YES - Tripling The Ante On The Classic Albums Sweepstakes

By Martin Popoff

Prog giants Yes are currently in the throes of a mammoth tour on which the band will be playing in their entireties THREE of their classic albums, namely The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One. Yet again, the lineup is reconfigured but still strong, consisting of guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, new vocalist Jon Davison and keyboardist Geoff Downes, who I had the pleasure to chat with backstage at Toronto's venerable Massey Hall prior to a packed house early show time of 7:00.

"It's all quite difficult," begins Downes, also of Buggles and Asia fame. "Yes music is complex by default, and I think that you look at the stuff like 'Awaken' off of Going For The One and some of the stuff off Close To The Edge, it's quite demanding material. Not just for a keyboard player, but to get the whole band gelling together, to be able to perform it. So it's been a lot of work to get it up to speed, but I think we've got to the point now where we're actually playing the albums very well, and it's very rewarding to come up on stage every night after delivering these monumental pieces of work." 

Possibly surprisingly to some, Downes features on only two Yes albums, the magnificent Drama from 1980 and the band's most recent, Fly From Here, circa 2011. Venturing a few words on the latter, Geoff says, "I think we attempted a pretty monumental piece, 'Fly From Here', where we had the basic idea quite some years ago, but we crafted it and works on it to what became ultimately Yes' longest-ever piece, which I think clocks in at 24 minutes. So yeah, I mean, I think it sits well in the Yes catalogue. It's got a lot of the hallmarks of Yes; it's probably more likened to early period Yes, rather than some of the stuff in the '90s like The Ladder or Open Your Eyes." 

But on this tour, Downes is playing the role of Tony Kaye a third of the time, and Rick Wakeman for two-thirds... 

"Oh yeah, it's been a big learning curve, because I've studied it in great detail," the "it" being the Rick Wakeman canon. "And I realized that a lot of the parts are very, very well-crafted. And I can see why Yes had such a big following, because not just the keyboard parts, but you put all the different instrumentalists together, and you have counterpoint. And it all revolved around Jon Anderson’s voice. And then you were left with this great music that had so many subtle elements to it. And certainly a lot of Rick's stuff is very, very interesting. I mean, Tony Kaye's stuff is probably a bit more basic, I'd say. It's much more kind of chord parts rather than virtuosity in lead lines. But the two keyboard players that I'm playing, if you like, are very, very different types of players. But nonetheless, in the impact, in terms of Yes' music, Tony did great work on Time And A Word and on The Yes Album, and Rick, obviously on Close To The Edge and Fragile and Going For The One--very experimental albums." 

Thorny issue in Yes these days, it seems, is the role of lead vocalist. 

"It's hard to say where we are at the moment, but I think since Jon (Davison) came in, it's really given the band a huge boost," figures Geoff. "I think Benoit (David - one album, Fly From Here) did a very good job, and we did an album with Benoit. But I think since Jon came in, it's really reinvigorated a lot of the older material, and he certainly delivers it really, really well every night. You know, who knows, as regards Jon Anderson? It's something that's not really in my control. I've not really ever worked with Jon Anderson. So I know the other guys speak to him from time to time. So it's not... people say it was an acrimonious departure--probably not as much as people might think." 

And does it seem like it's healed over time, if indeed there was any acrimony? 

"I'd say so, yeah. People get on. You know, I don't think anybody wants to... when you get to your 60s, you don't want to be carrying too many grudges around with you (laughs)." 

But the future as it stands, includes Davison. "Well yeah. We've discussed the possibility of doing another album next year. This is a big chunk of touring we're going to have up until then. And then we've got more next year. So I think the appetite is there to do... you know, we've discussed it, and certainly I think Jon would be a very useful contributor to that. And it would be nice to do an album with him. Because we did an album with Benoit, but we would also like to do an album with Jon." 

In closing Downes offers a final framing of the current classic album celebration Yes is taking to enraptured fans... "It's a combination of trying to keep it fun and entertaining, but it's also paying homage to these three great albums they recorded back in the '70s. And it's certainly not... so far, the crowds have been enormously receptive, because they get to hear sort of the more obscure tracks, these hidden gems on The Yes Album that Yes hadn't done like 'Perpetual Change' and 'Wondrous Stories' and things like that, that you probably wouldn't... that probably they wouldn't normally play, and did not play for a number of years in the context of a live show. It's pretty much like putting on the vinyl and playing one side and then turning it over and playing the next side. It brings back a lot of great memories for the fans, either at school or college or whatever, or in their cars or wherever they were when they were hearing this stuff when it was actually originally conceived. I think bands have done two albums, but three is a monumental challenge. Some of this music is very, very complex. But I think we pull it off. And the fact that they've booked another tour for us starting in July, I think shows that there's an appetite for it, and people are liking it."