Anderson Rabin Wakeman, Keswick Theatre, Glenside, Pa. October 15, 2016
Review and photos by Howard Whitman
For Philadelphia-area fans of the band Yes, the debut tour of Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW), a new amalgam of three of the classic progressive rock band’s members, couldn’t have been better timed, or more warmly welcomed.
Inspired by the 2015 passing of founding Yes bassist Chris Squire, the band’s original vocalist, Jon Anderson, finally (as promised for many years) regrouped with its best-known keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, as well as guitarist Trevor Rabin, who was the figurehead of the band’s unlikely 1980s resurgence as a bestselling band with the hit single “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and the chart-topping LP “90125.”
The emergence of ARW as a touring group was not a surprise when it was announced earlier this year. They’d been talking about it for a while; Anderson spoke enthusiastically about the grouping when I interviewed him in 2011. It took a while because the three participants were busy: Anderson with a solo career that found him touring as an acoustic one-man act and participating in a number of diverse recording projects; Wakeman also with a flourishing solo career as well as a second focus as a popular British TV personality; and Rabin with a successful post-Yes career as a composer of film soundtracks. They’ve wanted to do it for a while, but as Anderson told me in 2011, it was a matter of their schedules matching up.
That finally happened, in 2016, with a tour that began earlier this month and hit the Keswick Theatre, based in the Philadelphia suburb of Glenside, Pa., for a sold-out two-night run that began on Oct. 15.
Besides being a welcome union of three world-class musicians, this tour is significant for a number of reasons. First, it marks Anderson’s return to a Yes-format band for the first time since 2008, when he was replaced in Yes following a life-threatening illness. Anderson has flirted with re-embracing his Yes roots in recent years with such projects as a 2010 album and tour with Wakeman; a 2016 CD in collaboration with Flower Kings guitarist Roine Stolt, “Invention of Knowledge,” that recalled mid-period Yes at its most intensely proggy; and the Anderson Ponty Band, which teamed him with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty for jazzy reinterpretations of the Yes catalog. Those projects were leading up to this, Anderson’s reclaiming of his rightful place in the lead singer role for a Yes band—not the band still officially using the name Yes, but a band made up of two fellow former members of the band, playing Yes music in a wholly authentic way.
ARW is also significant for the return of Trevor Rabin to the concert stage. After he left Yes in 1994, Rabin has concentrated almost solely on film scores (he did release an instrumental guitar-oriented solo album, “Jacaranda,” in 2012).
This tour has been marketed as a reunion of sorts, but these three have only played together in one previous version of Yes—the 1991-92 “Union” tour, which joined together eight members from various iterations of the band. Reportedly Wakeman and Rabin, who had never worked together prior to that tour, became fast friends.
The friendship and warmth that exists between Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman was readily apparent as they took the Keswick stage on Oct. 15 to thunderous applause. Rabin and Wakeman, along with the band’s bassist, Lee Pomeroy, and drummer, Lou Molino III, hit the stage with “Cinema,” an explosive instrumental from “90125,” and when Anderson came out and went to his center spot, the place exploded, rightfully so.
In interviews, Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman spoke of how they would be reimagining Yes music, and playing songs from throughout the band’s long career on this tour. They fulfilled both promises in this show. Although the set list leaned heavily on songs from the band’s pre-Rabin career with classics such as “Perpetual Change,” “All Good People,” “And You and I” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” the band also touched upon the material Rabin created while in Yes. And although Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman have spoken of new material in the works, they didn’t play any of that at this show.
Not like it mattered to this audience, who ate up every piece of Yes goodness on offer!
But there were some deviations and new wrinkles added to the classic material. A lot of the changes revolved around intros to the songs. “90125”-era classic “Hold On” started with a new madrigal intro that spotlighted Wakeman’s keyboards before shifting directly into Rabin’s opening guitar lead. “And You and I” tossed out Yes guitarist Steve Howe’s acoustic 12-string intro, instead commencing with a wash of synth chords from Wakeman before Pomeroy and Molino kicked into its iconic bass-percussion part. And show closer “Roundabout” recast Howe’s acoustic intro as a slowed-down, moody sequence of faded-up electric guitar leads by Rabin.
In truth, Rabin avoided recreating Howe’s parts, it seemed, at every possible moment. That makes total sense, because Rabin is and has always been a completely different guitar player from Howe. Remember, Rabin didn’t actually join Yes in 1983. He was in a band, originally called Cinema, that became Yes when Anderson joined the “90215” sessions. So Rabin was never hired to replace Howe; it just worked out that way. And Rabin’s performance in this concert proved conclusively that he has lost none of his shredding ability in years away from rock music, and his metal-tinged, modern guitar tones fit the Yes classics as well now as they ever did. Rabin is also a stellar singer, and his lead vocals on “Lift Me Up,” the underrated single from the often-maligned “Union” album, showed he can still hit the high notes he did back then. It was one of the highlights of an evening filled with highlights.
It was a delight to hear Rabin back at his Yes “station” again. And it was equally delightful to hear Anderson and Wakeman back in this context as well. Although respiratory problems sidelined Anderson in 2008, and his vocals since then, live and on record, have shown some wear and tear in his voice, his performance at this show was flawless. How amazing, in 2016, to have Jon Anderson sounding just like he did in 1976, or better, his full vocal power restored, and reclaiming his classic songs in their original keys. Wakeman, donning a cape as a nod to his 1970s showmanship, remains a great entertainer as well as a fast-fingered, virtuoso keyboardist.
As the “big three” have said in interviews, ARW is really a five-piece band, not a trio with sidemen. And the onstage presentation certainly confirmed their belief in this idea. It seems that Rabin and Wakeman got to pick one member apiece—Molino was the main drummer on Rabin’s excellent 1989 solo album, “Can’t Look Away,” and he also played in Rabin’s solo touring band in 1989-90. Pomeroy has played bass in Wakeman’s band, also has performed with Steve Hackett and It Bites, and most recently was the bassist in the touring version of Jeff Lynne’s ELO. They are both phenomenal, integral parts of this lineup. Molino drives the music with his powerful, precise playing in the way that only the best rock drummers can. Pomeroy has big shoes to fill here, as he’s inhabiting the role of Chris Squire in this music. That’s a tall order, but they couldn’t have chosen better. Using his four-or five-string left-handed Rickenbacker basses for most of the evening, he perfectly captured Squire’s unique tone, and expertly recreated his parts even as he made some his own. One special highlight of the night was “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus),” which followed “Long Distance Runaround” as it does on the “Fragile” album. To perform this bass-heavy instrumental, which Jon Anderson announced was played as a tribute to Squire, Pomeroy created loops of the foundational bass parts before launching into a solo on top of the main riff that evoked Squire while branching out in different directions. Molino, a Philadelphia native, also had a solo moment to shine in the drum intro that led into “Lift Me Up.”
The final songs on the set list mixed Yes old and new, with one track from the short-lived Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe project, “The Meeting,” a ballad that was played by Anderson and Wakeman as a duet. This was followed by a song that represented Yes at its most epic, “Awaken,” on which the band pulled off numerous complicated chord changes while driving the song’s power and dynamics without breaking a sweat. A charged rendition of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” complete with a dueling solo section between Rabin and Wakeman that found them going out into the audience to play wirelessly, finished the set proper, while encore song “Roundabout” brought the evening to a roaring finish.
This was a spectacular show. Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman fulfill all of the promise one would expect from their pedigree as Yes members. Sometimes comebacks from beloved musicians can be disappointing; not so this time.
One issue that should be addressed is the fact that there is another band currently on the road playing Yes music: the one that has the rights to use the name Yes. Following Squire’s death, Howe and drummer Alan White are the only remaining members of the “classic” Yes lineup still in the band—and White was sidelined this past summer due to back surgery. With Billy Sherwood taking Squire’s place in that lineup, and keyboardist Geoff Downes and vocalist Jon Davison on board, the question must be raised: Is this lineup justified in using the name Yes? This becomes more of a quandary when you consider that there is now another band of Yes members playing Yes music, one that features the founding vocalist and the keyboardist of the classic lineup. Anderson and Rabin have referred to the current Yes lineup as a “tribute band.”
Comparisons between the two bands are inevitable. I’m not going to tell you one is better than the other or to see one over the other. They do different things and have different things to offer. For one thing, Howe is a one-of-a-kind, showstopping guitarist—as is Rabin in a completely different way. I will say that one area where ARW wins hands-down is in the drumming department. White has been the Yes drummer since 1972, but in recent years his tempos have slowed down and his playing has lost its power, perhaps due in part to his physical ailments. Molino is an incredibly solid backbone for ARW. No tempo drags, ever. And for some Yes fans, there is only one Yes vocalist: Jon Anderson. Good as Davison is, there are those (Wakeman and Rabin among them) who feel that Anderson is irreplaceable.
Well, he’s here. He’s back. In a Yes band. Playing Yes music with two of the best Yes musicians. This is not a tour to miss. This is not a band to miss. Hopefully they will continue to tour in years to come. I’d suggest you see them now, before Rabin gets busy scoring films again or one of them retires. Another thing to consider is that if/when they do come back, they’ll probably be playing bigger venues. For a band as strong out of the gate as ARW, there are no limits.