Pedants and purists will forever grumble about Yes line-ups that feature neither Jon Anderson nor Rick Wakeman, but the fact remains that a performance of The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in their entirety was simply too good an opportunity to miss. After all, how many more chances will any of us get to hear Awaken in all its shiver-inducing, goosebump-raising magnificence? Hence we needed no persuading to make the relatively short train journey south from Leeds to Sheffield for this very special show, the fifth UK date of the band’s extensive three-album tour.
As we took our seats after collecting our VIP passes and goody bags, I couldn’t help thinking that the art deco interior of this Grade II-listed building was a fitting venue for music with such a distinguished pedigree, but there was little time for further rumination as the house lights dimmed and the languid opening notes of the familiar Firebird Suite intro tape sounded out across the Oval Hall. A screen above the drum riser displayed a fast-moving montage of photos, magazine covers, promotional posters and gig tickets from tours past, before the band took to the stage, readied themselves and then launched into Close To The Edge.
You read that right: they began with Close To The Edge – arguably the most intricate and complex piece in the entire set. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the first few minutes weren’t as tight or assured as they could have been. What with this and the disturbance of latecomers wanting us to move so they could find their allotted seats – a literal case of “I get up, I get down” – the start of the show didn’t quite have the impact I was hoping for. But it didn’t take long for that feeling to pass. Soon enough, the band were fully warmed up and, as ‘Total Mass Retain’ segued into Chris & Steve’s “In her white lace…” vocal duet, the music was casting its spell over the audience and the anticipated goosebumps were all present and correct.
And You And I was just as magical and moving as you’d expect, and Siberian Khatru just as powerful, if played a bit more sedately than the band would have countenanced in their younger days. All three pieces from this most definitive of albums earned rapturous applause and standing ovations from the crowd, but it all seemed to have passed too quickly – the hallmark of those classic gigs where you are so captivated that you lose any sense of time.
All too soon, it seemed, Steve Howe was introducing the second album of the evening, Going For The One. This was the undoubted highlight of the show for me, not because it is my favourite Yes album – it isn’t – but because Wonderous Stories was the only track from it that I had previously witnessed in concert. To say I was giddy with anticipation at experiencing the rest of the album performed live is a massive understatement. In fact, this segment of the show put me in such a state of transcendent joy that I’m struggling here to provide any cogent analysis. Had a camera been pointed at me for the next forty glorious minutes it would undoubtedly have captured a facial expression alternating between ‘big dumb grin’ and the quivering lower lip of someone valiantly attempting (but failing) to ‘keep their shit together’.
After the earnestness of CTTE, Going For The One’s title track gave the band their first opportunity to cut loose and really rock out, an opportunity which they seized hungrily. Parallels, too, packed a powerful punch. But it was in recreating the album’s more delicate moments that this segment ascended to even greater heights. Turn Of The Century, undeniably beautiful in its recorded form, was an absolute revelation live, thanks to a peerless vocal performance from Jon Davison. It was the biggest emotional hammer blow of the evening so far, if the lump in my throat and the moistness of my eyes were anything to go by – exceeded only by an utterly mesmerising rendition of epic pagan hymn Awaken that put tears on the cheeks of many of those present (myself included). It was a fitting climax to the first half of the show and gave us the interval to pull ourselves together!
Twenty minutes later, the house lights dimmed a second time for the evening’s final act: The Yes Album. With the intensity of CTTE and GFTO behind them, the band seemed more relaxed, moving effortlessly through the album’s six classic tracks. Yours Is No Disgrace and Starship Trooper were every bit the crowd-pleasers you’d expect them to be, whereas the reception given to the long-unplayed A Venture was more polite than rapturous. Curiously, the stand-out piece for me was Clap, played flawlessly by Howe and earning a huge cheer from the audience. Seriously, I don’t recall a single missed note or buzzing string. The man’s powers seem remarkably undiminished by time, praise be.
That left only the customary encore of Roundabout, as energetic and rousing as ever, bringing most of the audience to their feet and prompting some of those in front of the stage to move around in a manner perilously close to ‘dancing’ – hardly the most natural state for prog fans, it must be said! The band lingered on stage for a while, revelling in the crowd’s lengthy ovation, and then it was time for us all to head home, drained by the experience but with a buzz that would last for days and precious memories that will live considerably longer than that.
I suppose I should finish by considering new vocalist Jon Davison. On this evidence, he is a fine fit for the role. Predecessor Benoit David’s voice is closer in timbre to Jon Anderson’s, but Davison’s has superior purity and power – and he also seems more of a natural showman than Benoit. It will be fascinating to hear how he sounds on forthcoming album Heaven And Earth.