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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

Yes

Live in Birmingham, England, May 2016

Review by John Pierpoint

I drove to The Symphony Hall and bought a ticket for the night's Yes show at the last minute (literally!). It was a long shot, but it really paid off, as I got a good seat in the stalls. Because it was a last-minute decision to go, I neglected to bring a notepad with me, so I'm relying on my memory alone for this review and therefore please excuse me if I'm a bit vague on some of the details.

I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy a Yes concert now that Chris Squire is no more (leaving Steve Howe as the longest-serving member), and indeed the show was not the best Yes performance I've seen, but then that's a very high benchmark to come up to! It was still good though, and I'm glad to say that it exceeded my expectations.

The stage set was cluttered and purely functional - no gargantuan Roger Dean sculptures or artwork this time round.  The video screen behind the stage was a strange affair - being very low-resolution, and giving every image a dotty, 1980s Nintendo feel. But none of this mattered; the music was paramount, not the dressing.

The show started with a tribute to Chris. His Rickenbacker was placed centre stage, while his song "Onward" was played over the PA and a video screen showed a montage of photos from all stages of his career.

The band performed two complete classic albums: Drama (one of my personal favourites) and Fragile. I was surprised at the latter, as the adverts for the tour that I'd seen had specifically said that they would be doing Tales from Topographic Oceans (sides 1 and 4). The guy sat next to me thought they'd do TFTO as well. Steve Howe even mentioned doing TFTO live in one of his introductions.  Not to worry though, Fragile was just fine for me.

The Drama set was the opener, but it seemed a bit haphazard, and didn't work as well as I'd hoped. Part of the blame can be laid on the PA mix, which was harsh and uneven. Drums and keyboards were very loud, but bass, guitar and vocals were swamped. Yes always seem to take a few songs to warm up to full effectiveness too, so it was a shame that it was the Drama material that suffered for this.

I was extremely impressed with the performance of Chris's replacement on the bass - his old friend and collaborator Billy Sherwood. As a bassist myself (and a big Chris Squire fan), I was watching him very closely for most of the show. He really got under the skin of what makes Squire's bass parts so magical. Not only did he sound just like Chris on the bass (getting the whole feel right, not just playing the correct notes as a session player might, but improvising in a very Squire-like style too), but he even looked like Chris up there on stage, reproducing many of Squire's signature moves. If only he'd play a Rickenbacker the illusion would be complete. Hats off to Mr. Sherwood for successfully stepping into some mighty big shoes! To further impress, Sherwood deftly handled a fretless bass in “Run through the Light” (a bass part which was played by Trevor Horn on the
album).

This was also the first time I'd heard the current singer Jon Davison. He's very good, although he seemed to cope with the Jon Anderson vocal parts better than those originally sung by Trevor Horn. His voice (which reminds me of Supertramp's Roger Hodgson) seemed to be able to hit even higher notes than Anderson, and on one song he seemed to be taking on Chris Squire's harmony part as well as the lead vocal (presumably because Sherwood doesn't have the high part of Squire's vocal range).

Following the Drama set, the band ran through some individual songs, mostly the crowd-pleasers that they'd be expected to play in any set. Surprisingly, the first was a spirited re-working of “Time and a Word,” which Steve Howe introduced by paying tribute to original guitarist Peter Banks. For me, this was the moment when the band gelled, and the concert became good. It was probably the highlight of the show, and all the better for being totally unexpected.

Following the interval, they gave us "Going for the One" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart.” before embarking on a complete performance of the Fragile album.

Steve Howe was as endearingly chaotic (and "close to the edge"!) as usual. His performances are always exciting because you never quite know if he's going to sail through, or crash spectacularly! He tends to take a few songs to get into his stride, and seems to relish doing the more unusual pieces more than the crowd-pleasers. During one song, he seemed to be dancing with his wheeled pedal steel trolley, shuffling left and right as he played!

Interestingly, he made a proper attempt to emulate Trevor Rabin's fluid guitar solo from "Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Previously, he'd either substitute a solo in his own more jangly style, or leave it to the keyboard player to take it. Now if only Alan White would have a go at reproducing the sampled drum break that starts the song.

It would have been nice if some of the shorter and more esoteric album tracks, such as "We Have Heaven" and "Five Percent for Nothing" had been reworked and extended, as they do with (for example) "South Side of the Sky.” As it was, these tracks seemed a bit out of place in a concert situation. Similarly, I'd have loved to hear Geoff Downes segue his exquisite "Man in a White Car" miniature into "Video Killed the Radio Star,” as he did when I first saw him on the original Drama tour back in 1980.

Although it was stationed at his elbow for the whole show, Steve Howe didn't use the pedal steel guitar on one of the tracks that normally required it (alas, I can't now remember which song it was!). Instead he opted for a standard electric guitar with some sort of slow-attack synth patch. This wasn't nearly as effective, and the sound was almost lost in the mix.

Sherwood did a fine job on an extended version of "The Fish.” Interestingly, Jon Davison picked up what looked like an electric ukulele bass to continue the opening bass harmonic riff behind Sherwood's soloing. He also got to bang on some sort of electronic percussion instrument attached to his mic stand during several of the songs, and conjure up the atmospheric sound FX on “South Side of the Sky” by leaning over and playing one of Downes’s keyboards.

The encore was a rousing rendition of "Starship Trooper,” which again featured a good solo by a very at home Billy Sherwood. I think it's fair to say that he was the "man of the match" that night, and many in the crowd thought so too: he had the biggest applause at the end, and many shouts of encouragement during the show.

All in all, it was an enjoyable night. Based on this performance, I'd be very happy to continue seeing Yes whenever they tour (but let's have that promised TFTO set, guys!). I'd also be very interested to hear what new songs this line-up could come up with in the studio.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2016  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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