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...