Is it ridiculous to like Yes, or ridiculous to be ashamed of liking them? Photos by Mark Osler.
Since the creation of the ever-so fashion-conscious British punk rock movement in the 1970s, progressive rock has been the butt of most jokes within the musical world. For years, the feeling I would get when buying a prog rock record at Twist & Shout or Wax Trax was not unlike the shame one felt when buying pornography.
Imagine the butterflies churning in your gut as a cute alterna-chick or tattooed and pierced rockerdude scoffed and raised an ironic eyebrow as you sheepishly slid your Gentle Giant, Yes, Genesis and other ELPs across the counter — all the while, the indie rock band of the moment blaring in the background. They may as well have had a separate section for the genre hidden away in a seedy little corner of the shop where the sick puppies who get off on musical accomplishment could fulfill their twisted kicks.
I’ve since gotten over that shame and I think that most, if not all, other prog rock fans could give a care less about what anyone else thinks about their taste in music. That has always applied to the musicians themselves — they were in it for the music, everything else be damned (including the audience sometimes!) What could be more punk rock than that?
Sure several of the more popular bands took the excesses to the extreme, but don’t most good rock stars in some form or another? And let’s face it, how cool is it that in 2009 bands like Yes, Rush and Van Der Graaf Generator are still touring to extremely dedicated fanbases, while aging punk rockers who rebelled against these “dinosaurs” and “geezers” are now appearing on reality TV shows and butter commercials — I’m looking at you Johnny, rotting.
So, it was with my redeemed sense of prog rock pride that I went to go see Yes and Asia at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday evening. Asia, a theoretical prog rock supergroup, consisting of members of King Crimson (the one prog band it’s OK even for hipsters to like), ELP, Yes and Buggles (the band that gave us “Video Killed the Radio Star”), opened the show and was greeted with a standing ovation.
That was really odd to me, because despite their pedigree, Asia is simply awful. These are men who gave up any musical challenge and settled for middle-of-the-road dreck. They played an hour set that included their three recognizable early ’80s hits, “Only Time Will Tell,” “Don’t Cry” (done acoustically) and “Heat of the Moment,” a few album cuts, a terrible new song, as well as sad pleas for relevance by covering songs from their former, more impressive bands back catalogs.
This included a tepid version of Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”, the aforementioned “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and an embarrassing take on ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” in which formerly god-like drummer Carl Palmer took the opportunity to pull off a overly self-indulgent (even for prog!) solo. Cringe as I might, the crowd loved it.
The set was redeemed only by the deft performance of guitarist Steve Howe, who would pull double duty, playing in both Asia and Yes. In fact, the entire night belonged to Howe — a bespectacled, grandfatherly wisp of a man who pulled off countless amazing musical fetes in both bands sets. He is truly one of the unsung heroes of the instrument.
In addition to Howe, Yes on this current tour consisted of original bassist Chris Squire, veteran drummer Alan White, Oliver Wakeman (the capable son of Yes primary keyboard wizard Rick) and singer Benoit David, a sonic doppelganger for original vocalist Jon Anderson, who is out of commission due to illness. The band took the stage and launched into “Siberian Khatru” a rich musical workout, which found them barely pulling it off.
Fortunately, they fared much better with the next tune, “I’ve Seen All Good People,” in which David gained respect for spot-on alto vocals and harmonic interplay with bassist Squire — one of the cornerstones of the original Yes sound. Following this was two chestnuts, “Tempus Fugit” and a very cool extended take on one of the earliest Yes tracks, “Astral Traveller” (including a more tasteful take on the drum solo by White) — a nice touch. A very weak take on “And You And I,” wasn’t.
Following this, Howe took center stage again and shined with an acoustic solo before the band came back and cheesed it up with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” They bounced back with the metallic, spacey “Machine Messiah,” crowd favorite “Roundabout,” and a solid version of the blistering “Heart of the Sunrise” in which bassist Squire’s signature rumbling sound was brought to the fore.
The band ended the night strongly with “Starship Trooper,” a personal favorite that again provided a sense of redemption. For Yes, too, this evening had its share of indulgent and often embarrassing moments, mainly in terms of the stage show and wardrobe. However, the audience or the band didn’t seem to care — they were just there for the music.
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Michael Behrenhausen is a Denver-based writer, musician and occasional Reverb contributor. He frequently lies down on Broadway.
Mark Osler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Denver photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work here.
MORE PHOTOS: Yes