Yes at 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids Michigan, June 29, 2018
Before this past Friday, I’d seen Yes live three times: back in 1984 on the second leg of the 90125 tour; twenty years later on their 35th anniversary tour, which featured Rick Wakeman on keyboards and culminated with the recording of the Songs from Tsongas video; and at a 2011 club show with Benoit David singing that started rough, then picked up steam to become a genuinely thrilling night.
It was great to join fellow Progarchist Bryan Morey at Grand Rapids’ hot new club, where I’ve recently heard Marillion and Utopia, to catch Yes barnstorming through “Mitchigan” (Steve Howe’s onstage pronunciation) on their 50th anniversary tour. As Bryan mentioned in his review, they brought an excellent show to town — well structured and paced, showing off each band member to best advantage, wowing listeners with great ensemble playing and building to an encore that was tons of fun. My personal impressions follow:
- Opening with “Close to the Edge” is the choice of a truly confident band. So is a setlist that covers all of Yes’ “classic period” except for their debut album and Tormato! (Plus a welcome excerpt from the recently remodeled Fly from Here.)
- With Chris Squire gone, is this Steve Howe’s Yes? At the very least, this version of the group plays to his undeniable strengths. Howe’s rich, idiosyncratic style on electric and pedal steel guitar was to the forefront and on point throughout the set; “Perpetual Change” featured especially daring solo work. And his acoustic interlude “Mood for a Day,” leading to a lovely vocal trio on Tales from Topographic Oceans “Leaves of Green,” was impeccable as always.
- Geoff Downes isn’t as forward a keyboardist as others in Yes’ storied history, mostly serving as a foil for the front line. When a solo is required, he provides it with relish and skill, but he seems happiest laying down chunky midrange textures that support his comrades’ high-end flights and low-end rumbles.
- On Yes’ recent live albums, the niggling differences between Jon Davison’s vocals and the original versions (smoother rhythms, a narrower tone) can grate. Live in the moment, those differences make no difference. Davison is enthusiastic, engaged, and consistently meets the challenges of the material. He adores the music, and he loves singing it for us. Other than the unlikely return of Jon Anderson, what more could you want?
- Early in the set, Billy Sherwood dedicated “Parallels” to Squire’s memory — then proceeded to justify his role as the man’s replacement, consistently rocking the house. As Bryan mentioned, his thundering bass lines were prominent in the mix throughout the night (“Parallels” and “Does It Really Happen” were particularly brilliant moments), and his vocal intonation blended marvelously with Davison and Howe. Contrary to reports from Yes’ Interlochen show the night before, the harmonies were solid and spot-on throughout.
- And Sherwood did all this while locking in with two quite different drummers: first with Jay Schellen’s tight, driving grooves, propelled by a busy bass drum; then with Alan White’s looser, lighter playing — possibly an adaptation White’s made on account of his recent back troubles, but definitely powered by his cymbal and snare work more than in the past.
- And then there’s Tony Kaye — master of the organ palm glissando, whether on his original Hammond C-3, the MIDI setup he used for the 90125 tour, or on the Roland VK-8 planted at stage right for Yes’ encore. With White’s more spacious drumming setting the tone, Kaye took command at every opportunity, slamming through the martial riffs of “Yours Is No Disgrace,” supplying a thrilling, smeared solo for “Roundabout” and setting up Howe’s final volleys on the closing “Starship Trooper.” Where Yes had awed the audience with its precision throughout the night, they let their rock’n’roll freak flag fly for a more relaxed, yet exciting encore. And the fans ate it up.
- Addressing Bryan’s implicit question: 20 Monroe Live’s floor is flat to provide maximum capacity and flexibility for various concerts. I know that for the recent Marillion and Jack White shows, the main floor was sold as standing general admission. Frankly, I’m impressed that, even with the soundboard and a stairwell to the mezzanine taking up a chunk of the center rear floor, the only obstructions to our view were enthused fellow fans standing up — whether they were cheering, clapping or waving their arms in synchronized motion as Davison sang “I get UPPP — I get DOWNNNNN.”
- 20 Monroe Live also hires a photographer for most of their shows. Check out the rest of Anthony Norkus’ photos of Yes at their Facebook page.
- To sum up, this was a fine show, second only to the 35th anniversary tour in my personal book of Yes. Howe, Downes, Davison, Sherwood and company have fought through the plentiful challenges of recent years, emerging with a quality presentation, true to the spirit of the band and satisfying to the folks in attendance. Catch it if you can.
— Rick Krueger
P.S. Feel free to prefer Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman as you wish. “Life is very short/And there’s no time/For fussing and fighting, my friend.”