Will the Real ‘Yes’ Please Step Forward?

In 1972 I first heard, ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’, by Yes on the radio, and I fell in love. Their music subsequently served as a critical source of inspiration for me, not just musically but spiritually. I owe these wonderful musicians a huge depth of gratitude for the immense joy and the many extraordinary realizations and uplifting experiences their music has brought me.
The music of Yes is often described as ‘symphonic rock’. They are known for their musical virtuosity, the complexity of their music, their esoteric, deeply spiritual lyrics and their ability to evoke powerful, uplifting emotions in their listeners. Many of them are vegetarians and Jon Anderson and Steve Howe, at least, meditate regularly to this day. Their 1974 album, Tales from Topographic Oceans was inspired by a footnote on page 73 of Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. This inspired me to read that book, which proved to be a critical step on a journey that changed my life.
This year I’ve been fortunate enough to see Yes, perform twice, in two completely different configurations. Allow me to explain. Yes formed in 1968, founded by vocalist, Jon Anderson, and bassist, Chris Squire. With the addition of genius guitarist, Steve Howe, drummer, Alan White (from John Lennon’s Plastic Oko Band) and then Rick Wakeman in 1971 they shot to stardom and were widely hailed as a new progressive rock supergroup. They have since gone through multiple configurations including at different times 19 full time members and they’ve released 21 studio albums and 17 live albums.
Their biggest hits that you might recognize are ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, and ‘Roundabout’. But my favorite tracks are from their early peak period:
Gates of Delirium
Starship Trooper
Close to the Edge
Siberian Khatru
To Be Over
My favorite albums:
Relayer
Close to the Edge
The Yes Album
Fragile
Tales from Topographic Oceans.
With a nod to Going for the One, and 90125, their 1983 pop influenced comeback album.
Bassist and founding member, Chris Squire sadly passed away in 2015, and there are now two separate bands made up of former members, touring and playing Yes music. Despite some hurt feelings a few years ago when co-founder, Jon Anderson, was dropped from the band, I understand they are all still friends.
Here are the current line-ups of the two bands, ’Yes’ and ‘ARW – Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman’. Each band includes key members of Yes who wrote most of the music, but only one band has the rights on the name.
ARW line-up
Jon Anderson – Vocals (co-founder of Yes with Chris Squire, now deceased). Carries the spirit of Yes.
Trevor Rabin – Guitars (influential member of Yes) Brilliant rock guitarist who can probably handle anything you throw at him, and a rock star in his own right. But not nearly as attuned to the spirit of Yes as Steve Howe, and not the guitarist that Steve Howe is.
Rick Wakeman – Keyboards (Key member of Yes) Genius. Way better than Geoff Downes. Lives the music.
Lee Pomeroy – Bass. Superb.
Lou Molio III – Drums. Totally competent, but not Alan White.
Yes current line-up
Steve Howe Guitars (key member of Yes). Genius. Clearly the band leader.
Alan White – Drums (Key member of Yes) Replaced the night I heard them due to illness. He is an ace drummer – solid as a rock. Left John Lennon’s Plastic Oko band to join Yes in 1972, replacing the brilliant Bill Bruford who went on to play with King Crimson and Gong but but prefers jazz drumming.
Geoff Downes – Keyboard (briefly early member of Yes) The weakest link in this chain. He is competent, but does not shine.
Billy Shepherd – Bass. Terrific bass player and excellent vocalist. A worthy replacement for the great Chris Squire.
Jon Davison – Vocals. Not bad, but does not quite have the confidence and spirit of Jon Anderson.
Here are some of my impressions after seeing each band perform this year:
The current Yes lineup represent a more orthodox version of Yes music from their earlier (and in my view, ‘great’ era). I loved their track selection which included Starship Trooper, Siberian Khatru and Close to the Edge. On the downside, they only feature one musical genius, and it shows. They do a very decent job of reproducing the arrangements from the recordings, but they don’t all seem to own the music in the way the original members did. This is effectively Steve Howe’s band playing Yes music. Which is no bad thing as I believe that Steve Howe’s melodic guitar style defines the period of the Yes’s greatest creativity.
ARW are clearly more confident of their right to play this music because they wrote it, and overall they are simply better musicians. In contrast the current Yes line-up, ARW are all stars in their own right with successful solo careers. Their exceptional confidence and virtuosity allows them to be more inventive, so we got some beautiful new interpretations of the old material, notably Heart of the Sunrise and Long Distance Runaround/The Fish. These guys are all outstanding musicians – a true supergroup. The downside for me is that Trevor Rabin, while undoubtedly an amazing musician, is a rock/pop star, and represents the later period of Yes, which I like less.
The reason I harp on the musicianship is that Yes’s music is incredibly complex and difficult to play. It takes a real master to play it at all. But to play it as effortlessly as Rabin, Wakeman and Howe requires an even higher level of musical prowess.
One thing I learned from this is that the one who defines the sound of Yes is not the vocalist or keyboard player. It is the guitarist. That is why Yes sound more like Yes, even without Wakeman and Anderson. But ARW sounded distinctly more fresh, as though they were merged with the music.
I really can’t choose which band I prefer. I love Steve Howe’s guitar playing and I love the songs his Yes band chose to play. I’m blown away by the sheer brilliance of ARW and their fresh treatment of Yes classics. My ideal line-up would definitely be Steve Howe and Allan White with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman. In the absence of Chris Squire both Bass players are superb, but I think Billy Sherwood has the edge as a backing vocalist.
ARW are essentially a new Supergroup. Yes are now Steve Howe’s band. Both are marvellous. In a conversation after the ARW concert last night, we agreed that we really don’t mind that we now have a chance to hear the magical music of Yes performed by two different groups of master musicians.

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Dada