It’s been a while since Yes toured the U.S.—since 2019, in fact, when the long-running prog band headlined The Royal Affair Tour. The band’s been off the road since then for obvious reasons. Perhaps that’s why its show on Oct. 8 at the Keswick Theatre, the second night of its 2022 tour (third counting a production rehearsal before an audience on Oct. 6 in Lititz, Pa., which you can watch a bit of the performance below), was greeted so rapturously by the sold-out crowd that loved every minute of this glorious performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band’s classic 1972 album Close to the Edge. Or maybe it’s because they were just so damn good.
Based in Glenside, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, the Keswick is a historic movie house (opened in 1928) that’s been a live music venue since the 1980s. Holding about 1,300 seats, it’s a relatively small venue for a band of Yes’s stature, but the intimacy provided by a smaller setting only made the music more powerful and immediate. It was a perfect place to see a stunning show.
This Yes lineup certainly has its detractors. It was no surprise that the minute this tour was announced, the negative comments started coming in from longtime Yes fans who claim this version is invalid, is a tribute band, has no original members, can’t play/sing, etc. etc. etc.
It’s true that there are no original members in this lineup. Steve Howe, who joined Yes is 1970 (replacing the late Peter Banks, who played on the first two Yes albums), may not be a founding member. But he is unquestionably a classic member, the definitive Yes guitarist, and a principal creator of the band’s best music.
The current lineup is the latest iteration of the version that’s been going since 2008, when Howe, founding bassist Chris Squire and longtime drummer Alan White regrouped without founding vocalist Jon Anderson to carry on as Yes. By 2010, keyboardist Geoff Downes (who joined the band for one album, the classic Drama, in 1980, and later formed Asia with Howe) was back in the lineup, and two years later, vocalist Jon Davison came on board.
Squire died in 2015, and White passed away in May of this year, but the band has carried on with musicians already in the Yes orbit. Billy Sherwood, who’d collaborated with Squire on side projects and did a stint as second guitarist in Yes from 1997 to 2000, became the second bassist in the band’s history upon Squire’s death. Drummer Jay Schellen has been touring with Yes since 2016, trading off drumming duties with White due to the latter’s health problems.
The 2022 version of Yes is Howe, Davison, Downes, Schellen and Sherwood. Some Yes fans don’t like that and are quite vocal about it online. Personally, I don’t see the point to the meanness and negativity that greets virtually every social media post from YES (Official). But so be it. Those “fans” are welcome to stay home, not buy tickets, and carry on being outraged that this version of the band is still touring, still recording, and still making lots of people happy.
They certainly did that at the Keswick on Oct. 8. The show opened with a short but heartfelt tribute to White, with photos from throughout his career shown over the original recording of “Turn of the Century” from Going for the One. Then the band took the stage to its standard walk-on music, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.”
From its opening song, “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” from 1978’s Tormato, it was clear the band was on fire. Davison’s vocals were impeccable, with his high tenor easily hitting all of the high notes of this demanding song with ease.
Next up was The Yes Album radio hit “Yours Is No Disgrace,” which was just spot-on: vocal harmonies, check; tight instrumentation, check; Howe guitar solo section, wonderful; overall band energy, very high.
The third track played, “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed,” went back to the band’s second album, Time and A Word, released in 1970. A cover of a Richie Havens song, the energetic Yes arrangement has stood the test of time and came through with all jazzy propulsion intact. As Howe commented, no one on the stage actually played on the original record, but it served as a nice tip of the hat from him to original guitarist Banks.
Howe’s solo acoustic section came next. While this typically occurred later in previous Yes tours, it was a nice breather from all of the energy the band put out in the first three songs. Instead of the familiar instrumental “Clap,” Howe opted for a solo acoustic version of “To Be Over” from 1974’s Relayer. It was totally lovely, but a little stressful to watch.
I’ll elaborate as to why. Prior to the show starting, as people took their seats, the video screens ran a slide that read “Please respect other members of the audience by not screaming and shouting during the band performing their songs. Thank you.” I think this was mainly the request of Howe, a very disciplined musician who takes his craft seriously and apparently doesn’t like audience shouting that breaks his concentration. This was clear to see during “To Be Over,” when he waved his hand indicating the audience should stop cheering and yelling during its quiet, delicate passages.
Most of the audience respected that. This occurred again later in the show when Howe waved for silence during the solo guitar sections of songs such as “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper.” I totally get it. This stuff is hard to play and if the man needs to concentrate, let him concentrate! But some people can’t help themselves and must yell out, usually to express enthusiasm. Howe’s clearly sensitive to it and deserves our respect. Oh well—at least I didn’t hear any cries for “FREE BIRD!”
Another track from Going for the One, “Wonderous Stories” was next, highlighting the vocal harmonies of Davison, Howe and Sherwood. This was followed by the first two tracks of the latest Yes studio album The Quest. In my opinion, both “The Ice Bridge” and “Dare to Know” really benefited from the power of the performances. I gained new appreciation for both songs from hearing them live.
The final song of the first set was a doozy. “Heart of the Sunrise” lost none of its power in the version played by the band this night. Yes hasn’t always played this Fragile epic live, probably because it’s very complex and challenging music, but this lineup was certainly up to the challenge. While previous live versions (such as the live recording on the In the Present live album from 2009) were hampered by a draggy tempo, this take on it was tight, speedy, and so, so powerful. Sherwood’s bass soloing in the opening instrumental section was outstanding, and again, Davison’s vocal soared.
Following a break, the band played Close to the Edge start to finish. Arguably the band’s most beloved album, Close to the Edge is certainly deserving of the adulation it’s received in the 50 years since its release. Consisting of only three songs—the almost-19-minute title track, “And You and I” and “Siberian Khatru,” this album represented a peak of Yes at its most focused, creative, and unified. The songs have lost none of their luster: the opener hit all of the right peaks and valleys, “And You and I” (again with Howe gesturing for quiet during the delicate acoustic section) was both moving and stirring, and “Siberian Khatru” remains about the most powerful, rocking song anyone has created around a 7/8 time signature.
After the approximately 40 minutes it took to play the full album, Yes left the stage, returning for a thunderous encore of classics “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper.” It’s hard to beat a double whammy like that. These versions were as good as any I’ve seen the band play of these tracks, which have been staples of virtually every Yes concert for years. The audience was on its feet, the cheering was explosive, the band took its final group bow, and the lights went up.
After 10 years as Yes vocalist, Davison is incredibly assured and comfortable in his role. His voice never wavers, and he hits all the notes in these hard-to-sing songs so well. Does he sound exactly like Anderson? No, but his vocal timbre is similar, his range is perfectly suited to the music, and he brought charm and likeability to his performance, augmenting his fine vocals with hand percussion and an interesting-looking walking stick adorned with bells.
Of the other “new guys,” Sherwood has certainly settled into being the bassist of Yes and inhabiting the mantle of the late, great Chris Squire. Sherwood is a master of recreating his mentor’s deep, powerful bass tones, often augmenting his bass guitar with bass pedals for extra boom. He also did a wonderful job of emulating Squire vocally, recreating with Davison and Howe the classic Yes vocal harmony sound.
(Interestingly, Davison, Sherwood and Schellen are all U.S.-born, meaning that this classically British group is now 60% American.)
The latest person to join the band, Schellen was just flat-out spectacular. His drumming restores the drive and precision of original Yes drummer Bill Bruford’s and White’s performances on the classic Yes albums. And he’s just so much fun to watch. Schellen doesn’t just play the drum parts; he physically embodies them, swinging his head and body in time with his playing, and even sort-of “singing” them, mouthing along to each snare hit and tom-tom fill. He brings so much punch to the band, and I look forward to hearing what he brings to future Yes recordings. White is missed, of course, but the Yes drum department is in good hands.
Of the “old guard,” Downes did a fine job on keyboards. While not as flashy as the best-known Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, Downes gives this music exactly what it needs, playing the parts we know and love the way they should be played. I always enjoy his keyboard setup, in which his array of keyboards are set up around and behind him, so we can always watch what he is doing, even if he sometimes has his back to us.
Howe is a classic. A living legend. A one-of-a-kind guitarist’s guitarist. His sound is unmistakable, and his playing remains dazzling. If he doesn’t quite play with the dexterity and speed he had in his twenties (who does?) he’s still one of the most beguiling guitarists you’ll see and hear play the instrument. Clearly the man in charge, Howe was often giving stage directions to the sound and light crews while playing. He’s a perfectionist, and it showed with this superb performance.
As always with a Yes concert, the sound, lights and visuals were uniformly excellent. Yes always sounds great live, and this show was no exception. The lighting was well-done, although the moments where the spots shone directly into the audience could be tough on the eyes. The video screens showed beautiful imagery throughout, well-timed to the songs and featuring some Roger Dean images and animation along with other breathtaking photos and graphics that enhanced the emotion of the songs.
I wholeheartedly recommend you catch Yes on this swing of the U.S. It’s a great setlist, the band is firing on all thrusters, and it’s live Yes, which is always a good thing in my opinion. For those who prefer the Jon Anderson-led version, the vocalist announced in the same week that this tour opened (interesting timing!) that he’ll be touring in 2023 with The Band Geeks, a collective of veteran New York-based musicians known for their online videos of prog classics including the works of Yes.
I support that tour as I support this Yes tour. You can never have too much live Yes. Music this good deserves to be played live and enjoyed by audiences—especially the ones that can stay silent during the quiet parts.