Friday, January 16, 2009

Yes: In The Present tour (2008)

I didn’t see this tour. I seldom go to rock concerts, because I love music too much to enjoy it in an environment with awful sound and in the company of annoying drunks. So there it is.

But I’ve heard a couple of bootlegs, so I can comment on the music.

In all honesty I hadn’t given the Benoit David/Oliver Wakeman edition of Yes much of a chance. I mean, after four years of trying and failing to tolerate each other long enough to squeeze a few more shillings out of an oldies tour, Messrs. Howe, Squire, White, and Anderson finally lay plans for a series of dates as Yes. Wakeman père is out, replaced by Wakeman fils, evidently in hopes of satisfying bloodthirsty Troopers. Then Anderson nearly goes to meet George Harrison, and all bets seem to be off. But evidently the lure of luchre is stronger than the demands of dignity, or in other words, the show must go on (although why this should be any more true in 2008 than it was in 2005, 2006, or 2007 is a mystery to me). And so they cast around for a substitute vocalist. They find a guy in Montreal singing in a Yes tribute band, and, presumably again hoping to fool the punters, snap him up. Then Jon goes ballistic from his sickbed, Spinal Tap asks for the movie rights, and the In The Present tour is announced: “Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White of Yes, introducing Oliver Wakeman & Benoit David.”

Is this a joke?

Surprisingly enough, it may not be. Listen to the music. It’s Yes.

Benoit David (not to be confused, of course, with David Benoit) is a phenomenal Jon Anderson impersonator. That wouldn’t necessarily be a plus, but the fact is, you listen to the tapes of these shows, and it just sounds like Yes. And that is a plus.

What’s more, and more important, David’s a good singer. He’s not just imitating Jon – I’m not sure he’s imitating Jon at all. He’s singing his parts, which is a different thing altogether. Yes, it’s disconcerting at first how closely his tone mirrors Jon’s, but when you listen closely you notice all sorts of subtle differences in timbre and expression. Differences that show that David, like Jon, is a skilled vocal musician. Example: David has to work a little harder than Jon to hit the highest notes in Jon’s vocal lines. But David at his best uses this as an excuse to draw a little more passion out of those notes, nudging them from ethereal to emotional. Not a bad trade. He’s also called upon to sing Trevor Horn’s lines, and he successfully captures their cold beauty – but from within a tonal quality that still has much of Anderson’s softness about it. The result lends his entire performance a sort of chilly melancholy that Anderson never had, coupled with an ease of expression that Horn lacked. Impressive. Effective.

Oliver isn’t quite as impressive, at least on the tapes I’ve heard. He acquits himself well, but only occasionally owns the material. I like, for example, how “Close To The Edge” now ends with some gentle piano ruminations after the Sounds of the Swamp fade away. Then again, as Yes have proved again and again, there’s not a whole lot of room in their compositions for a player to make his mark. Yes don’t allow themselves to improvise much, and all too often the embellishments they do allow themselves sound like variation merely for the sake of variation, rather than attempts at improvement. Like it or not, Yes have always been a compositional unit, not an improvisational one. Oliver plays the parts, and plays them well, and that’s enough for Yes as we know it.

The question is, so what? On their last two tours before they disintegrated in 2004, Yes had completed their degeneration into an oldies band. With no new album to promote, they resorted to digging deeper into their back catalog to make the setlists attractive to diehards. This made boots of the 2004 tour in particular interesting listening for the longtime fan, and that trend continues here. Anderson’s absence allows Squire, White, and Howe to dust off a couple of tunes from Drama, and they also play “Onward,” “Parallels,” and “Astral Traveler,” Anderson tunes that hadn’t been played in decades. But none of that makes them more than a canny oldies act – a tribute band to themselves.

The only new song is “Aliens (Are Only Us From The Future),” a Squire number that he wrote for another project and pressed into Yes service; it’s musically pleasant enough, with a welcome Squire lead vocal, and its lyrics are certainly silly enough to make it a latter-day Yes number. Time alone will tell if it’s a harbinger of the kind of new work this version of Yes could accomplish.

Just as time alone will tell if there is any answer to the so what question. Benoit and Oliver certainly have the chops; it remains to be seen if they have the compositional skills, but even if they don’t, the others may, still. If this version of Yes comes up with a new album, then it might show us that they’re a band worth caring about again. They just might bear out the hope that the In The Present tour is threatening to inspire.

If not – and there are all sorts of ways in which this could fall apart, from Jon insisting that he needs to be part of any official Yes product and then never being well enough or mollified enough to produce any, to somebody else quitting, to this lineup simply touring the oldies until the well finally dries up – then this version of the band will be remembered as a joke after all. Albeit one that made us smile.

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