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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.

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.


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.

“Fly From Here” Reviewed

Disclaimer: I’ve been a serious Yes fan since about 1976. The release of Relayer was a big part of my musical discovery, and I sit facing a lithograph of Roger Dean’s cover in my home office. They are, without a doubt, my favorite and most-listened to band over the forty years I’ve been listening to music. With that, I really wanted to completely love the new Yes release, Fly From Here, the first studio release in ten years.

I like it, which is the equivalent of “I like you as a friend” in music romance. It has some good moments, and deserves a few more rotations on the iPod. My major complaint is that it feels assembled – some keyboards, some guitar licks, some layered vocals – and not so much experienced as older Yes albums. On the other hand, it’s so much better than the last two things that passed for studio albums (Open Your Eyes and Magnification) that it’s comfortable. And there’s the trouble: I didn’t want comfortable. I wanted the jarring, what’s-that-sound effect of hearing “Sound Chaser” for the first time (having to look up “fruition” in the paper dictionary), the delight I get out of listening to Steve Howe’s guitar solos in various versions of “Yours Is No Disgrace” and even the contrasts of “Tales” (listen to “The Ancient” starting around 12:20 in for some of the best Howe guitar work in the context of Yes songwriting. Ever.) Those aural reactions don’t happen at first listen. The best comparison, on many levels, is to Drama – including Geoff Downes on keys and the production hand of Trevor Horn. I absolutely hated it when it was first released, and now I am privileged to have heard “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” live.

For now, I’ll take assembled, and remember that “change we must.”

Art Rocking The House

Chalk up another transitive closure to amazon.com’s suggestion engine. While hunting for Yes “Live at Montreaux” on CD, I was presented with the concert mash-up of the last Genesis jaunt across Europe, appropriately titled “Live Over Europe 2007.” I ended up throwing a nice Rick Wakeman compliation (“Sixty Minutes With…”) and Asia’s “Fantasia Live in Tokyo” into my cart. Tuesday provided the perfect chance to audition all of the recent arrivals, as I had a trip to and from Newark airport along with a reasonable ride to a youth hockey league meeting. I’m disappointed that the Asia concert assembly didn’t include Steve Howe performing Clap, but on “Live at Montreaux” not only do we get Clap but the condensed game version of To Be Over with Howe on acoustic guitar, no lap steel, no other-Magnification required. It’s a great rendition of one of my favorite Yes tunes (I can’t further qualify it as favorite on the “Relayer” album because there are only three tracks on the whole thing).

Surprise, surprise, though, was the live Genesis CD. I was a bit disappointed in the Phil Collins vocals — while they’re crystal clear and the enunciation is better than most live recordings, he seems to have lost a bit of his range. The In the Cage medley, drawing on “Lamb Lies Down”, the Slippermen section of Cinema Show and the tail out of Duke’s Travels is spectacular — I listened to it three times before even popping in disc two of the set. The segue to Afterglow is very smooth (thank goodness for gapless playback on the iPod, or I won’t be able to listen to this one), but best of all, Firth of Fifth shows up, in pieces, with some Hackett-like guitar work by Mike Rutherford or Daryl Stuermer. Only thing missing (besides Supper’s Ready): instrument credits per track, to go along with the location credits for each.

Asia in New York

That’s not Simon Phipps addressing an open source conference — rather it’s John Wetton, bass player and front man for Asia, the “original” supergroup of the mid-80s formed from the remainders of Yes, King Crimson, UK, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Buggles (unless you count them as part of Yes). Wetton is using a bullhorn to simulate the simulated radio voice introduction of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which was tucked into the show on behalf of keyboardist Geoff Downes.

My son and I caught the show at the Fillmore Plaza in New York’s Union Square, and by standing in line for about half an hour before the doors opened we claimed a spot directly in front of Steve Howe. The Buggles song always gives me a solid laugh, because there was palpable fear that MTV was going to destroy broadcast radio. A quarter century later, MTV has had a definite effect on how music is perceived, enjoyed and distributed, but it hasn’t replaced radio. It’s really just another channel for developing audiences, and in that regard, the parallel to open source communities and projects isn’t so far off base (you knew I was going somewhere taking Simon’s name in vain at the outset….)

More important to me is how a quarter century has passed and we still use music as the strong force in our nuclear families. My father introduced me to jazz as I was entering high school; Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker were on the turntable as we adjusted our FM radio antenna to pick up the jazz show that preceded Spider on WBLS. Jazz was the supplement to a steady diet of hard rock (KISS, Led Zeppelin, and some guy named Frampton). As my son is about the same age (Internet-time adjusted) as I was when discovering jazz, I’m making sure he gets the 70s progressive rock vitamins to go along with Linkin Park, the Fratellis, Godsmack and Wolfmother staples. He enjoys listening to, and is amazed by, Steve Howe as much as his father. Video didn’t kill that radio star because Howe and company weren’t on the radio very much, modulo the regular Roundabout spin on most rock stations. Communities — particularly very small ones involving family members and close friends — shape our tastes as much as mass media.

Renaissance Live At Carnegie Hall

I had a long drive from Westchester county back to New Jersey tonight, involving holiday shopping traffic around two major malls, a Hudson River crossing and a lot of toll booths. All made significantly easier with the re-issued Renaissance Live At Carnegie Hall.

I’m firmly convinced that Renaissance was primarily an East Coast, Philly to Boston, late baby boomer phenomenon. The best description I’ve heard of their music is “electric folk,” but sparse adjectives don’t do justice to Jon Camp’s amazing bass lines, or Annie Haslam’s vocals, or composition that draws on Russian literature and Persian folklore. Nearly 30 years after its release, I still get shivers when I hear Annie Haslam hit the final notes of “Scheherazade” or “Ashes are Burning.” Annie Haslam has an unheard-of five octave range. All the more amazing to me since I have about two octaves and one of them is consistently out of whatever key we’re in.

What happens when you take all-time favorite vocalist (Annie Haslam) and mix with all-time favorite guitar player (Steve Howe) on top-five all-time favorite Yes composition (Turn of the Century)? You can find out on Tales from Yesterday, a CD of Yes covers. It’s magic.

Keys To Ascension

Unable to sleep last night I popped in the DVD of Yes’ “Keys To Ascension,” a somewhat sloppily produced concert archive of their 1996 shows that brought keyboardist Rick Wakeman back to the group. My affinity for the 1996 CD sets of “Keys” and “Keys 2” (the other half of the concerts) are strong — I have been a Yes fan since I discovered rock music. One of my strongest memories of summers at the Jersey shore was putting on WYSP 94.1 FM in Philadelphia and hearing “Close To the Edge”, side one, tracked through late at night. I was hooked. The layers of the music, the amazing guitar work of Steve Howe, even the obscure yet ever-hopeful lyrics continuously gave me something new to listen to, to listen for, or to enjoy anew.

After college, marriage, and children, my CD player saw more of “The Best of Sesame Street” rather than Howe & company. But in 1996, I bought “Keys”, and I was hooked again. Yes ascended, indeed, and I’ve re-purchased most of their catalog on CD. Each listen jostles some mellowed brain parts, and provides something to explore repeatedly. This week’s favorites include the closing section of “Wurm” from Yessongs and Steve Howe’s guitar solos on “Turn of the Century” from “Keys 2”.

But in my late-night state of half-listening, half-snoozing, I heard Wakeman’s solo on “Wurm” (from the DVD of “Keys”) differently — and for some reason, it sounded exactly like the piano solo in Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” (which is played by Rick Wakeman), with Moog replacing Steinway. Something else to ponder over break.