The Heart Spoken Khatru

[Warning: set list spoilers ahead for the Yes “Album Tour”]

I had admittedly mild expectations for the Yes show in Atlantic City last night, between the revised band lineup retaining only Steve Howe as an original “core member” and the emphasis on playing two albums providing something of a rigid format. After taking in a run of Phish shows, I was looking forward to being in the younger part of the audience for once (including the option to sit through most of the show), but that’s hardly a good motivator for taking in a good show.

I was really, really wrong, and never have I been so glad to be so wrong.

If you are anything of a Yes fan, and spun your copy of “Yessongs” until the dynamic range on the grooves wore down, then go see one of these shows. Geoff Downes brings energy and some practicality to the keys (he’s not Wakeman, nobody is, so instead of muddling through he attacks the pieces where he can add his own unique color); Billy Sherwood has a big, swirly tone that will make you think Squire but again, he doesn’t try to fill in for the much-missed bassist. Jon Davison sounds scarily like Anderson, enough that your heart also skips that missing eighth note in the 15/8 sections. While I had feared I’d see Steve Howe fronting a tribute band that was trying hard to recreate Yes of the 1970s, what I got was a genuine Yes experience of the mid-2010s. And it was awesome.

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And speaking of Steve Howe: He had more fun on stage than in the twenty years I’ve been seeing Yes. Modulo the requisite peccadilloes that seem to annoy him during every show (a spotlight that missed the beginning of his solo, causing him to wave frantically, a mic that cut out during his introduction to a song, his guitar cable that seemed to keep catching on his shirt), he was jumping around, unleashing solo after solo that were true explorations of the pieces, and he even smiled. I was rapt and in awe and happier than I’ve been since pulling the plastic off of the copy of “Yessongs” I bought at Two Guys in Manalapan (for $11).

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t check out the setlist before hand; I wanted to be surprised by the “and other songs”. I’ve loved Drama for 35 years, and Tales grew on me as I listened to it in pieces (turning point: putting on the “Keys to Ascension” CD in the W hotel, in San Francisco, during one of the first JavaOne conferences; it seemed pretentious to have a CD player in my hotel room, so I put on something worthy of the artifact and really heard the intricate parts). Deep down, though, I have a few favorites, staples of my Yes experience and my gold standards for judging any audio system.

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Once again, the band didn’t disappoint. After a solid “Your Move/All Good People” (first time I’ve seen that one live!) Steve Howe strapped on a gorgeous walnut ES-335 and ripped into the opening chords of “Siberian Khatru”. Dean Budnick, editor of “Relix” magazine, posed the question in a recent masthead editorial asking “What was the album that did it for you?” For me, it was listening to WYSP, one summer night on Long Beach Island, as they tracked all of “Close to the Edge.” I’d only heard the live version on Yessongs, and hearing the perfectly executed studio version, concluding the best prog album of all time, send chills up my spine that obviated the need for air conditioning. Howe’s solo at the end of “Khatru” is one of the few places he can really interpret the song, take some liberties, mix chords with dazzling runs. A favorite music teacher once described a woodwind passage as “angels singing over the top of the orchestra” (in a pandering attempt to get us to stop butchering that passage), and in the pseudo-religious paen of “Khatru” (seriously: khatru is a made up word, and the song is full of oblique Christ imagery) Howe’s solo just sails over the top of a rather intense closing section. It is, was and always will be my most favorite song, and hearing it — in the moment, never to be played just like that again — was its own religious experience.

My comment to Bubba: This is as good as Rosh Hashanah for renewal and refresh.

In between tracks of “Tales” once again Steve Howe came out with a bench, an acoustic, and a smile. I was thinking “Mood for a Day” or perhaps “Clap” but what we got was the moving guitar solo from “The Ancient”, arranged the same way it’s on “Not Necessarily Acoustic”. Another experience thought I’d never hear live, and alone worth the price of admission. Despite Howe’s admonitions that he doesn’t see the point of playing “Roundabout” every show, it’s a moving encore and brought the crowd to its feet. Had the show ended then and there, I would have been sated, elated and (per Khatru-ism) expiated.

Until the swirling, head-rushing, all hands on all keyboards and frets and sticks opening of “Starship Trooper.” Not only is it the other bookend to “Yessongs” and concludes with another guitar solo with headroom to explore, it has some bass pedal work that is the standard for judging subwoofers. It’s the perfect vehicle for a band that’s been nearly perfect in its performance, its musicianship, and it’s ability to breathe life into their canon for nearly half a century. The vocal chord that concludes “Starship Trooper” was perfectly reflective: new voices, old voices, one band that continues to reveal the heart spoken khatru, not just for me but for another generation of fans.

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