By Mike Finkelstein
So, what do you do if you were part of a big name FM staple progressive/rock band in the 70’s and 80’s and you still want to play music? You may have already bought a fish farm, opened a recording studio, started an antiques business – but still, there is a tidy sum to be made playing your hits on summer and spring tours for the denizens who used to buy the albums and see your tours when they were 25 years younger.
Well, in the case of Yes and Styx, you first check to see if the band members are alive/healthy/up for continuing on, and that the vocals are intact. And that’s not a slam-dunk proposition anymore. But if you get through those preliminaries, then you might want to join forces and tour with a band in a similar situation. Which brings us to Yes and Styx at the Greek on Tuesday night. This was a strong double billing designed and centered on “progressive rock” to bring in fans of both bands and, indeed, the Greek was saturated with fans of both bands.
In their heyday of the early to mid-70’s, Yes were as archetypal a progressive art/rock band as you could find. Musically, they had their own vision of how it should all sound, developed their sound organically, and with strong songwriting and playing, grew to huge popularity. Their songs were often long, textured, drawn out arrangements, with little free form jamming. Their albums also came packaged in the surrealist cosmic airbrush fantasy paintings of artist Roger Dean. Yes still features original members Steve Howe on guitars and Chris Squire on bass, as well as long time off and on members Alan White and keyboardist Geoff Downes (who had nine separate keyboards onstage!).
Yes has had many personnel changes over the years but the one member who never left is Squire. They have parted ways for the time-being with original vocalist Jon Anderson-but they have found Benoit David in a Yes tribute band who sounds, you guessed it, just like Jon Anderson. He even had a lot of Anderson’s mannerisms down pat. It appears that tribute bands have become a bona fide go-to resource for an original band that needs to replace any trademark piece of their sound.
On Tuesday, Yes gave us a nice group of their best known tunes and a new number, “Fly From Here” complete with a video that viewed like a Pink Floyd clip. While the song selection didn’t go too deep into their catalogue, the band played with verve. David had Jon Anderson dialed in, easily pulling off songs like “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “All Good People” and “And You and I.” Yes’ remarkable sound goes up a notch and thrives when they are playing in between the words. Instrumentally, it came down to the band playing clean and regularly changing their dynamics to make the songs breathe. But it is the juxtaposition of Squire’s and Howe’s styles that makes it sound like Yes.
Both Squire and Howe approach their instruments in unorthodox manners. Squire’s bass is perhaps the most recognizable part of the Yes sound. He is actually a large man and his sound seems to reflect his size. Squire plays Rickenbacker basses (known for their growl), chords quite a bit, and can get pretty busy on his runs. His focus was melodic and when he danced around in the higher registers it impressively brought out the motion of the chords. Squire’s amplified sound also features vibrato and a lot of bottom end boost. The result is a rattling and pulsating bass tone that is all his own. On Tuesday, this boost and the Greek’s PA system were often at odds and Squire’s lowest notes became an ominous throbbing hum. You could hear the growl and the grit but itwas often washed away in the low din. His voice was also the prominent harmony part in their vocal sound.
To watch Steve Howe play guitar live is to realize just how well a clean guitar signal can work in a large setting. Clean sound just stays cleaner and more defined in the air. On frenzied runs like the opening of “Heart of the Sunrise” playing clean made a world of difference, putting the interplay between himself and Squire vividly at the front of the mix. Howe needed several different guitars to get all of his sounds into the mix and for most of the evening he switched between a red Stratocaster and a his trademark hollow body Gibson jazz box. But he also used a 12 string Laud for “I’ve Seen All Good People,” a table steel guitar and a MIDI-ed electric guitar on a stand for “And You and I.” Curiously, Howe’s stage amps were set up inside what looked like a small closet with no walls and the front removed—but it didn’t seem to affect the sound.
Yes’ encore was “Roundabout,” a tune that crunches and gushes gloriously all over the musical map, mixing classical guitar dynamics, harmonics, spacey lyrics, and lush organ and the classic grind of Squire’s bass line. “Roundabout” was their most popular radio song until “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” eclipsed it in the early “80’s to become their biggest hit. As it was recorded, it features many layers of textured overdriven guitars played by Trevor Rabin, quite the opposite of Steve Howe’s approach. Howe, of course, had to play the hit song Tuesday and offered up an intriguingly tamer, cleaner, and more spartan version of the guitar parts.
The show was opened by Styx, veterans of the American rock circuit since the early 70’s and a band with a very loyal following. Their music has always aimed at combining hard rock with progressive songwriting. These days they lean more towards rock and their sound is somewhere closer to say, REO Speedwagon or Kansas, than to Yes. (One lady even remarked during “Fooling Yourself” that she thought it was a Journey song).
While the band became a big commercial success in the ‘80’s it always seemed to be a struggle for the band to cohesively develop its identity. On the one hand, guitarists James Young and Tommy Shaw wrote and played guitar driven songs that powered the band’s rock credibility. On the other hand keyboardist, Dennis de Young steered the band far into pop territory that was at odds with its rock appeal—but sold well to the MOR crowd.
For this performance, de Young was no longer with the band, replaced by Lawrence Gowan, who easily sang all of the former’s parts and is definitely more in line with Styx’ rock stance. He was spot on for songs like “Lady,” and “Lorelei.” And he played a keyboard that spun like a carousel atop his circular podium. The possibilities for cinematic slapstick abound with this setup but it also allowed allow him to face in whatever direction he wanted to.
With a more unified band focus, Styx delivered the hits and even dug down a little deeper for songs like “Man in the Wilderness,” and “Crystal Ball.” Tuesday’s gig was a polished affair with leveled risers, beautifully arranged banks of amplifiers and a hotshot light/video show.
While every member of Styx performed with plenty of panache, the focal point of the band was Tommy Shaw. He has a winsome presence between songs, has his rock star moves and good looks firmly in place, and many of the women at the show marveled at how little body fat the man has on him. Shaw is versatile on guitars (he played acoustic, and 6-and 12-string electrics) and being able to work the dual guitar angle with J.Y. Young added dimension to the songs. There was also an appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo, who sits in with Styx as his health allows (he has contracted HIV).
Early in the evening the show began with a short set by LA singer/songwriter Shane Alexander.
To see more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.