Just Say YESTIVAL to Another Excess.

Jon Davison of Yes Calling to the Heavens

Jon Davison of Yes Calling to the Heavens

A Rousing Yes to Yestival with Yes,
Renaissance, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, Volto! and The Musical Box

In 1971 I went to the Orpheum Theater in Boston for a double bill of Yes and King Crimson.  Being too hip for the room, I was there to see the Islands edition of Crimson. Yes of course, were just too pop for me. I mean, they had actual hits with “Roundabout” and “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Krimson gave a good performance, although this was the least interesting edition of the band.  But Yes, this night anyway, wiped them off the stage with a combination of charisma, impeccable musical virtuosity and Jon Anderson’s choirboy yearning.  I walked out a fan, and would have to wait for the Lark’s Tongue edition of Krimson for them to catch up.

Yes bassist Chris Squire Audition for Game of Thrones.

Yes bassist Chris Squire Audition for Game of Thrones.

I found myself in a similar place this past Saturday night at the Yestival, a one day festival of progressive rock headed by the latest iteration of Yes, and the most controversial. This band always had trouble holding its personnel together, but there was always at least one constant, the signature voice and lyrics of Jon Anderson.  But Anderson was effectively booted from the band in 2008, due to a combination of illness and apparent lack of commitment. With the absence of signpost members like drummer Bill Bruford and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, I felt like I was seeing a shadow of this band, no more credible than the Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box, who opened.  This couldn’t be the Yes of Fragile or Close to the edge.  This was just a touring paycheck machine.

Yes guitarist Steve Howe as aged Riff Raff

Yes guitarist Steve Howe as aged Riff Raff

Uh, I was wrong, which was something that about 5500 people at the Yestival in the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ already knew.  Anderson’s replacement, (his second actually),  Jon Davison, is frighteningly good. The singer for the American symphonic prog group Glass Hammer, he sounds like a clone of Anderson, except a clone who hits all the notes, sings with passion and ties the band together with his stage presence.  By the time they hit the “Total Mass Retain” section of Close to the Edge, no one was missing Jon Anderson and no one was thinking Davison was a substitute.  He is the lead singer of Yes.

Yes at Yestival

Yes at Yestival

Since this was a festival, Yes was slated to play only two albums straight through instead of the three they’re performing on their solo tour.  But they decided to throw in the third album anyway playing Close to the Edge, Going for the One and The Yes Album.  What magnificent works they are and beautifully performed.  Bassist and co-founder Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe,  a member of Yes beginning in their classic years, anchored the band.  Howe switched between electric guitar and lap steel, whipping out the slides of “Going for the One” and nailing the intensity of “Starship Trooper.”

Yes' Steve Howe and Geoff Downe spiraling into space

Yes’ Steve Howe and Geoff Downes spiraling into space

Still an underrated player, Howe matches fleet fingered runs with beautiful tone.  Squire stalked, grimaced and yowled stage left, ripping out those chunky bass-lines that are such a Yes signature.  Neither keyboardist Geoff Downes nor drummer Alan White, both members of later Yes editions, took much of the spotlight, but they provided the orchestral color and rhythmic thrust so essential to this group, who, for all their odd time signatures and multi-movement works, really drives as hard as any rock band.  I don’t care about the excess; nine keyboards stacked up just have a certain gravitas and power that the smaller keyboard set-ups of Volto! and Renaissance couldn’t match.  I can’t say the same for Chris Squire’s triple necked guitar he pulled out at one point.  One Rickenbacker bass is really all he needs.

The staging was tasteful and immersive with a wide screen projection that took the appropriate Yes album covers, animated them, ran them through digital effects and mixed them in to other surreal scenes and digital designs.

Yes is a dinosaur band that has been reborn.  Now all they need is some good new material so they don’t become a nostalgia act.  Hearing Close to the Edge, Going for the One and The Yes Album in sequence made you realize just how glorious this band was and can be.

Denis Gagné as Peter Gabriel in The Musical Box at Yestival

Denis Gagné as Peter Gabriel in The Musical Box at Yestival

Speaking of nostalgia acts, there’s The Musical Box, part of a Festival undercard thought would’ve made for an average Nearfest line-up, the late lamented annual ProgRock Festival that ended last year.  The Musical Box is a French-Canadian Genesis tribute band known for using actual costumes from the Peter Gabriel-era of the band and mimicking everything from instruments to microphones to stage stances, like François Gagnon, playing Steve Hackett, sitting down stage right.  I never saw the band during Genesis’ golden age, but I always took Gabriel’s approach to be very serious.  Although Denis Gagné does a good Peter Gabriel imitation, he turns serious to dour.  Opening with “Watcher of the Skies” they assayed several Genesis classics with Gagné going through something like nine costume changes including the bat wings and flowerhead that Gabriel used to wear.  In replicating the pre-Lamb Lies Down On Broadway-era of Genesis, The Musical Box made the mistake of creating a smaller stage within the large Susquehanna Stage.  Surrounded by white curtains that cut stage depth by two-thirds and halved the width, they made their performance space more like a large club rather than a large arena.  And the effect of their performance seemed to shrink proportionally. I know Genesis fans who love the Box, but I found them unnecessary at best.

Annie Haslam of Renaissance

Annie Haslam of Renaissance

Preceding The Musical Box was Renaissance, true veterans of the Progressive rock era although only singer Annie Haslam remains from the classic line-up of the band.  After some shaky years, Haslam’s voice has been getting consistently stronger and she hit those high, soaring notes on “Carpet of the Sun” and “Mother Russia,” although there was always an edge to it, like she might not make it.  But she did.  On tracks from their new album, Grandine il Vento, she sounded much more comfortable, working in a range more suited to her current voice.      Surprisingly, after nearly 40 years of performing, Haslam lacked any stage presence at all.  She set herself left of center on stage with the center microphone taken by her bassist.  She seemed especially uncomfortable during instrumental passages, rocking and swaying awkwardly in what could best be described as over-sized red print pajamas.  It could worst be described as unflattering. Surrounded by a relatively faceless band, Renaissance lacked the magical sound of the original band.

Carl Palmer at Yestival - Welcome to the Show

Carl Palmer at Yestival – Welcome to the Show

How can you tell when it’s the drummer’s band?  When the drum riser is at the front of the stage.

That was the case with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy band.  Think of it as the anti-Keith Emerson and Greg Lake edition of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: No keyboards and no vocals.  A slide montage during “Nutrocker” would have you think that ELP was Carl Palmer and Friends.  CPB is an instrumental power trio turning ELP songs into heavy metal.

The Barbarian at Work - Carl Palmer at Yestival

The Barbarian at Work – Carl Palmer at Yestival

Carl Palmer is aging with a golf pro’s grace, but behind the drums he whipped up a storm.  Guitarist Paul Bielatowicz looked like he snuck in from the School of Rock band that was playing the second stage, but he could play, taking Keith Emerson’s lines and Greg Lake’s vocal melodies and turning them into fret-burning licks.  Bassist Simon Fitzpatrick, who may be a refugee from the Allman Brothers Band, locked down Greg Lake’s bass riffs and then some.  They tore into “Knife Edge” (lifted from Leo Janacek’s “Sinfonietta”) and did a version of Mussorsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” that I found more inventive than the original ELP version.  And did I hear a Black Sabbath riff in there somewhere?

Paul Bielatowicz of the Carl Palmer Band

Paul Bielatowicz of the Carl Palmer ELP Legacy

Heavy Metal was also evident in the sound of Volto!, a new quartet consisting of Lance Morrison on bass, Danny Carey (of Tool) on drums, John Ziegler on guitar, and Jeff Babko on keyboards.  The band oscillates between Sabbath-style metal riffs and Mahavishnu Orchestra-style pyrotechnics.  Sitting in a chair and looking like a goateed Buddha with a pork pie hat, Ziegler is a ferocious player who starts in overdrive and accelerates from there. With his double-kick drums, Carey is in familiar polyrhythmic turf here while the bald Lance Morrison eschewed Jaco Pastorius fusion flash for deep, propulsive grooves.

Volta!'s John Ziegler and Danny Carey Shredding

Volto!’s John Ziegler and Danny Carey Shredding

Apparently, a band called Scale the Summit opened, however, they came on before the scheduled start time and were never announced in any material I saw.  With the departure of Nearfest, Yestival was a welcome replacement although I suspect Yes is so far above the rest of the bill that they probably could’ve gotten this audience on their own.  The only sour notes of Yestival were the absence of the advertised quadraphonic sound and the between-act music.  I like James Brown, but this was a Progressive Rock festival.  Save James Brown for the R&B shows and get a DJ who can deliver the Prog next time.

In summary, a cynic of the newborn Yes has been silenced.  That would be me.

John Diliberto (((echoes)))

Further Listening: Yes and Other Prog Rock Tales

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19 Responses to “Just Say YESTIVAL to Another Excess.”

  1. April Says:

    You’ve gotta be either deaf, or joking. Jon Davison is a good singer, but nobody is, was, or ever will be in Jon Anderson’s league- and you seem to forget, as you gush over Davison’s vocals in Total Mass Retain, WHO IT WAS THAT WROTE THIS MASTERPIECE. You should be ashamed, but that would require common sense.

  2. Mike Share Says:

    Nice review although I too have been missing Jon these past five years. Oh yeah – I think you’ve got Steve and sole remaining original member Chris mixed up!

  3. Dave Smith Says:

    One minor detail – Steve Howe was not a founding member of Yes.

  4. Mary Ann Burns Says:

    Tired of all this Yes bashing of the new guy, new line up. Can’t you just enjoy the music and wish them them best?. Do you really think Jon Anderson wrote this just for HIM ALONE to sing??? I don’t think so…

    Where’s the insults to Carl Palmer for his guys doing ELP music that Keith wrote?? It’s friggen MUSIC, not life and death

    Great article, nice photos, did I run into you in the pit??

    • echoesblog Says:

      Every time. We also spoke briefly in the lobby. Thanks for the compliments on the photos. Writing and radio are my thing so kind words from a pro photog are nice. Really my first time shooting successfully with a DSLR.

  5. Ned Tufekcic Says:

    It’s been decided for me..I am off to see the faux-Yes on Wednesday at Cain Park – walking distance for me from where I live…I will contribute to your review afterwards..:-)

  6. robin kemling Says:

    [ your mission ... if you so choose to accept it ... } READ FAST : AND STOP @ ... FIRST MISTAKE ... turn it over & START IT AGAIN ... MY reply ; ^Very well written* .... i must say... memories of a stat man ... pen in hand ? know a few ... one whose cool ... burns us concerts ... before we go .... sometimes guess ... sometimes stats on internet ... pen in hand ... 45 d. j . organized .. went by NeedleWorks ... great logo ...by the way ... artist friend .... sometimes right ..... sometimes wrong .... anticipation ; things to come .... i digress .... back to well written* .... i agree ... on most of what we saw ...but a few things i beg to differ ... forgiv'er .... but no disrespect ... after all my d.d. [ daddy=dad of my children ... going on 40 years ]&i still attend different concerts … same place and time … he can tell you what guitar and when … left or right … 1. 2. 3.? where the slide supposed to be … who’s doing what … there’s a missing double neck ? …. & then there’s me … lost in sight and sound …. floating in a Dean Scape and Learning to Fly … for i have been to The Darkside of the Moon and back … leaving everyone of them …. trying to play a Quietness Moments game … of eyes shut and following by only sound of rhythm… as footsteps pass … the pitter- patter of things that matter… reaching out with finger tips …. as he blazes the trail … headed home …poor guy’s gotta work & get up and do it again … [ Tommy Bolin R.I.P. ] …i remember the best of them …. these silent walks ….Emerson & on the Lake … April Fools ….pink torches on castle walls … fire in window … Carl or memorex? …….but think he was in Asia …. and Greg asked a ? about dvd / Hey Tony .. remember that? … we be friends … i walked into the night bird song … climbing the stair well after The Wall … eyes shut … hand on rahel … herded to the top … the mooing began… i may come back here again but back to * . My Virgin Record concert list starts with in the Court of ” Krimson” with a stage of gold and gong …they took mind to Earl of Court country side… Wizard, Star …i was afraid of you … till the Zen archer got me …through the heart… and the Smoker you Get …. when they played Barley Corn in it’s entirety? … as i tuned in the hall… seen Gabriel mow the grass … for six bucks … as far as the two Jons …clone …was cruel …either here nor there …still water runs deep … and a watched pot really will boil …. it take patience … it either comes from the depths of dark …. or deep inside a happy heart …. both of which i find escape … i am them .. them i am …… there fore i am pink …. i think … seen that ; first time it ran about ; near …. just put me in with the sheep …or flying pigs … time for bed … be back later …. , robin

  7. Chad Pollock Says:

    Just wanted to mention, Alan White is not a “later edition” member. Yes have been together for 45 years. White has been a constant for the last 41 of those 45 years. Besides Squire, nobody else has been there all the way since then. Even Anderson was out in the early 80′s while Trevor Horn was the singer. Davison is the 4th singer (5th if you count Trevor Rabin, who sang a lot of lead vocals during his tenure).
    Just thought I’d mention that.

  8. Yes is a dinosaur band that has been reborn: John Diliberto reviews Yestival | The Key Says:

    […] review of the Yestival by John Diliberto, host and producer of Echoes, originally appeared in The Echoes Blog. Listen to Echoes on WXPN Mon-Thursday evenings from […]

  9. Chad Hutchinson Says:

    John, The Musical Box opened NEARfest 2004 with a Friday night performance of the “Selling England” White Show.

    • Chad Hutchinson Says:

      Also, the between-act music was provided by the School of Rock All-Stars that played at the stage left outside bar.

      Good to see you, btw!

    • echoesblog Says:

      I remember. People wanted them back as I recall. I was glad you resisted. To be honest, I found them a little creepy.

  10. Sammis Says:

    Jon is willing and able. That is the difference. Just sayin’

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I will not bash Jon Davidson, he is a good singer, but without Jon Anderson this band has no soul and is just going through the motions. As you stated, they are just playing for a pay check. I saw them recently and it was heart breaking to say the least. Please guys, this is not YES any more. Call your self something else.
    We shall see what happens when the next CD comes out with Davidson on it. I think it will be just as bad as Fly (away) From Here which was absolutely atrocious!

    • echoesblog Says:

      Just to note, when I said I thought they were a “touring check machine,” I followed that up with “I was wrong.” I think the next Yes album will not sink or swim based on Jon Davison singing, but that Jon Anderson isn’t writing.

  12. Rick Dashiell Says:

    Your descriptions of some of the performers were childish and unnecessary. Simon Fitzpatrick may look to you like a member of the Allmans (whatever that is supposed to convey), but the man can play lights out. I was able to see the CPB from the front in small venues several times, and did not make the trip this time. Please spend some time writing more about the music instead of lines like “apparently a band called Scale the Summit”. They were on the material I saw in the weeks leading up to the show, and they are well-known to those who know the genre. I appreciate the time you took to do the review, but the snarky comments (especially about Annie Haslam) don’t reflect well on your effort. The music is the important thing, this isn’t Entertainment Tonight.

  13. Robert Feldman Says:

    John Di loberto just keep on doing your reviews as u are. Can’t please everyone, especially rabid fans. Davison is a good rplacemnt for Anderson, and who knows what the future will bring? It’s the music that counts, and the good feelings that flow from it. And thanks, Mr. DiLoberto for introducing me musically to Happy Rhodes!

    • Rick Dashiell Says:

      Robert, WXPN had always been a champion for Happy Rhodes, and her music is beyond awesome. I’m glad you are discovering her. I must say though, that there are people out there such as myself, that don’t give a hoot about the band politics or physical appearances. I am not a purist in that sense. I found the snarkiness and tone of the review beneath the talent of the reviewer. As you say, it’s the music that counts.

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