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Yes – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

After almost 50 years and almost countless changes in personnel, the prog rock behemoth that is Yes is touring again. This incarnation comes tinged with sadness as Chris Squire, the only constant member in that time, died in June 2015 shortly after being diagnosed with leukaemia. And the opening to the concert is a poignant and moving tribute, the Squire-penned track Onward playing over a stage empty except for a spotlit bass guitar and images of his time in Yes projected behind the instruments.

Yes, of course, is what was once known as an album band. In these days of easy access to individual tracks and the use of shuffle, the concept of a suite of music put together as a cohesive whole seems perhaps quaint and old fashioned. In an homage to that concept, Yes is performing two of its albums in their entirety, and in the issued order: Fragile from 1971 and Drama from 1980 that followed an upheaval in personnel and featured The Buggles members, Geoff Downes and Trevor Horne.

Before the interval, it is Drama that is performed. And tonight’s line-up quickly shows it can rock with the best of them as it gets its teeth into Machine Messiah with driving bass lines and powerful guitars. Yes’ music is always richly textured and the performance of Drama does not disappoint. There is plenty of light and shade, too, with examples of quiet introspection – for example, White Car. However, vocalist Jon Davison’s voice can sometimes get a bit lost in the mix. The first half closes with the rather more gentle Time and a Word – a tribute to another recently lost band member, Peter Banks – and Siberian Khatru, from Close to the Edge, another of the group’s best-loved albums.

After the interval, longest-serving member, Steve Howe, tells us that this line-up can play from any era of Yes, and they go on to prove it with their rather more poppy piece, Owner of a Lonely Heart,from 1983 that also gave the band a new fan base when it was released as a single. But this second half is mainly given over to Fragile. Many of the band are over 60 – Howe is approaching 70 – but they still show great skill, dexterity and musicianship as they play even the most convoluted tracks. While Davison’s voice bears remarkable similarities to that of original Yes vocalist, Jon Anderson, it does occasionally feel strained and lacks some of the purity that is Anderson’s hallmark. But that other hallmark of Yes – lines that reflect some tension between instruments ultimately to be resolved musically – is well to the fore, for example, in Roundabout and Long Distance Runaround. Yes has always been an egalitarian band, with each member having time in the spotlight, especially in the playing of some melody lines on the bass guitar rather than lead. And the perfect example, and further tribute to Squire, The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) is played with conviction.

Yes have long been known as great showmen and never knowingly underblown, but recent tours have been more cut back. The staging of this tour is much more simplistic, putting the music centre stage. However, the LED screen behind them is perhaps too crude and a touch disappointing.

One might imagine that because Yes’ music is very complex it is not danceable. However, it is perhaps surprising just how funky much of Fragile is – as evidenced by the number of fans on their feet and dancing along. Indeed, there is a feeling of joyful pleasure among the audience throughout the evening.

For the Yes fan – from any of the band’s eras – the evening is a joy. The opportunity to hear such iconic music played as it should be, with such skill and precision comes around far too rarely. A most satisfying evening.

Reviewed on 6 May 2016 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice review. Shame not to mention Billy Sherwood who had to step into Chris Squire’s mighty bass playing shoes and vocals. He did an awesome job and I am glad that the faithful accepted him so readily.
    Looking forward to their return,

  2. Have to agree that the lyrics were somewhat lost in the first half, but Davison came remarkably close to matching Anderson after the interval, particularly on Heart of the Sunrise. Sherwood was magnificent filling in for Squire while the tribute to the latter was poignant without descending into mawkishness. Howe’s guitar work was, as expected, sublime.

    Like the reviewer I was a little disappointed with the LED display, with many of the images appearing indistinct and out of focus, but this visual disappointment was countered by the excellent acoustics, and intimacy, of the venue.

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