Another True Summer: A Yessay

“Let’s stand there.” Yes in Baltimore, June 22, 2019: (from left) Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Jay Schellen, Alan White, Jon Davison, and Billy Sherwood. (Photo © Matthew Algeo)

Yes pulled into Baltimore Saturday night for the eighth date on their U.S. summer tour, accompanied this year by Carl Palmer’s band (including, on vocals, Arthur Brown, the excessively eccentric Brit of “Fire” fame), Moody Blues bassist John Lodge, and the latest iteration of the ’80s prog supergroup Asia (now fronted by an engaging and talented singer-guitarist named Bumblefoot).

I’ve been a Yes fan since the Christmas of 1981, when I was fifteen and my older sister bought me a copy of the “Classic Yes” LP. It was not a propitious time to be indoctrinated into the cult of progressive rock. Yes had broken up earlier that year, and prog rock as a genre had become about as fashionable as smallpox. But my devotion was rewarded two years later, when Yes re-formed and, in the winter of 1983–84 (my senior year of high school), unexpectedly topped the charts with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the first single off their new album “90125” (named for its record company catalogue number).

If you’re a Yes fan, you’re already familiar with the parade of personnel (and personalities) who have performed under the Yes moniker: four lead singers, two bassists, three guitarists, two (or three or four) drummers, and a Spinal Tap-worthy seven (or eight) keyboard players. The “List of Yes Band Members” Wikipedia page enumerates twenty-five different lineups since the band’s founding in 1968, and that doesn’t count various offshoots (e.g., Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and ARW).

Steve Howe (left) and Geoff Downes (Photo © Matthew Algeo)

If you’re not a Yes fan, this revolving door of musical talent is neither interesting nor entertaining. It’s like trying to keep up with the roster of a second-division side in the Bosnian football league: If you’re not from Banja Luka, what’s the point? In fact, the Balkan example is apt: Yes fans are divided into factions constantly bickering over the band’s catechism: Who was the superior drummer, Bill Bruford or Alan White? Or guitarist, Steve Howe or Trevor Rabin?

But the existential question Yes fans constantly debate at considerable length and in tendentious detail on internet forums is this: Notwithstanding legal considerations, can (or should) a band that calls itself Yes rightfully be considered Yes if its lineup does not include the band’s original lead singer and principal lyricist Jon Anderson? Anderson and his bandmates had a falling out around 2004, the precise circumstances of which are likewise debated, not always courteously, online. (For a band whose very name expresses positivity, Yes’s fans like to complain.)

Yes resumed touring in 2008 with a Jon Anderson soundalike (Benoit David). In 2012, David was replaced by another high-pitched vocalist, Jon Davison. In 2015, bassist Chris Squire, who’d co-founded the band with Anderson and was the only band member to appear on every album, died of leukemia at age 67.

Which brings us to Baltimore, where the version of Yes that performed on June 22nd included only two longtime members, Steve Howe (72, guitar) and Alan White (70, drums)—and White’s duties were limited due to ongoing health problems. Filling out the lineup were Davison, Geoff Downes (keyboards), Jay Schellen (drums), and Billy Sherwood (bass). While they might be considered young blood, the youngest of the non-legacy members, Davison, is 48. That’s how old Jon Anderson was in 1992, when Yes were already long past their prime.

Critics of this iteration of Yes — fans who refuse to recognize a Yes without Jon Anderson as legitimate — dismiss it as a “cover band,” but there was no mistaking the atmosphere at 8:45 p.m., when the house lights went down inside the MECU (formerly Pier Six) Pavilion, a summer concert shed on the Inner Harbor. The strains of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” — Yes’s walk-on music since 1971 — began to swell as a dry-ice fog covered the stage. The band’s iconic bubbly logo appeared on a giant video screen behind the stage. And then they emerged from the shadows between the keyboard and drum risers at the back of the stage, Steve Howe leading the way. Row upon row of (mostly) oversized, (mostly) middle-aged, (mostly) white guys (including me) rose to their feet and greeted the band with rapturous applause.

For the next hour and forty-five minutes the band played a mix of Yessified cover songs (Ritchie Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary,” Paul Simon’s “America,” John Lennon’s “Imagine”), a few deep cuts (“Onward,” “Tempus Fugit” ) and a healthy dose of hits (including, unexpectedly, “Rhythm of Love,” a Top-40 hit in 1987, when Howe wasn’t in the band).

At stage right, Howe is the undisputed leader of this ensemble, and he keeps a tight rein on the proceedings, delivering instructions to his bandmates with little more than a nod or a glare. He is not a charismatic presence on stage. Gaunt, balding, bespectacled, and gap-toothed, his countenance has drawn uncharitable comparisons to that of Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.” But he runs a tight ship, and as the evening progresses, his wrath is felt by the spotlight operator and his beleaguered guitar tech, André Cholmondeley. Even the audience is not spared. At one point between songs he admonishes us to stop taking so many pictures with our smartphones and instead “live in the moment.”

Steve Howe (Photo © Matthew Algeo)

The final song before the perfunctory encore was “The Gates of Delirium,” a side-long epic from the 1974 LP “Relayer” that Yes hasn’t performed since 2001. I’d splurged for a front-row seat — paid a lot for it, in fact — but as I watched Steve Howe coax those first beautiful and haunting notes out of his Fender pedal steel guitar at the beginning of “Soon,” the song’s climactic passage, I realized that it was worth every penny.

Did it sound like the scintillating live version of “Gates” recorded at Cobo Hall in that bicentennial summer of ’76 (and later released on the live LP “Yesshows”)? No, it did not. And it shouldn’t. It’s not 1976. Gerald Ford isn’t president, gas isn’t 49.9 cents a gallon, and “Saturday Night Live” isn’t cutting-edge humor anymore. I’m reminded how Harry Truman could not abide his wife Bess being called “dowdy” or “frumpy” in her old age. “She looks just as a woman her age ought to look,” he’d say. Steve Howe’s right when he talks about living in the moment. Yes fans should appreciate the band for what it is, not dwell on what it was or what it isn’t.

When I first got into Yes, I was a teenager, and I identified closely with Jon Anderson, the hippy-dippy cosmic prophet who informed me, without any evidence whatsoever, that a seasoned witch could call me from the depths of my disgrace and rearrange my liver to the solid mental grace. I had no idea what he was talking about — nobody did, it was pure gobbledygook — but his words seemed to offer some profound insight into the meaning of life and in a way comforted me as I progressed awkwardly and ill-prepared from adolescence into adulthood.

Nearly forty years later, I have come to realize that a seasoned witch won’t do shit for me, and I guess I now identify more closely with Steve Howe, a grumpy septuagenarian annoyed by modern life. He longs for the bygone days when audiences sat on their hands in rapt attention instead of texting their wives their ETAs on their smartphones.

But man he can still play the licks in “Siberian Khatru.”

After the final number (“Roundabout,” of course), the six members of the 2019 incarnation of Yes lined up for their final bows of the evening. Bathed in more rapturous applause, they stood shoulder to shoulder about eight feet back from the front of the stage. That was too far back, at least as far as Steve Howe was concerned. He pointed to a spot about four feet farther up and his bandmates dutifully followed him forward. Only then did they take their final bows.

© 2020 by Matthew Algeo

Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.com.

Husband, father, writer. I have a degree in folklore! Unlicensed historian. Known to dabble in public radio. https://www.buymeacoffee.com/malgeo