Every Yes show I see is different. And I’ve seen a lot of them. Eighteen, to be exact. And last night’s performance as part of The Royal Affair tour at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage carried on that tradition.
There were songs I’d never seen the band perform live (the show-opening ‘No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed’; a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, the original version of which featured Yes’ Alan White on drums); there was an epic in ‘Gates of Delirium’, last performed in these parts some eighteen years ago at the same venue, but this time with a different keyboardist (Geoff Downes), bassist (Billy Sherwood), drummer (Jay Schellen for 3/4s of the song before White took over) and vocalist (Jon Davison). The only constant throughout the entire evening from 2001 to today was guitarist Steve Howe, whose fingers were as nimble last night as they were all those years ago.
In a set full of highlights though, the song that impressed me the most was Yes’ cover of Paul Simon’s ‘America.’ The band first played this back in the early 70s, and it has been in and out of the set list for the last twenty years. I’ve seen ‘America’ performed multiple times, but what I noticed last night was how something of a staple could still be delivered in a new and fresh way. Yes were tight and locked in for the intricacies of the piece, but there was an element of looseness to the performance. Steve Howe hit all of his defining notes in ‘America’, but there were times where he was reaching for new places while playing. Unlike the Album tours that the band has performed over the last six years, where devoted replication of the original recordings was the game plan, The Royal Affair playbook seemed to be about stretching what a song can do, while still respecting its form.
The other highlight for me was watching Jon Davison continue to grow in his role as Yes frontman. Jon has the pipes, to be sure, but this was my first time watching him in an amphitheatre setting, and it was good to see him working the stage. I’ve made no secret of my unabashed enthusiasm for him as Yes’ singer, and I continue to believe he is the right man to help the band shine on the road and, hopefully, sometime soon in the studio.
There’s a clear camaraderie in this incarnation of Yes; Steve Howe continues to smile more on stage with this line-up than any other I’ve seen him in. The group is on fire live, and with any luck, that friendship and unity onstage will carry over into new music. As Alan White famously declared in the Yesyears documentary, Yes isn’t a band that looks at the horizon, they look over it. With their live status solidly cemented, it’s time to look onwards and upwards past that horizon.
- The Royal Affair is a package tour that started with a set from Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, with guest vocals from Arthur Brown of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown fame. Palmer hasn’t lost a step and carries the ELP banner proudly. He’s still a monster drummer.
- Yes’ Jon Davison came out with John Lodge of The Moody Blues to perform the band’s first single, ‘Ride My See-Saw.’
- Asia featured Carl Palmer and Yes members Geoff Downes and Billy Sherwood doing double duty, as they played a full set alongside new recruit Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal on vocals and guitars. Thanks to his work in Guns n Roses and Sons of Apollo, Thal has become one of my favourite players of the last ten years, and he worked well in the Asia setting. The band was joined for its final four songs by founding member Steve Howe, which included the crowd-pleasing ‘Heat of the Moment.’
- The Royal Affair Tour is at Art Park in Buffalo, New York tonight (June 25th).