Seated shows at big venues are generally not my thing. Smaller, more intimate shows where you might say to yourself, “Oh my god I think we just made eye contact!” is generally more my scene. But I think it was the passing of Malcolm Young in 2017 that impressed upon me that skipping these shows means we miss out on seeing cornerstones of musical history. Since then, we’ve tried to see one legacy act each year, and this year it was Yes.
I first really came to Yes by way of the Legend soundtrack. I’m familiar with the Yes songs that get regular radio play on KSHE, but those songs don’t showcase Jon Anderson’s angelic voice in the same way. It is a voice of ecstatic wonder and marvel, a bard recounting parables of nature and folly. Then, I fell in love with the rest of the band when Billy Brown strolled through a strip club in the 1998 film Buffalo ‘66. The swagger of the bass and the Tasmanian devil of the guitar were everything I never knew I wanted in prog rock. I got the soundtrack on CD and obsessed.
The Yes band on tour does not include Anderson among its configuration. This rift has stopped us from buying tickets every time they have come through town. Is it really even Yes without Jon Anderson? Without pretty much any of the names that come to mind when you think of Yes? Well, a Close to the Edge 50th anniversary tour seemed like a pretty solid guarantee that I would get a lot of the Legend sound I loved, and nobody’s getting any younger, so we went for it.
The entryway at the venue to The Factory established the vibe I hoped for—Roger Dean artwork on display, with large format pieces and postcard-sized prints, all depicting the unique and fantastic artwork that often appear on Yes albums. Trees perched on islands floating in space, connected by perilous threads of roots. Knights on horseback, faint in the distance with foggy deer in the foreground. Gleaming snakes writhing around crystalline rock formations. Shockingly, I actually asked myself, “Is it reasonable to buy a $4000 print at this concert tonight?” One second later, I came to my senses, but I still appreciated the opportunity to view these works and talk with the hosts, who informed me the Trading Boundaries gallery in Sussex has a whole second floor dedicated to Dean’s majestic visions. I bought the cheapest thing on the table, just to have a part of that world in my home, and put the gallery on the travel vision board.
Mood effectively set, we meandered upstairs to find our seats in this unfamiliar venue. It was my first time in The Factory, which is laid out like a wider, roomier Pageant, with a seated wraparound balcony and bars pretty much everywhere. Our first round of drinks was shockingly expensive, but we got smarter on our second attempt. Apparently, you can also order drinks right from your seat using a QR code on the arm of the chair, but I didn’t actually see anyone try this. The floor below was laid out in rows of folding chairs, and the row and section numbers on the floor suggest this is a common set up, if not standard.
Since this show was a splurge, we went big and got front and center balcony seats, though it looked like most anyone had a great view, with the exception perhaps of the front stage sides. That didn’t, however, dampen the enthusiasm of a fan who periodically stood up from his front row stage left seat and raised his arms in jubilation and praise.
From our seats, too, from beginning to end, it was an ecstatic experience. They may not be original members, but many of the current lineup have been integral to Yes for years, almost like the touring version of a Broadway play. Sure, the Ted Neeley version of Jesus Christ Superstar is the ideal, but I have enjoyed numerous other musicians’ performance of the work. With the current Yes lineup, we are treated to an original performer who has also been involved in the expansion of new musical releases. The majority of performers on stage have been in their roles for years, with the exception of Jay Schellen replacing the recently departed Alan White, as he had before in 2016. Together, they gave us the Yes experience of my imagination. I gasped, I giggled, I ‘oh my gosh’ed, and I shook my damn head at the beauty of it all.
Steve Howe is the only member of the touring lineup who is also original to the band. And he is plenty. At 75, he remains a force of nature on the guitar and key to Yes’s energetic harmonies. Howe shredded that guitar and commanded attention like Johnny Knoxville in his Bad Grandpa suit—kinetic energy burdened only by the costume of an elderly man. He shuffled, mugged, kicked the air, moved in on other people’s mics, squatted on the steps of the tower of synth, and kneeled as the vocals entered on “Heart of the Sunrise.” Yep, they played it. They closed the first set with it, and it was every bit as painfully beautiful as I hoped.
At the mic, lifting a hand up to the rafters to toss up and pin down every reverberation of all the high notes, emotions on his sleeves for even the balcony to see, was Jon Davison, lead singer for Yes since 2012. Confidence in his abilities settled in quickly and grew into the thrill of knowing what was to come. In understated puffy sleeves and a vest, his voice struck the perfect balance of muscular and airy, stepping exactly where a critical ear expects.
Keyboardist Geoffrey Downes is a near-core member, having recorded with Yes in 1980 and co-founded Asia with Howe in 1981, then playing as the keyboardist for Yes since 2011. It was incredible watching him work his rig, keyboards stacked three-high, wrapped around him on three sides. While this means his back was to the audience half the time, it allowed us a clear view of Downes reaching arms in front and behind to play two keyboards at once, or occasionally stretching a toe out to tap a pedal at the front of his platform while banging away on keys at the back. This view was especially appreciated during the frenetic movement of “Seasons of Man” closing out the final movement of “Close to the Edge.”
Billy Sherwood has recorded with Yes in the past and has played bass with the band since Chris Squire’s passing in 2015. He looked every bit the part in tights and a drapey cardigan, longish hair swaying with the groove. He embellished the opening licks of “Heart of the Sunrise” with a little more filling where I appreciate the use of negative space, but all in the interests of showcasing his agility. On the other hand, his vocals meshed perfectly with Howe in the wistful, dreamy harmonies of “I Get Up I Get Down,” spurring wave after wave of goosebumps. I still get chills just thinking about it.
The entirety of Close to the Edge comprised the majority of the second set, magnificent with the misty-eyed “And You and I” and zippy “Siberian Khatru,” gloriously timed and harmonized. The first half of the evening featured a few tracks of new material, which blended gently with the classics, being a little more sedate and less experimental than 1970s Yes can be. But the spirit was still there, background visual replete with the maps and compasses of travelers and elemental magic that speaks to nerds across the ages, with songs titled “The Ice Bridge,” sandwiched in between familiar favorites. The spotlight was on Howe for most of the evening, but he had the stage to himself for his spirited delivery of “The Clap.” The big closer delivered on Howe’s early memorialization of Alan White as a “trooper,” and the finished the evening with an inspiring performance of “Starship Trooper.”
It was a joyfully teary night, surrounded by the sounds and images of mossy waterfalls and misty mountains. One of the magic powers of music in general, and Yes in particular, is to remove you from reality, if only for moments, by dazzling you with overwhelming sight and sound. For someone at the younger end of the spectrum of Yes fans, this is the opportunity I have, and the performance did not disappoint. Full of those moments you chase, sharing a wavelength with an idea and an expression, riding the transcendence of existential crisis that ‘70s prog rock gave us, the reminder of larger forces at work and our small but special place in the universe. There was an on-screen announcement before the show started asking attendees to refrain from taking pictures or filming in order to be present in the moment, which I appreciated. But we were also asked to refrain from screaming, as it is a distraction to the band. Well, I tried my hardest, and I only screamed a little—everyone else was doing it!—but you bet I mumbled in awe and cooed to myself throughout the night. | Courtney Dowdall