The History of Yes Live Albums

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In their tumultuous half-century of existence, Yes have released 15 live albums. That’s way too many live albums. No band, not even the kings of progressive rock, should average one concert recording every 3.3 years. Given the sheer bloat, it’s no shock that their stage discography runs the gamut from cosmically consummate (1973 triple-LP Yessongs) to cringe-worthy (2015’s Like It Is: Yes at the Mesa Arts Center).  Notice the trend? In their earlier, hungrier, more experimental years, Yes helped revolutionize the entire format: Yessongs and 1980’s Yesshows weren’t glorified bootlegs like many live records of the era – they were equal counterparts to their studio siblings, built on the same level of analog depth and detailed sound-staging. But in recent years, as the band’s lineup has essentially split into two touring factions, their overall live output has skyrocketed – resulting in seven albums in so many years. After all, writing songs is hard work, but recording the zillionth live version of “Starship Trooper”? These guys could do it in their sleep. Staring down Yes’ concert catalog is intimidating. What’s worth buying? What should’ve remained in the vaults? What should have never been recorded? It’s worth examining this body of work as a whole, starting at the very beginning. Yes recorded this behemoth triple-LP throughout 1972 during their promotional tours behind the back-to-back masterpieces Fragile and Close to the Edge, with engineer Eddie Offord manning the live sound. It remains the king of their live work: the sharpest fidelity, the most essential lineups (singer Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and, depending on the track, drummers Bill Bruford and Alan White), the most emotional performances (see Wakeman’s fanciful organ solo on “I’ve Seen All Good People”) and a track listing that unfurls like an extended greatest hits package (including visceral takes on the 18-minute “Close to the Edge” and “Heart of the Sunrise”). Director Peter Neal documented this fertile period with a concert film of the same name, recorded Dec. 15, 1972, at London’s Rainbow Theatre. But Yes treated the movie like an afterthought, focusing their attentions on fine-tuning the sprawling album. “Although the making of the film wasn’t that problematic – they filmed it, and all we did was stand there and play – the mixing was deemed to be very, very important,”  Howe reflected in the Yessongs 40 Years After DVD commentary. “The album … was deemed to be as important as a studio record, which later in my career I found out very few people agree with that. A lot of live mixing is treated as a [secondary] thing.” Often viewed as Yessongs’ weirder little brother, this (scaled-down!) double-LP compiles material from their tours in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Since Yes covered a daunting amount of sonic territory in the mid-to-late ’70s – from the grandiose new age prog of Tales From Topographic Oceans to the symphonic fusion of Relayer to the sleek prog-pop of Going for the One – it’s fitting that Yesshows is more scattershot and less cohesive than its predecessor. That it happened to come out in 1980, after key featured players Wakeman and Anderson had already left, only adds to its disorienting effect. But that awkward, pasted-together quality is Yesshows’ essential charm. Where else can you hear full versions of for-die-hards-only deep cuts “Ritual (Nous somas du soleil” and “The Gates of Delirium” alongside the New Wave-tinged “Don’t Kill the Whale”?  9012Live: The Solos (1985) Easily overlooked due to its dumb pun title and emphasis on instrumental solos, 9012Live is a deceptively revealing piece of work. Yes recorded this seven-track set during their 90125 tour in 1984, after the slick “Owner of a Lonely Heart” had revamped their image from prog dinosaurs to MTV hitmakers. And while the band’s progressive edge certainly softened under the leadership of guitarist Trevor Rabin, this LP proved their firepower hadn’t been totally depleted. Sandwiched between sturdy versions of “Hold On” and “Changes” were several tracks of particular note: Tony Kaye’s Bach-quoting keyboard showcase “Si,” Rabin’s mile-a-minute acoustic guitar workout “Solly’s Beard” and a synth-favored update of “Soon” (the famous excerpt from “The Gates of Delirium”). Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – An Evening of Yes Music Plus (1993) After the 1987-88 tour behind their 12th LP, Big Generator, Yes essentially disintegrated from a lack of creative momentum, leaving Jon Anderson free to form a new band – sort of. The singer essentially regrouped the classic Fragile-era lineup, recruiting Howe, Wakeman and Bruford (with King Crimson bassist Tony Levin in place of Squire, who remained part of the “official” Yes group). They recorded one self-titled studio album under a weirdly formal name (“Have you been in an accident? Pick up the phone and call Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe!”) and embarked on a world tour in 1989 and 1990, documented on this double-LP. The first album showcases each member’s solo talents (including Howe’s acoustic spotlight “Clap” and Anderson’s sparse take on “Time and a Word”), but the second disc is the selling point, featuring a mixture of ABWH tracks (“Brother of Mine”) and startlingly modern versions of classics like “Close to the Edge” and “Roundabout.” After the Rabin-Kaye-Anderson-Squire-White lineup completed their 1994 Talk trek, Yes split once again before reassembling with another jigsaw puzzle formation. The backstory is that British label Essential Records approached the management for the band (now reduced to Anderson, Squire and White) with interest in a new studio album – on the condition that they reenlist Howe and Wakeman to recapture the spark of their classic era. They wound up with two multi-part suites, “Be the One” and the 19-minute “That, That Is,” which, while far from the majesty of old, at least found the band aiming in that direction. To flesh out the release, Yes compiled the highlights of two shows recorded in San Luis Obispo, Calif. – and those live tunes — particularly the epics “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” and “Awaken” — sound more zestful than any of their concert sets since Yesshows.  Keys to Ascension 2 (1997) For their live-studio hybrid sequel, the rejuvenated quintet followed the same format – with one very important tweak: They’d written and recorded enough new tracks this time – including the menacing “Mind Drive” – to fill up an entire disc. The live material, while offering no revelations of performance or set list (“Close to the Edge”? Check!), continued to benefit from the powerful mixing and engineering of Bill Smith, Tom Fletcher and future Yes member Billy Sherwood. Something’s Coming: The BBC Recordings 1969–1970 (1998) This two-disc compilation captures the band in their earliest formation – Anderson, Squire, Bruford, Kaye (in his first Yes go-round) and guitarist Peter Banks – during a series of sessions for BBC radio. The recordings are charmingly ragged, as to be expected given the date, and the repertoire is heavy on cover material – including psychedelic workouts on the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” and Stephen Stills’ “Everydays.” Without any signature Yes songs in the track listing, Something’s Coming was always destined for die-hard fans only, but it remains an important document by showcasing the band’s more innocent roots. House of Yes: Live from House of Blues (2000) By now, we’ve officially entered the era of live LP gluttony. This recording, captured on Halloween 1999 at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas, is the last offering from the transitional lineup – Anderson, Howe, Squire, White and guitarist Billy Sherwood, briefly tenured keyboardist Igor Khoroshev – that recorded that year’s vastly underrated comeback LP, The Ladder. It’s worth the price of admission for completists, if only to hear live versions of then-new tracks like “Homeworld (The Ladder).” But the band was starting to sound bored by their own greatest hits – a troubling sign. Yes gave their live show a much-needed jolt with Symphonic Live, which documented their 2001 Amsterdam show featuring the European Festival Orchestra. The set list blended new (highlights from their recent, orchestral-assisted Magnification LP) with all varieties of old (from “Starship Trooper” to “The Gates of Delirium”) and random (Howe’s Vivaldi-quoting guitar spotlight). The only downside: Wakeman was unable to perform due to scheduling issues. (Keyboardist Tom Brislin filled in capably, but he had some pretty huge shoes to fill.) This three-disc box set offers something for everyone, spanning the band’s tours and radio broadcasts from 1970 to 1988. The sound quality ranges from fly-on-the-wall to borderline-studio, and the track listing is similarly bonkers. Of particular note are the rarities, including an expansive cover of the Young Rascals’ “It’s Love,” the previously unreleased “We Can Fly From Here” (later reworked on the Fly From Here LP) and raw versions of Tormato cuts “Circus of Heaven” and “Future Times/Rejoice.” Live at Montreux 2003 (2007) With Wakeman back in the fold, Yes plunged forward with this double-disc outing, recorded during their headlining set at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival. The obvious tracks are here – hooray, yet another version of “Roundabout”! – but they fortunately sprinkled in some deeper cuts, including Anderson’s vocal barrage “We Have Heaven” and a retooled take on Relayer anthem “To Be Over.” Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – Live at the NEC – Oct 24th 1989 (2010) A two-CD/DVD offering from the Yes-that-wasn’t offers more of the same: solid, late ’80s versions of prog standards and, well, some other, much less interesting stuff from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. After Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe assembled to record their second studio album, the suits at Arista Records quickly decided they needed some outside hands to help craft radio-friendly material. So who did Yes call, you ask? The other Yes. After Rabin handed over some music, the managerial brain trust determined that it made most sense for the two Yes factions to form a … union, leading to the band’s oft-maligned 13th studio album, a hodgepodge of too many players and very little musical vision. Thankfully, the resulting Union tour redeemed that wasted opportunity, showcasing what an eight-man Yes could do with everyone on the same page. The triple duo attack (Kaye and Wakeman, Bruford and White, Howe and Rabin) breathes new life into these sacred prog hymns: For proof, look no further than the drummers’ dual pummel on “Awaken.” In the Present – Live from Lyon (2011) Another transitional Yes lineup, another live album. In the Present – recorded in Lyon, France, prior to the release of their 12th LP, Fly From Here – features keyboard work from Wakeman’s son Oliver, along with the soaring tenor of Benoît David, the former Yes tribute singer who replaced Anderson in 2008 after health issues prohibited him from touring. All awkwardness considered, this one’s way more engaging than it should be – partly because, with Anderson out of the lineup, they toyed a bit with their set list, bringing in the early psychedelic stunner “Astral Traveller,” Squire-penned Tormato ballad “Onward” and metallic Drama opener “Machine Messiah.” Songs From Tsongas (2014) Documenting one of their 35th anniversary shows in May 2004, Songs From Tsongas arrived as a nostalgic glance back into happier, less turbulent times – in the age before tribute singers became the new norm. Just hearing Anderson’s voice again was probably enough for some fans, but the set list was also surprisingly well-rounded, incorporating rare tunes like “Mind Drive” and “Every Little Thing.” Like It Is: Yes at the Bristol Hippodrome (2014) Like It Is feels a like a defeatist title for this two-part live series, but it also feels accurate: With a new tribute singer (Jon Davison) replacing an old tribute singer (Benoît David), “Life goes on without Jon Anderson” seemed to be the mantra. This 2014 set, recorded in Bristol, England, highlighted the band’s Three Album tour, which featured full-run performances of Going for the One, The Yes Album and Close to the Edge. Perhaps realizing we didn’t need yet another live version of “Siberian Khatru,” they culled only the previous two LPs for this release. Other than proving Yes were still a thing – and offering rarely played cuts like “Turn of the Century” – this one has little reason to exist. Like It Is: Yes at the Mesa Arts Center (2015) Somewhere within their busy schedule of full-LP tours and live album releases, Yes managed to record a studio album with Davison, 2014’s Heaven & Earth. But instead of documenting those songs, Like It Is Part Two continues with the front-to-back album approach, this time featuring Fragile and Close to the Edge. Did we really need that elusive concert version of Bruford’s noise-jazz interlude “Five Per Cent For Nothing”? Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two (2015) Sure, Yessongs is the pinnacle of live Yes. But only the most obsessive Yes fan would hear a triple-LP and think, “That’s well and good, but how about 11 more discs?” Progeny features seven full shows from the Close to the Edge North American tour, with the same set list for each performance. It’s a lot to soak in, and even die-hards would fail the blindfold test – at a certain point, if you can spot the intimate differences between the Ottawa and Knoxville shows, you may have a tad too much time on your hands. But even if you only listen to it once, Progeny is worth that one ride: Too much of a good thing can only be overkill but never unwarranted. Topographic Drama – Live Across America (2017) After Squire’s death in June 2015, Yes carried on by recruiting former member Billy Sherwood, the late bassist’s friend and disciple, to step into his massive boots. Not long after, White was forced to step aside temporarily due to back surgery, with replacement drummer Jay Schellen offering his services. This patchwork lineup toured throughout 2016 and 2017, performing the entirety of Drama and half of Tales From Topographic Oceans, hence the name of this perfunctory live set. Without a single founding member in their ranks – and with only one classic-era player, Howe, in stage-ready condition – it’s hard to even call this band Yes. And judging by the sloppy rhythmic timing (the intro to “Machine Messiah”) and out-of-sync riffs (“Close to the Edge”), they were having trouble living up to their own mighty name. The good news: Given how often they release live albums, we shouldn’t have to wait long for a redemption LP.

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