Sweet or salt? Crunchy or smooth?
There’s currently two versions of the band Yes. Like popcorn and peanut butter, they’re kind of the same and yet completely different. Like popcorn and peanut butter, opinions on which is best/most authentic tend to be polarised and unwavering. If Internet forums and the comments section on You Tube are to be believed however, to fans of Yes it matters a whole lot more.
Except of course, there aren’t two versions of the band Yes. The official version (Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Alan White) has the name and the Roger Dean artwork, including the iconic Yes logo. The unofficial version (Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman) might not have rights to the name and the surrealist graphics, but it does have the voice of the band, the writer of their most commercially successful material and one of the most iconic and influential keyboard players there has ever been. These are three trump cards that simply can’t be ignored.
Yes Featuring ARW as they are contractually obliged to be called, played the first of a short run of three UK dates on Tuesday night at Newcastle City Hall. As well as the three principal players, the band are rounded out by drummer Lou Molino III (long standing collaborator with Rabin) and playing bass on this leg of the tour is Iain Hornal (10cc, and touring bands for Take That and Jeff Lynne’s ELO amongst others). Hornal is also a formidable vocalist, which comes in handy when half your songs involve four-part harmonies.
The show opened with Cinema, a short instrumental piece from 90125, the album with Rabin that opened the door to a legion of new and younger fans. There is some symbolism in this, for Cinema was the name of Rabin’s musical project before Anderson jumped on board and turned the band into yet another iteration of Yes. Starting without vocals gave Jon Anderson the opportunity to make a delayed entrance, a massive cheer emanating from the audience when he appeared. Once the vocals arrived, they followed with Hold On, another song from 90125. Anybody concerned that this evening was going to become an homage to the sort of music Steve Howe can’t tolerate would have been relieved when South Side Of the Sky from 1971’s Fragile came next. Fragile was Wakeman’s first album with Yes and gave him an early chance to twinkle with a delicious solo piano section that comes part way through.
Anderson, who has had more than his fair share of health fears in his time, is now in the best shape he has seen for years. At 73, and following sinus surgery in 2015, his voice is as good as it has ever been, his alto-tenor cutting through the air, clear and pure. His stage persona is infectious. With eyes closed, he feels and directs the music with his hands, frequently reaching out to the audience to try and make the experience as inclusive for us as it is for him. He blows kisses to us between songs. His performance is not without a little whimsy too. He plays an acoustic guitar on a number of pieces, which absolutely can’t be heard in the mix (to me, if nobody else) and has a selection of percussion instruments at his disposal that are used at seemingly random moments in the performance. At one point, he picks up the smallest pair of bells I’ve ever seen, tinkles them together. “Improvisation!”, he says.
Rabin meanwhile, playing cordless, traverses the stage to spend time with Wakeman and shares a smile or two with Molino and Hornal en route. This is a band that is clearly at ease with itself and out to have a good time. Rabin’s playing has lost little of the intensity that was on display with Yes in the early eighties. The popcorn/peanut butter analogy works well for the two guitarists in the two current versions of the two bands. Both Rabin and Howe are virtuoso performers, whose styles could not be more different. Rabin a more conventional rock God with poses to match and an effects rack that could be seen from space, Howe an eclectic mix of rock, blues, jazz and classical styles who does nothing on stage he needs to do, bar play the guitar. For Changes, another 90125 tune and arguably one of the strongest songs on that record, Rabin dons a guitar with a pointy headstock and a locking whammy bar. It’s the sort of instrument that would make Howe spit out his cornflakes. Trevor also sings the lead vocal on Changes and boy, can he carry a tune.
The end of set one is marked by Rhythm Of Love, opening track on Big Generator, the follow up to 90125. Anderson introduces it by saying: “We’re going to play a tune and then go for a cup of tea.” You get the impression at the end they actually are going to get a cup of tea. Fabulous solos from both Trevor and Rick close the first half. Rabin’s harmoniser and assault on the strings (I’m amazed he doesn’t break more) would have you think it’s not a guitar, were you not watching with your eyes. Meanwhile, Wakeman plays with a fluidity and effortless pace that’s also hard to believe. Notes fly out of just five fingers. The other hand remains casually draped by his side.
The second set was more of a tribute to the ‘classic’ sound of Yes and be in no doubt, Yes Featuring ARW certainly don’t ignore the significant body of work from the pre-Rabin era. Heart Of The Sunrise featured an extended instrumental opening including a bass solo from Iain Hornal whose Rickenbacker rattled the internals in a way that I’m sure Chris Squire (Yes’s founding member and bass player until his death from Leukemia in 2015) would approve. It was a fabulous interpretation of the closing track to Fragile, which rightly received a standing ovation. It all seemed so effortless. Anderson even found time to give a roadie a round of applause for fixing an errant fan part way through.
Awaken, closing track on 1977’s Going For The One album followed. Tipping the scales at fifteen minutes for the recorded version, this is multiple songs within the song including a few false endings to catch out the less well-versed audience member. Awaken was another opportunity for Rick Wakeman to display his consummate skills behind his rack of keyboards – both delicate piano parts and thunderous church organ samples. Anderson helped keep time out front plucking a mini harp and Rabin departed stage right, perhaps for another cup of tea. He reappeared five minutes later stage left. He clearly liked to keep us on our toes. At the close, another standing ovation.
After close to two hours of music (you don’t get short-changed at an ARW show), the very familiar strains of Owner Of A Lonely Heart rang out, indicating that if not necessarily the best, they leave the most commercially popular ‘till last. After extended solos, Wakeman emerged from behind the keys, cape flowing behind him, with a keytar around his neck. He looked like an eighties one-fingered new romantic keyboard player. Except that finally we could see all his fingers and they moved, fast. The band segued into and out of a couple of verses of Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love and took their final and longest standing ovation of the night – one that didn’t end until encore Roundabout came and went and we left the theatre.
Regardless of which flavour of Yes you prefer, there’s no denying the ‘unofficial’ version of the band know how to put on a show and deliver all shades of the music with dynamism and energy. Should you go and see Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman whilst you’ve got the chance? The answer is simply and emphatically: Yes.
Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman at Newcastle City Hall, 12 June 2018. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk