I first went to see Yes in 1978 during the Tormato tour, playing in-the-round at the Wembley Empire Pool, a brilliant show featuring almost the best Yes line-up of all time. 33 years and seven Yes shows later (ranging from the 90125 incarnation and the “Affirmative” Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe, a fully orchestrated Magnification concert but not the Drama tour, which I declined to see despite one venue being proximal to my residence, to the First Benoit David concert, two years ago to the very day) I arrived at Hammersmith with fairly low expectations. So why was I so indisposed towards this gig? Firstly, I’d been warned that some reviews of the UK leg of the tour had been poor, and it was the older classic material that was not up to scratch. And I’d just paid £40 (with booking fees) for my ticket, ten times more than for the 1978 show; secondly, because I’m not over-enthusiastic about the recent album. Fly from Here is actually at least half good. I do like the title track, a multi-part epic in the old style with some nice melodic passages and the recurrent theme. It’s no surprise to learn that it was largely written by the Drama-era band – if you close your eyes you can almost hear Trevor Horn singing. The rest of the album has a sound close to neo-prog; professionally played but seemingly constructed rather than grown organically. This process removes the feeling of virtuosity and reminds me of the Polish band Albion who have refined a prog sound inspired by Misplaced Childhood-era Marillion but rendered it a little bit sterile. I guess the real reason I was disinclined to favour the event was what I perceive to be the shoddy way Oliver Wakeman had been treated, ejected from the band through no fault of his own because it was suggested that the music would be better with Geoff Downes back in the fold. If I’m totally truthful, there’s one more reason. I’m an Anderson fan.
My brother Richard and prog-mate Gina, my normal gig associates, both had valid alibis so I was joined instead by Dave Carr, a professional colleague, activist friend and recently revived prog-addict who had last seen Yes during their 1980 tour with Trevor Horn on vocals and Geoff Downes on keyboards. He was really looking forward to the show.
The venue was not full, but it can’t have been too far off a capacity crowd, and it started on the stroke of 8pm. The set was sparse for a Yes gig – no inflatable sea creatures or fibreglass organ pipes or covers for effects pedals - but the back projection of Roger Dean landscapes was pretty impressive.
The set list was a good smattering of Yes history, though there was nothing from the first two albums and nothing from Tales, Relayer or Tormato. No surprises then! The show was split into two halves with a short intermission. Set one consisted of Yours Is No Disgrace; Tempus Fugit; I’ve Seen All Good People; Life on a Film Set; And You And I; a Steve Howe solo comprising Solitaire from Fly from Here and a Chet Atkins cover song, Trombone; and closing with Heart of the Sunrise.
Set two opened with the whole of the Fly from Here suite, followed by Wonderous Stories, Into the Storm; Machine Messiah; and closed with Starship Trooper. We managed to wring one encore out of them, the redoubtable evergreen Roundabout. All in all it was an excellent selection of songs. The Drama material worked well, even sounding quite heavy. The musicianship was virtually faultless – there were a couple of audible mistakes, but that’s the price of playing complex material in a live setting. Benoit David’s voice faded a couple of times, but that was nothing compared to my last gig where Caravan’s Pye Hastings was out of tune all the way through (he did have a cold). The disappointment I’d experienced at my last two Yes gigs was due to the poor keyboard sounds (Oliver Wakeman in 2009 and father Rick in 2004) but Geoff Downes had done his homework and produced what can only be described as excellent renditions of the old analogue keyboard tones, especially the Hammond.
So my exchange with a fellow concert-goer as I put down my orange juice and left the pub before the start of the show “I’m prepared to be disappointed” turned out to be somewhat pessimistic. Not my natural state. I can honestly say that I really enjoyed the event, despite there being no Anderson or Wakeman, and despite my reservations about the quality of their recent musical release. Part of the attraction to Yes music is its uplifting nature. It may not be rock ‘n’ roll but I don’t particularly like rock ‘n’ roll. I like a challenge, and Yes with a non-classic line-up challenges my sensibilities. I really should have known better!