With the first step into the Majestic Theater in San Antonio one crosses the threshold into a magical space, like entering a ride at a theme park. The original 1920s tiled floors direct your paces into the main theater with beautifully sculpted dark wood lining the walls, railings, ceilings, and staircases. Ornate chandeliers illuminate the space and the main theater is adorned in its entirety with an elaborate stucco relief which includes birds and vases and spiraling banisters. It’s a sight to behold. My fondest concert memories are from this incredible place.
Something about the Majestic’s dramatic architectural collage made it the perfect setting for the music of Yes performed nearly fifty years after the band’s creation. That it would be performed by the band’s founding member—arguably the soul of Yes—Jon Anderson, along with his concertmaster, ringmaster, and erstwhile musical genius Rick Wakeman, and guitarist/composer extraordinaire Trevor Rabin, made it a concert for the ages.
Opening with the track that began the joining of Rabin to Yes, the band rolled in with the rocking instrumental “Cinema” from 90125: Rabin in a slim-fit coat and slacks looking like he might have stepped off of the photo shoot from the Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper’s album, and Wakeman dramatically strolling onto the stage in his iconic cape and tennis shoes and settling in behind his mission control deck of nine keyboards. This served as the band’s intro, much in the same way that Stravisky’s Firebird Suite had in past concerts. The stage is set, the band are playing…
And they launched into their first vocal piece of the evening, “Perpetual Change” from 1970’s The Yes Album. Initially it seemed a less likely choice as an opener for Anderson and the full band, but they rocked it and drew the whole audience into the magic of the world of Yes: intense rhythm section instrumentals with odd time-signatures and unusual, sometimes obtuse, grooves contrasted with the gorgeous, and even sweet, lyrical moments, culminating in the intense unification of it all. No doubt about it, whatever they had to call it: THIS was Yes. The rest of the rhythm section was completed in the extremely capable hands of Lee Pomery (bass) and Louis Molino III (drums).
The stage was fairly sparsely set for a Yes show, with a simple three-dimensional white screen backdrop. The curving layers hinted at a cloud-like space, as if the band were performing in the sky. The lighting was effective but not ostentatious, and it carefully highlighted the classic members of the band whose names headlined the bill. But the clean set up reminded me of my first Yes concert.
The 90125 tour of 1984 was my first live experience of Yes and it remains a highlight from my concert-going. That studio album was (and still is) the band’s best-seller by far and the tight arrangements and even tighter production stand the test of the passage of the years. ARW made a total of four excellent song choices from 90125 for inclusion in their set, but despite that the list felt pretty well-balanced.
“Hold On” was the perfect re-introduction to the Rabin-era songwriting and the transformative power of the Yes creative organism. Back in the early 80s, before teaming up with Yes, Rabin recorded a demo for that song, along with much of the material that would eventually become 90125. It featured moments of brilliance and certainly an amazing prowess on the guitar, but otherwise the piece was a lackluster rock song that might have never seen the sonic sparkle of the airwaves. Yet in the collective hands of the artists that meld together as Yes, “Hold On”’s tight poly-vocal (no doubt crafted in part by the late, great Chris Squire), along with Anderson’s incisive lyrical optimism, moved the piece into a captivating anthem that proved to be one of the album’s many surprise successes. Their live performance of it on this evening certainly captured that power and energy. And it was exciting to hear Anderson’s vocal once again soaring above the blended vocal triad as it had so many decades before. Clearly whatever ailed his voice in recent years has fully healed and, with a few exceptions, he was able to nail his beautifully crafted leads. This made all the more poignant his brief solo vocal moment declaring “I believe in eternity!”
Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman stage set at the Majestic Theater, San Antonio
That vocal menage seamlessly transitioned to the undeniable classic “I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move.” I will never tire of hearing Anderson’s gorgeous chess-themed folk song. It simply never gets old or grows tiresome. It has the 60s optimism without the camp, without being trite. But though this was my fourth time to see Yes in its various iterations, until this show I had been denied the opportunity to hear the implacable, the impeccable, the improbably brilliant keyboardist, Rick Wakeman. His pipe-organic entrance into the gentle strums of this little folk song is perhaps one of the greatest moments in prog rock, illuminating the amazing potential of combining unlikely bedfellows: classical western art and rock music, three-chord ditties and multi-modulating labyrinthine symphonic, and what else: classical guitar and pipe organ. But enter Wakeman did and no one missed it: he rumbled the rococo walls with a chord hit to sink your chest.
This show was the first I had seen since the death of Chris Squire and the band honored his memory with a rousing rendition of “Long Distance Runaround/The Fish.” Bassist, Lee Pomery, was more than up to the task of recalling the genre-leading work of one of rock’s greatest bassists. Pomery has worked with ELO’s Jeff Lynne, Genesis’s Steve Hackett, and Wakeman considers him in the same class as Squire and Entwistle. After hearing his tribute to Squire I would have to agree. Using a looping effect, he set up a great groove over which he added the other lead and then finally released himself into a beautifully improvised solo, including all the classical Squire riffs.
Quite honestly there wasn’t much to criticize on the evening. The sound, particularly Wakeman’s keys and Jon’s vocals, was extremely full and sonically rich. I wasn’t terribly fond of Rabin’s tone, but the Majestic is an old theater and we were in the mezzanine—not sure if that affected our overall sonic experience or not. I could have done without the drum solo, though Molino’s chops were amazing.
I should confess that even with Wakeman solidly filling out the atmospherics, the Rabin-era material simply lacked the depth that makes Yes music so compelling and timeless. Clearly the accessibility of the new sound of Yes’s 90125 was a key turning point in the band’s career and is, no doubt, partly responsible for the longevity of the band. But while Yes’s 80s incarnation proved to be a refreshing retake of the popular sounds of the time, most of the pieces just don’t have the imagination to be found in the early work. And yet my daughter, Sarah (goddaughter of the inimical Prof. Bradley Birzer), who was gracious enough to accompany me to this concert (along with a host of friends and students from our little town of Kerrville), knowing almost nothing of Yes’ music, was more quickly able to connect with those pieces than the more complex, more progressive selections. And I would suppose it is the middle-era Yes sound that may be responsible for the more balanced audience of men and women, seasoned and youthful, who were in attendance. “And that’s a good thing,” as I heard more than one audience member exclaim after the show.
But for those drawn to the progressive Yes (and after this show, even to the more popularly inclined), the crowning performance of the evening had to have been “Awaken.” My second “head-hung-low” confession is that I always loved 1977’s Going for the One because of the quadra-fecta of shorter-length songs on it: “Going for the One,” “Turn of the Century,” and “Wondrous Stories” were instant classics, and even “Parallels,” though not quite as solid, is a great piece. But the 16-minute “Awaken” I usually skipped (I can hear the collective gasp of horror in my readership). After the relative concision of the other pieces, “Awaken” seemed long and drawn-out, lyrically meandering and difficult.
That completely changed when I last saw the other incarnation of Yes at the ACL Theater in Austin in 2013. Let’s just say the title had a rather double-meaning for me that evening. I would have to claim it as one of the greatest of their longer-form work, only surpassed by…okay, you can’t really do that with Yes songs. There is just too much… too much greatness! And this performance included Anderson playing the ostinato section on the celtic harp.
Truly was a momentous concert. Great song selection, tight performances from everyone, and even a little fun at the end. With Rick pushing 70 and Jon already past that milestone, you’d think they wouldn’t have the energy of yesteryear. And you’d be wrong. After the show Sarah said to me, “The music is a lot better live than on the recordings.” Given that they made some of the greatest recordings of the rock era that’s saying something. If they’re coming to a town near you, DO NOT miss it.
I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move
Lift Me Up
And You and I
Rhythm of Love
Heart of the Sunrise
Long Distance Runaround/The Fish
Owner of a Lonely Heart