Sunday, 4 December 2011

17th November 2011: Yes - HMV Hammersmith Apollo, Hammersmith

And so, with much delay, we come to the last of my gigs before what will become a rather unpleasant musical hiatus. Who knew ears could bring so much displeasure? I will soon discover what it's like to not be able to hear very much, but that's a story for another time.

On the 17th of November I'm once again sitting at work when I realise there are two gigs that evening in my gig calendar. No, I don't have tickets for either, which is why I've forgotten about them - but I've marked out two possibilities: Guillemots at Xoyo in Islington, and Yes at the Hammersmith Apollo. The two gigs couldn't be more different, frankly. Young, trendy, popular band at small intimate venue, with cheap tickets, or positively cretaceous, terminally unhip band at enormodome, with prices to match.

It's a tricky decision (no, really), firstly because I've seen Guillemots only a few months previously at an even smaller and even cheaper venue, and it's been 7 years since I saw Yes. Secondly because I figure that Guillemots need my money more than Yes do (although if Yes keep leaving disgruntled members behind, then their lawyers might put paid to that theory), and lastly, and frankly clinchingly (yes, that's a word), I've been fighting off a horrible cold for a couple of days and I'm not convinced I can stand up for several hours.

So, I get on the phone to the Hammersmith Box office to see if there's anything left worth having, and what do you know, there's a seat right there in row 5 of the stalls with my name on it. (Not literally, that'd be a bit weird, although it'd be an excellent trick. Might suggest it to Derren Brown.) *Cough* quid later and I'm on my way. If only it were always this easy to get the good seats, I might give up the ritual frustration of the Ticketmaster website at 9am on sale day and take my chances at the last minute every time.

The excellent thing about seated gigs is that you can show up about 5 minutes before show time, go right to your seat and watch the show. That's also the slightly rubbish thing about them, though. I'm a glutton for punishment and somehow don't feel like I've built up enough anticipation if I've not stood up for 3 hours listening to someone's awful mix tape whilst waiting for the main event. (The pay off is even better if you've stood through a terrible band who once got single of the week on Achingly Hip FM but can't play live to save their... um, lives. Superb example - The Big Pink supporting Muse. God that was awful.)

Anyway, I'm not quite sure how long it's going to take me to get there, so I head off as soon as I can, and then find myself arriving at the venue a full hour before the gig. With nothing much better to do, I decide to grab a Pepsi and a pipe of Pringles (a little one, obviously), and make my way to my seat. Arriving in a gigantic auditorium with about 3 other people and sitting there consuming my little snacks, I feel like I've turned up to the cinema to watch a film that no-one else wants to see. 

This must be a really crap film. Like Saw 13 or something.

It's not entirely inappropriate, given that Yes will tonight play a song called 'Life on a Film Set', the fact that they were once briefly called 'Cinema', and, oh yeah, that the Hammersmith Apollo started out life as a cinema. In fact it doesn't even try to disguise this fact, and it's all the better for it, with the vintage decor (and seats) still intact, it's an extremely grand venue and host to many legendary gigs over the years under its former name of the Hammersmith Odeon.

The snacks don't last too long, so I spend the next 45 minutes looking at rubbish on the internet on my phone and debating with my Facebook friends whether the man who sits down a couple of rows in front of me is one of the Chuckle Brothers (sadly, the consensus is that it's not - see what you think.)

Starship To-you-per

I last saw Yes in 2004, at which point the revolving door of members had spun back round to the "classic" 70s line-up including both "Accrington Pixie" Jon Anderson and Countdown regular and Grumpy Old Man Rick Wakeman. 

Having thoroughly enjoyed that gig, whilst still hanging onto the sneaking suspicion that they were already past their best, I'd decided that that would be my one and only Yes gig. I've therefore watched from the sidelines with some amusement as the band cycle through Rick Wakeman's various sons on keyboards and then take the bizarre step of replacing their lead vocalist with a soundalike from a tribute band. No, really. With no new album since 2001, things have been looking rather dismal for the band, until in the middle of the year my interest is piqued by the news of another line-up change, with keyboard and vocoder maestro Geoff Downes and production god Trevor Horn back in the fold for the first time since 1980 (the first time Anderson left), and a new album of original material, 'We Can Fly From Here'.

Form an orderly queue, ladies.

That album actually proves to be rather good, possibly the best since 1980's 'Drama' and most certainly the best since 1994's 'Talk', so the chance to hear some tracks from both the new album and 'Drama' (unplayed since Anderson rejoined the band in 1984) is the main reason I've come along this evening. And also to see just how much like Jon Anderson the new singer can possibly be.

Things get off to an exciting enough start with the obligatory grand orchestral opening before the band take to the stage. This year it's Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" which is suitably rousing to get everyone all fired up in anticipation. And then, band in place, the show begins.

Dum du-dur- duuuuuur, goes the instantly recognisable opening riff of 'Yours is No Disgrace', from 1971's 'The Yes Album'. Or rather, Dum. *tumbleweed* du-dur. *glaciers form and melt* Durrrrrrr. Ok, I'm exaggerating slightly, but it seems like somebody forgot to wind up the band before they stepped out on stage. This will be something of a theme for the evening, but I suppose it's something that's to be expected for a band which has been around since the late 60s and whose drummer is now 62 years old.

In any case, it's a good opener and a chance to take a look at the band in its current incarnation. On Bass guitar and angelic harmony vocals, sole remaining founder member Chris Squire. Chris is the one reason why there will always be a Yes, and a personal hero of mine, if only for the fact that he once released a Christmas album called 'Chris Squire's Swiss Choir'. Chris is still on fine form, with his trademark harmonies still very much intact, and Rickenbacker technique undiminished.

Excellent photo very much not my own - thank you
Matthew Becker, whoever you may be!

On stage left, Steve Howe who, whilst not being a founder member, has been in the band since 1970 so is very much part of the classic line-up. Despite having looked a hundred years old since about 1990, Steve's still very animated on stage, hopping about a bit whilst playing, and even, during the opening number, breaking out into a little run across the stage (as much as his guitar cord - or is it a life support cable? - will allow.) Steve plays acoustic and electric guitars (occasionally propped up on a stand so his poor bones don't have to carry the weight), as well as his trademark pedal steel on songs like 'And You And I'. 

On drums, Alan White, another member of the classic line-up, who joined the band in 1972. I'm a bit concerned by the fact that looks like he's in constant pain while playing, as if every beat is taking a horrific toll on his body, however I'm watching a 2001 DVD as I write this and he looks pretty much the same, so I have to assume that he'd hang up the sticks if that were really the case. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason for the slower tempos on the old songs may have something to do with Alan. You know, with me being a professional musician and all, obviously I'm in a position to make such judgements... *ahem.*

Thanks to Mike Godwin on Flickr.

And so to the "new" guys. On stage right, with flowing golden locks which blow in the wind like a Pantene commercial, Geoff Downes. A former Buggle, member of Asia and Yes veteran of several months in the 80s, Geoff is a keyboard whizz with proper stacks of keyboards, which he plays in the agreed prog fashion with one hand on either side of him (none of this poncy "play the entire set on one keyboard with a laptop connected" for Geoff.) He also gives us a masterclass on vocoder use on the excellent 'Tempus Fugit' from 1980's 'Drama' album which is very much Buggles-meet-Yes. Oh and he wears a brilliant red velvet jacket which makes him look like he got lost on the way to the Sgt. Pepper album cover.

And a keytar!! We'll come to that later. Thanks Michael Greenway, by the way.

And lastly, the real new guy. Benoit David is the youngster of the band at just 45, and has been singing with Yes since 2008, when the band needed someone to cover for Jon Anderson for a short tour and spotted him on YouTube singing with a tribute band. Subsequently, when Anderson was better, they decided that they liked Benoit better and carried on with him instead of getting Jon back. You couldn't make this stuff up, you really couldn't. Anyway, a lot has been made of the fact that Benoit sings just like Jon, which he does, in a way. I'm not honestly sure whether he naturally sings like this (which I hope) , or he puts it on for Yes gigs (which I suspect), but he manages to sound like both Anderson on the old stuff, Trevor Horn on the 'Drama' songs, and, well, a mix of both on the material from the new album. He also bangs his tambourine a lot, talks to the audience a little bit, and dances/hops around the stage in an amusing circular pattern, after which I expect him to lose his balance and go careering into Alan White's drums but somehow doesn't.

The second song of the evening is the aforementioned Drama track 'Tempus Fugit' complete with swirling psychedelic Yes logos on the backdrop when Geoff Downes does his vocoder 'Yes, yes...' chorus, which is good fun and goes down well, then they move on to 'I've Seen All Good People', which, according to the notes I make at the time is 'pedestrian'. Wow, evidently I'm enjoying myself a lot. 

Unfortunately, the overall impression which I can't escape is that the 70's tracks are really lacking Jon Anderson. Benoit does a good enough job, but singing so much like Anderson is always going to invite comparisons, and on this showing he just can't hit the notes with the same consistency that his predecessor did. His voice has the right qualities but, whether he's just having an off night or it's a bigger problem than that, it's just not as strong. 'And You and I', in particular, just isn't up to scratch (for me.) Added to the slowed down tempos, if I was just there to witness the classic 70's Yes material, I think I'd be leaving massively disappointed.

But, of course, I'm not, and things perk up a lot with the first of tonight's songs from the new album, 'Life on a Film Set', during which the band comes alive and everyone seems a bit more comfortable. A quick Steve Howe solo acoustic spot (I'd expect nothing less) gets a terrific crowd reaction, before another classic track, 'Heart of the Sunrise' where the band are absolutely on fire but Benoit really seems to be struggling with tuning issues.

And then they leave the stage and there's a proper old-fashioned intermission with ice cream salespeople with little trays and everything. Brilliant. I only wish the safety curtain had come down in front of the stage for maximum cinema nostalgia. 

I'm half wondering whether my cold will let me make it through the whole gig, when the lights dim, and the intro to 'Fly from Here', the epic title track of the new album, begins playing. (Incidentally my phone autocorrects the song's title to 'Flu from Here' which is rather more apposite given my rapidly diminishing health.) As soon as the band come back on and the song kicks off properly, I'm right there with them, and the gig kicks up another gear. 

Robbed of the opportunity to moan about dragging tempos or incorrect vocalists, I can concentrate on what I'm actually seeing, and they put in an excellent performance of the track which warrants the price of admission all by itself. Benoit seems a lot more at ease and hits the notes comfortably, and the rest of the band all seem to be having fun too. Even the backdrop changes from classic 70's Roger Dean album cover designs to some more modern footage of planes and airports. Full marks all round, and the audience roars appropriately.

It's followed up by 70's "Hit Single" 'Wondrous Stories', which is greeted by surprisingly polite applause, and then by the double whammy of 'Into the Storm', the highlight of the new album, and 'Machine Messiah', the highlight of the Drama album and the song which single-handedly invented neo-prog. All is forgiven. Benoit handles the vocals with aplomb, no-one seems to be about to fall asleep, and Geoff's hair is still shiny.

Of course, we can't be allowed to leave without a couple more hoary old chestnuts, so out comes 'Starship Trooper', during which Geoff Downes dons a keytar and heads out onto the stage to rock out with the others, something which ends up in the bizarre spectacle of the 4 non-drummers in the band in a line on the stage doing what can only be described as a 'Status Quo Dance'.

This photo is not from Hammersmith, which is worrying.
They obviously thought this was a good idea more than once.

And of course, we can't leave without having 'Roundabout' as an encore, which is nice and all but I'm immensely distracted by the guy a few rows in front, standing right in front of the right hand speaker stack, staring directly at it and dancing like an absolute lunatic. Nice to see people enjoying themselves but I can't help but feel that substances are involved somewhere along the line.

All in all, I leave happy. There's a good chance that if there is a next time, the line-up will again be different and the 'Fly from Here' and 'Drama' material will be off-limits, so I'm glad I've taken the opportunity to see this while I can. I do suspect that this actually *will* be the last time I see Yes, though. 

Yes Setlist:

Yours is No Disgrace
Tempus Fugit
I've Seen All Good People
Life on a Film Set
And You And I
Steve Howe Solo (Solitaire / Trambone)
Heart of the Sunrise

---Ice Cream---

Fly From Here
Wondrous Stories
Into the Storm
Machine Messiah
Starship Trooper



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