think that’s probably not a prerequisite anymore).
The really strange thing about Yes in 2012 is Jon Davison, whose first-ever gig with the band this is. He’s a young Californian who is dressed like a 1970s hippie, and sings just like Jon Anderson. Really. Visually, it’s strange: one young guy surrounded by grey-haired gents. Musically, it works, although you can sense Davison’s reticence on some songs to take the lead role.
The only real disappointment is Geoff Downes, who despite being surrounded on three sides by various keyboards (with his back turned to the audience) fails to ignite any synth or organ wonder in the manner of Rick Wakeman. Downes, it has to be noted, is a former member of Buggles and a relic from the 1980s version of Yes, the one that scored big with an untypical and still horrid hit single, ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’. At one point the group perform this atrocity, and it’s just as bad as it ever was, locked in its era and constrained by pointlessly robotic beats. (Interestingly, the group’s latest album is produced by Trevor Horn, the other Buggles member).
It’s a rare lapse. There are a few recent songs that don’t really go anywhere, or gel particularly well, and these include a too-long epic from their most recent album. It would be unkind to say that there wasn’t the odd moment of fabulous grandeur here, but it was as if, having written such a strong imprint in the ‘70s, they couldn’t quite find one that works for them all these years later. And frankly, I’m not surprised.
Overall, however, Yes at “half a Vector” simply scorched. Musical virtuosity is commonly derided as somehow being too clever-clever. I reckon people have come to dislike virtuosity because the attitude that music should be easy to play has taken root in NZ. And I reckon that’s to our detriment. Pretty amazing. GARY STEEL
* The original review fell victim of a vicious hack attack on the Witchdoctor attack that effectively deleted this, and hundreds of my other live and album reviews. Here are a few of the comments that the original review attracted in the comments section, including those by Geoff Downes and Yes fanboys:
“Another useless review!! Just like your Crosby Stills & Nash hatchet job in the Herald. Factually inaccurate and unable to seperate your prejudices from the music in front of you.
Stick to your useless advertorials for Stereo gear Gary, the bob a job world of hack writing is all your suited to!!” – Bruce
“The reviewer also mistakenly pointed out that John Davison sounds exactly like Jon Anderson when if you listen, John Davison sounds very much like Trevor Horn and does an excellent job at sounding like Benoit David. But, on the YES material J.D’s note searching was more misses than hits and for his own vocal health may want to return to Glass Hammer asap.” – Nick
“What I look for in a review is informed, intelligent comment on an event, not someone propping up his ego by having a hack at someone infinitely more talented than himself.
Dude, what is your problem? Are you slagging Yes for not being like Taylor Swift? Are you slagging Geoff for being in the Buggles? What is the point of that?
Yes kicked ass on Sunday and Geoff did a fine job. It was so good to have the world’s primo prog band here in NZ at last.
Yes has been going strong, entertaining millions of people for 40 years despite vagaries of music fashion and belligerent reviewers. That’s more than most bands can claim. The music of Yes will still be enriching our lives long after the currently fashionable pop bands have vanished.
You didn’t have to buy a copy of 90125 to find out that Tony Kaye was on keyboards, not Geoff. Wikipedia is a handy resource for getting your facts straight before writing.
Your review tells us more about you than about the concert.” – Jim
“This is an excellent review and is heartening news for the Sydney concert. Having seen Drama in London in 1980, I’d say it’s a fair review as well. Particularly good news re Jon Davison’s vocals.” – Rubylou
“Saw Yes last November and Geoff was amazing and brought the gig alive. Totally agree re comments about the reviewer needing to get his facts straight! Really irritating review!” – Jon Glos
“Bitter? Chainsaw? Facts wrong? I think it’s a great review. There is one minor mistake and all you “Comic Book Guy” types are choking on your Milo!!!!??? A Google search finds Geoff was in Yes in 1980/81 and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was released in 1983 – both happened in the ’80’s and the review doesn’t actually STATE that Geoff was IN THE BAND when “Owner…” was RELEASED, just that he’s a relic of the same Yes that was around in the ’80’s and released that song. Nothing really to get your pubes in a twist……..” – Leon
“I agree with Geoff in saying that when people are hired to review a concert, all of the data should be correct. I am not a big ‘Owner’ fan, but it was a massive hit all over the world. Would Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, The Foo Fighters even, not play their massive hit song regardless of the musical merit (or lack of it) – it’s also a matter of musical perspective (think Abba – great musicians, songs which are catchy but well written, even though they are not my own personal cup of tea). I love Wakeman’s virtuosity, but Geoff is a craftsman of superb parts and arrangements, and hardly ever puts a foot wrong (check out his work in Asia – who I hope will visit us in NZ sooner rather than later).” – Steve Hubbard
“Looks like this music reviewer is like a weatherman. He can get his facts wrong and still get a paycheck. He’s definitively not a brain surgeon, thank God.” – Seamus McNasty
“Sorry Geoff, Have to agree with the reviewer.
In my opinion you did seem a bit lethargic behind the keyboards at the concert at Vector Arena. I would also have preferred it if you faced the audience. Perhaps a bit of jet lag flying all the way to NZ.
Agree with your comments re: factual inaccuracies of review. Would be great to see you and “Yes” perform “Machine Messiah”. – Keg
“Mr. Reviewer, you rank right up there with Comic Book Guy.” – Your Worst Nightmare