Something Old, Something New: Yes at the House of Blues
Here’s something to consider about the current incarnation of the prog-rock group, Yes, who played on March 19 and March 20 at the Chicago House of Blues: its two newest members, Benoit David, just one of a growing number of lead singers who’ve ousted their famous predecessors (think Styx, Journey and now – so I’m told – Boston), and Oliver Wakeman, son of Rick, who takes nepotism to a whole new level (thanks Dad!), are both – get this – OLDER than any of Yes’s band members were when I saw them perform in Milwaukee’s Mecca Arena in 1984, a full fifteen years after the band’s debut album. With that iteration of Yes, Jon Anderson was the most senior member of the band at age 39, no doubt reveling in the comeback story of the year, as Yes transformed itself into a modern day force, achieving the commercial success that had eluded them since the early 70s. “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the most recent song the band played last weekend, reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1984, ousting Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s “Say, Say, Say.” Not bad for a group that had only three years earlier disbanded in the wake of major personnel changes.
Now the band is back, and its two youngest members – both 39 or over – have breathed new life into the performances, begging the question of whether two-fifths of this band could eventually evolve into a very good tribute band once its old-timers call it a day.
Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White (only one of whom is an original member, though the latter two have been mainstays since 1971 and 1972, respectively) can still wow the audience with their obvious virtuosity, especially Howe, who I’ve never seen play more expertly. His acoustic version of “To Be Over” never gets old, and it harkens back to a time when Yes’s creativity reigned supreme.
Squire, whose large frame and tight pants offered a less-than-agreeable sight for the audience of approximately 500, can still dazzle with his trailblazing bass riffs, but he clearly struggled through the runs in “Machine Messiah,” the opening track from 1980’s Drama, an album which had been ignored in concert for nearly 30 years largely due to Jon Anderson’s pushback. Still, there is no denying Squire’s greatness, though he never seems to tire of his very predictable shtick during “The Fish” and “Starship Trooper.” I’ve seen the band six times in the last decade, and he does the same thing every time, hamming it up with the audience that supplies the adoration he so unabashedly craves.
Benoit’s vocals are pitch perfect and strong, and he exudes the enthusiasm befitting someone who just three years ago was singing in a tribute band. Imagine one day being a minor novelty on Youtube, and the next touring with an iconic band. The guy clearly has lots to be thankful for, and he commanded the stage with grace, never fretting even during those moments when he couldn’t hear himself. A more reserved Wakeman was still fun to watch, and moreso than when I saw his father play in 2004, who by that time appeared to be phoning his performance in.
Yes’s set list has become a little less adventuresome on this tour, shelving the previous showstoppers, “South Side of the Sky,” and “And You And I,” as well as the more obscure, “Onward.” And after watching Alan White pound his heart out for two hours, appearing spent by the end of the show, one gets the feeling that more adventurous songs like “Awaken,” “Perpetual Change” and “Heart of the Sunrise” might be forever relegated to archival footage from tours past. The one track that surprised was the opening song, “Parallels” from Going for the One, a tune that hadn’t been played for over a decade (if memory serves).
Yes fans are a whole different breed, and I enjoyed meeting a few while waiting for the doors to open. I met a man whose wife was clearly taking one for the team that evening, celebrating her husband’s birthday. And a guy named Chris, who sported a shirt commemorating his favorite Yes album, Relayer, informed me that not only had he attended seven shows from Rush’s last tour, he even appeared in last summer’s documentary on the band. It was good to meet you, Chris, and I’ll take up your band recommendations in the near future.
As for the House of Blues, it’s a terrific venue to watch a show, and I regret not having taken full advantage of this resource since moving to Chicago a decade ago. This error in judgment will be corrected over the next decade.