ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

The last of the May events in the ProgBlog gig marathon was a celebration of Italy... ...in Islington!

By ProgBlog, Apr 24 2018 08:36PM

i) 50 years of Yes (25/3/18)


Less than 48 hours on from standing in front of the stage for some intricate, symphonic progressivo Italiano (plus UK guests Joe Payne and Heather Findlay) at a modest club in Milan to a venue that I had previously associated with some awful UK TV entertainment, taking my seat for the Sunday Yes50 date at London’s Palladium Theatre was something of a revelation.



I’d booked the tickets for myself and three family/friends only a couple of weeks before the gig and was relieved to find four seats together in the Royal Circle. Labyrinthine below the auditorium, choosing a sufficiently short merchandise queue or, for gentlemen of a certain age, a WC without a lengthy wait wasn’t easy; the theatre had hosted a Fan Convention earlier in the day and had even set up some exhibition space for Roger Dean artwork where the man himself was signing pieces for a trail of fans.



The sight lines to the stage were really good, though I should have expected that from a premier London theatre, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the vibe of the place considering that before this concert I couldn’t have ever imagined I’d have wanted to step inside its doors.

The opening remarks, delivered by special guest and ‘only original member available’ Bill Bruford, were a reminder that Yes had begun making music in 1968 and in the intervening years, despite the personnel changes, continued to produce incredible, inspirational music. One of the reasons I felt I had to attend this tour was the promise of sides one and four of Tales from Topographic Oceans so I thought it appropriate that the introductory music was a few bars from The Firebird Suite, as I strongly associate Tales with Stravinsky. It’s always been my favoured introduction, more so than Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.



The first set included material spanning from Time and a Word (an excellent version of Sweet Dreams) up to Tormato (Onward, the tribute to Chris Squire), what I’d consider a ‘fan’s favourite’ choice, and the second set was comprised of The Revealing Science of God, the Leaves of Green section of The Ancients and Ritual. Up to this point, back surgery had prevented Alan White from spending too long sitting on a drum stool and his role had been dutifully carried out by the excellent Jay Schellen, with a style more reminiscent of Bruford. White entered the fray for the percussion movement on Ritual while Schellen descended from the drum rostrum to help out with percussion, staying for the three-part encore of Tempus Fugit (with vocals by another special guest, Trevor Horn), Roundabout, and Starship Trooper.


The sound in the theatre was exceptionally good and well balanced. I liked the fact that as a celebration of 50 years of Yes it was kind of a ‘best of’ performance, plus a hint of the idea of the ‘album series’ of concerts and the inclusion of two and a half sides of Tales. I don’t believe Tales divides the fan base anymore and however difficult it was for audiences to take in around the time of the album’s release in 1973, with insufficient time to assimilate the complexity and scale of the piece as a whole, the shift from 70s boundary-pushing compositions to the slick AOR of the 90125 line-up caused a greater rift.


A few of my friends have commented on how the dynamic has changed within the group since the death of Chris Squire (Trevor Horn humorously hinted at this when he came on to sing Tempus Fugit). Having been in Yes since 1970 Steve Howe is the de facto leader although Alan White has been involved in the group for a longer period of time; Howe was responsible for most of the cues and retains an amazing energy although I’m not sure if he struggled a little on some of the more demanding guitar parts, which would be totally excusable considering the complexity of Yes music. Jon Davison does an admirable, if unenviable job of performing lines originally sung by Jon Anderson and Billy Sherwood is without any doubt the best stand-in for Squire the band could have chosen, in playing, in mannerisms and in presence. The one minor disappointment was Geoff Downes’ soloing; the bulk of his keyboard work was fine but the runs and arpeggios lacked fluidity and even, during certain passages, seemed to lag behind time.

It’s difficult to imagine quite where the band will go from here. Detractors will suggest that continuing without any original band members is just a tribute band, though the Yes family tree shows the pedigree of the players still on stage. I can’t say if they’re capable of producing any new, classic Yes material but without a return to the ideals of the early 70s and a willingness to re-embrace challenging, symphonic long-form compositions, I doubt that they will. Still, 50 years in the business of making and playing Yes music isn’t bad; I’m pleased I went.



ii) New king of pop - Steven Wilson 27/3/18


Another 48 hours later and I’d made my way to the Royal Albert Hall for the first of three nights of Steven Wilson. My good friend Neil had organised tickets back in May 2017, a couple of days after Wilson had begun to put out videos of his new music but before I’d got a hint of the direction the music from the forthcoming album was taking. Thinking back now, Pariah, one of the first tracks I heard, forms a kind of a sonic link between Hand.Cannot.Erase and To the Bone and I don’t think it’s a bad song; it just doesn’t challenge me. At the end of June 2017 he released the video for Permanating and I wasn’t impressed.

On the walk up to the Albert Hall doors I was still optimistic that the set would include sufficient Raven and Hand material to provide a worthwhile evening of entertainment, having seen him play on a number of occasions before and apart from the show I attended at the RAH in September 2015, where I was unfamiliar with a fair proportion of the material, I’ve enjoyed his performances. However, the shift from the full-on prog of Raven to the post-rock blend of electronica, industrial with a decent dose of prog on Hand should have indicated, especially when backed-up by Wilson’s own words regarding his influences, together with his immutable right as an artist to make whatever music he wants, that the music on To the Bone and subsequently the tour of that album, was not going to be wall-to-wall progressive rock.


The show started on a promising note with another clever though slightly disturbing video, announced by a rather stern voice as if narrating a public service broadcast, based on the themes of the current album, but I couldn't really engage. Ninet Tayeb was introduced for Pariah but even her excellent voice didn’t really do anything for me; I did enjoy Home Invasion which segued into Regret #9 which I thought were the highlights of the evening. It’s possible that the behaviour of a pair of loudmouths behind me, talking for the entire first set and a couple in front, behaving as though they were very, very drunk throughout the whole show, affected my ability to enjoy the music but in the second set, just before the rendition of Permanating, Wilson delivered a speech about making the music he wanted to, including an unbridled, joyous pop song and hoped that the tattooed and bearded gents in their Opeth T-shirts would stand up and submit to the euphoria and maybe dance a few steps. To be fair to a large portion of the audience they did get on their feet but I, bearded but not being interested in either Opeth or tattoos, remained seated, unmoved by what is indisputably a potentially infectious pop structure.

For much of the rest of the gig I found the sound a bit blurred and indistinguishable; it wasn’t that it was over-loud but it was quite heavy and it wasn’t until the third encore of The Raven that Refused to Sing that my gloom lifted a little.

I can’t fault the musicianship or the presentation and I certainly can’t criticise a Wilson for changing the form of music he writes. That the songs played on that Tuesday night weren’t to my satisfaction is no one’s fault but a matter of personal taste and I’m not going to burn the CDs that I own because I didn’t like this show. I’m simply not going to commit to buying a ticket for the tour of his next album until I’ve heard the next album.

Maybe gig fatigue is setting in...










By ProgBlog, Nov 20 2016 08:22PM

I’m currently dipping in and out of Time and a Word – The Yes Story by Martin Popoff and thought that this latest piece of writing about the band, which includes thoughts on Heaven and Earth from 2014 and covers Chris Squire’s death from leukaemia last year, might help me work out where I stand on an issue that’s been raging for some time, spilling over on to the letters and comments pages of Prog magazine, concerning the validity of calling Yes ‘Yes’ and whether or not it is time to call an end to the venerable institution. In keeping with the progressive rock genre, debate on this particular subject has attracted opinion from all parts of the spectrum.

I’m not over-impressed by the book because it seems to me as though it’s been put together with minimum effort. I don’t doubt Popoff’s appreciation of the music and it can’t be denied that he’s a successful music writer but, not being a fan of the particular idiom he’s most closely associated with, I’ve not knowingly read anything else that he’s penned and I’m therefore not really qualified to comment on how much work was involved. What I can say is that you can’t compare Time and a Word to something almost academic like Bill Martin’s Music of Yes – Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock or even Chris Welch’s more mainstream journalist/fan account Close to the Edge – The Story of Yes, both of which I did enjoy. Perhaps the closest work to Time and a Word is The Extraordinary World of Yes by Alan Farley because of the concise coverage of each album, information that could as easily be obtained from the album sleeve notes, rather than any in-depth musicological, sociological or philosophical analysis, though Farley does add a soupçon of personal perspective. Popoff includes some odd little asides to his Yes timeline which is primarily comprised of portions of his interviews with the main protagonists; I’m not at all sure why the release of Rush’s 2112 on April 1st 1976 warrants a mention, other than to indicate it’s a poor joke, though there’s slightly more rationale to announcing the eponymous debut from The Clash on 8th April 1977, three months before the end of the self-imposed studio Yes album hiatus, highlighting a radical shift in the musical landscape over the intervening two and a bit years.




Though the advancement of time since the beginning of the progressive rock era affects all bands that fall under this umbrella, a span lasting on for almost 50 years, there have only been two deaths within the Yes camp and it’s only the loss of Chris Squire, however much Peter Banks originally helped to craft the early Yes style, that has really had an impact on the group. This is largely because Squire was the only original member remaining at the time of his death and the only member to have contributed to every studio album but he was as much integral to the Yes sound as any other musician who hopped on or off the Yes roundabout, for his vocal harmony work as well as the punchy, treble-rich bass work. Yet, when I saw the Yes performance at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the way Billy Sherwood reproduced Squire’s lines and stunned by the way Sherwood had adopted his mentor’s stage mannerisms, from his footwork to the handling of his instrument.




This highlights one of the major issues. There’s no doubt that there are other musicians of an appropriate calibre to play the music, as the whole album performances show. The last two tours, one with Squire and one without, have been about the recreation of recorded music in a fairly true-to-original fashion, down to the detail of the track running order, which coincidentally allows us to measure individual member’s performance against the original release. On the 2016 tour, featuring Fragile and Drama, it was only Steve Howe who had been represented on the earlier studio album. Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes had all played on Drama; on the 2014 tour of The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One, it was only Howe and Squire representing the line-up of the first two albums, and Howe, Squire and White from the personnel responsible for Going for the One.




So, despite my enjoyment of the gig I went to see in London, the latest tour was carried out without any original members; does that make them some kind of tribute act? Well no, not in my opinion. There are two strands to my thinking: Firstly, that Howe was one of the individuals making up the first of two ‘classic’ line-ups which starred Bill Bruford on drums and Rick Wakeman on keyboards and was responsible for Fragile and Close to the Edge. His appearance on The Yes Album marked a qualitative improvement in group composition and his playing style opened up a more symphonic sound but I think it was possibly his personal outlook and the way he fitted in to (what was going to become) the Yes philosophy added something unquantifiable but positive to the group. Furthermore, the replacement of Bruford by Alan White created the second classic line-up which lasted four incarnations but the revolving door of personnel changes was accepted by fans, at least on record, even including the Drama-Yes of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn which only revealed a degree of disillusionment amongst those who went to see them play live when the tour hit the UK. This suggests to me that as long as there is the spirit of Yes in a group of players, it can still be called ‘Yes’.

That the cracks in support were appearing as the genre reached the end its golden era is in part down to changes within the music business itself but Yes had showed that they could change guitarists and keyboard players without adversely affecting their appeal; unfortunately when they replaced Jon Anderson, who many even now regard as the voice of Yes, support was less forthcoming. It’s of note is that following his departure from Yes, Anderson embarked upon a successful collaboration with Vangelis and it was, arguably, Anderson’s involvement with the Squire, White and Trevor Rabin Cinema project which guaranteed that band success as the 1980s Yes.

That particular version of the group was hugely successful but they alienated some of the original core support, including me. I blame the industry, manipulating output to maximise commercial gain, curtailing artist creativity and resulting in music which hasn’t aged very well, compared to the timelessness of Close to the Edge and the reappraisal of Tales from Topographic Oceans as a major piece of recorded work by a rock band. This brings me to the second major issue: The quality of the new material.

I’ve previously argued that the substance of the 80s material was more mainstream, hence the greater commercial appeal in a world that was becoming more self-centred with less time and inclination to think expansively. Any attempt to recapture the cosmic nature of early 70s Yes music, by an ever expanding Yes family which had itself become more fractious and cut-throat, was never likely to amount to much, though the keyboard-light Magnification came quite close for me. I’ve never been too happy with the long-form studio pieces on Keys to Ascension and part of this is down to what I feel is the unsuccessful blend of cosmic and worthy social commentary; part is down to the unsatisfactory keyboard sounds. I believe the best modern material is the Fly From Here suite which was actually composed during the Drama years, such that the concept of Yes music has to conform to certain structural and thematic forms, many of which have been abandoned along the way.

This brings me to the conclusion that it is fine for Yes to continue for the time being, playing material which represents the early phase of the group, as long as there’s someone from that era to carry the torch. I’ve outgrown my belief that Anderson has to be in Yes; I don’t doubt White’s contribution to the sound and equally, I can’t question Sherwood’s fit but I think that if Howe had to drop out for some reason, there would be no purpose in carrying on. I don’t mind if there’s no new material, I’ll continue to go and see the band if there are no more line-up changes and they continue to play the classic early 70s material. Roll on Tales! Roll on Relayer!









By ProgBlog, May 15 2016 08:25PM

You know you’re going to a Yes show when the beer on tap in the local pub (The Queen’s Arms, 30 Queen’s Gate Mews) is called Galaxy Equinox...

I was at the Royal Albert Hall last week for the last night of the UK leg of the Yes 2016 tour and, considering that I’m still one of those people that aren’t fully convinced by the idea of Yes without Jon Anderson, I was pretty impressed.


I was at the same venue, in the same seat two years ago almost to the day for the Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One albums performance, a concept I am very much in favour of because I’m not a great fan of surprises. When I’m on call I like to know in advance when there’s some work coming in, so I can organise my transport and when to eat, being a creature of habit and routine. It’s the same with music and may explain why I used to be very reluctant to impulsively buy records that I hadn’t heard. When Drama came out in 1980 I was pretty sure the music would be good because it was conceived by 60% of the previous incarnation of Yes, and it was. That’s not to suggest that I wasn’t filled with trepidation when I heard that Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were replacing the departed Anderson and Wakeman and furthermore, I refused to go to see the Drama tour when they played the Lewisham Odeon, near my university college, on December 12th 1980. I think Drama turned out to be a far more coherent effort than Tormato (1978), returning to some of the heaviness that was evident on Fragile (1971) and making this current tour, pairing Drama with Fragile, such an intriguing prospect.

Apart from the musical emphasis, the major difference between this performance and that in 2014 was the absence of Yes founding member Chris Squire, his death in June last year leaving the band without any original members. During treatment for the leukaemia that ultimately killed him, Squire had passed on his wishes for Yes to continue and with Steve Howe and Alan White who had joined for the third and sixth studio albums respectively, and with Downes who had rejoined the band for Fly From Here (2011) after his earlier very brief stint for Drama, there was sufficient heritage for the name and spirit of the group to continue. Squire had also anointed his successor, sometime collaborator and former Yes member during the Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Ladder (1999) period, Billy Sherwood.

I went to see the Open Your Eyes tour in March 1998 (Chris Squire’s 50th birthday) at the Labatt’s Hammersmith Apollo, and was pretty confused why Sherwood, playing second guitar, was required. I think that album is a bit of a retrograde step after the studio tracks on the two Keys to Ascension albums (1996, 1997) as it appears to be somewhere between the adult techno power-pop of the 90125 incarnation and the more visionary and diverse material that had emerged from the Anderson/Howe axis. One of the reasons that I don’t consider 90125 (1983), Big Generator (1987), Talk (1994) and Open Your Eyes as prog is the sonic uniformity, a lack of light and shade, though the hidden track that commences two minutes after the end of the last track on Open Your Eyes, The Solution, is more than 16 minutes of ambient sounds and features chimes and lines of lyrics from the other songs on the CD. This was used to introduce the live performances in 1997 and 1998 and, with an eclectic set list which included personal favourite The Revealing Science of God from Tales, it was a really good show.



Some of my Yes memorabilia
Some of my Yes memorabilia

Back to 2016 and the Royal Albert Hall gig began with a short set from Swedish support act Moon Safari. Musically they come across as a hybrid of (late 70s) Genesis and Yes with some remarkable vocal harmonies, ending with Constant Bloom, a truly stunning a cappella dedication to Chris Squire. Then before Yes took to the stage we were treated to the rather poignant Squire tribute that’s been a feature of the tour since the bassist passed away; a single spotlight on Squire’s Rickenbacker as Onward was broadcast over the PA accompanied by images of the man himself throughout his Yes career on the screen behind the instruments.

I’ve seen them play material from Drama before of course but it was interesting to witness the entire album in running order, including the very short but amazingly well-formed White Car which somehow manages to fit a whole symphonic suite into one and a half minutes. The bass parts on Drama are typical Chris Squire and it was here that Sherwood showed not just how good a bassist he is but how he’d adopted Squire’s mannerisms, from the prowl to the upright stance and the way he held his instrument. At the end of Run through the Light it was left to Downes to descend from his keyboard rig and announce the special guest for the evening, his former Buggles partner and Yes producer Trevor Horn for probably the highlight of the album Tempus Fugit.

I was expecting a couple of surprises for the performance and the first was Steve Howe paying tribute to his predecessor in Yes, Peter Banks, who died in March 2013. This came out of the blue because according to his biography Beyond and Before (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001), it seems that Banks held Howe responsible for not being involved in any Yes reunion. To be fair to both of them, Banks didn’t bear any grudges and before they played Time and a Word, Howe acknowledged the uniqueness of Banks’ playing. The next song was the immensely enjoyable Siberian Khatru and the sequence of unexpected numbers continued with Soon, the movement of resolution from Gates of Delirium which was disguised by a few unrelated introductory bars, followed by Howe announcing that this particular version of Yes weren’t frightened to play music from any of the incarnations of the band and ploughing into Owner of a Lonely Heart.

Normal service was resumed with Fragile, in album running order. Roundabout was brilliant; it was odd to see Downes performing Cans and Brahms but this was one of the pieces that turned me on to classical music in the first place; this short piece was followed by the even shorter We Have Heaven with Jon Davison helped out by his band mates and, after a very satisfying rendition of South Side of the Sky, we were treated to Alan White performing the Bruford-penned Five per cent for Nothing which has to be the shortest song in the Yes canon, coming in at under 40 seconds! Following the musically playful art-song Long Distance Runaround, The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) was another showcase for the talents of Sherwood, complete with audience baiting ending; Howe’s rendition of Mood for a Day was a little hesitant at times and I thought that throughout the evening there were times when the guitar parts ran on ahead of the rest of the ensemble but ending a gig with Heart of the Sunrise and an encore of Starship Trooper is never going to be anything other than deeply satisfying.

Any gripes that I have are inconsequentially minor: The big screen was rather low-tech; the sound wasn’t quite as clear as it was in 2014; Jon Davison sang in tune but occasionally seemed out of key. All this is irrelevant because they recreated the albums with a remarkable degree of precision considering both the complexity of the music and reproducing it in a live setting. I’m grateful for Downes’ ear for accuracy, too, as he uses early 70’s keyboard sounds and not the thin sounds that crept into Yes music when polyphonic synthesizers first appeared on the scene and even continued to be used in the live setting up to and including the 35th Anniversary tour; I certainly don’t envy Davison stepping into the Anderson shoes... No, this was a really enjoyable show.


Is performing material in album running order a reaction to the download-dominated music scene, reimagining the concept of listening to a suite of songs as you would have done thirty or forty years ago, sitting with the album sleeve in your hands and getting up to turn over the LP on the platter? Cynics might suggest that the band are resting on their laurels and deserve their ‘dinosaur’ tag; certainly Yes are appealing to their original fan-base but with the reappraisal of progressive rock that has set it in a favourable new light and seen the iPod generation sign up to the progressive sounds of the 70s, it works for both the band and the fans and it certainly works for me. Bring on the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour!
Is performing material in album running order a reaction to the download-dominated music scene, reimagining the concept of listening to a suite of songs as you would have done thirty or forty years ago, sitting with the album sleeve in your hands and getting up to turn over the LP on the platter? Cynics might suggest that the band are resting on their laurels and deserve their ‘dinosaur’ tag; certainly Yes are appealing to their original fan-base but with the reappraisal of progressive rock that has set it in a favourable new light and seen the iPod generation sign up to the progressive sounds of the 70s, it works for both the band and the fans and it certainly works for me. Bring on the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour!

Oh, the Celt Experience Galaxy Equinox was a pretty good beer, too.






fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time