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Yes Returns with Its Best Guitarist to Play Its Three Greatest Records

Being a rock fan in the early '70s meant never knowing a year when rock wasn't moving forward — when newer and bolder innovations weren't always just around the corner.

Yes took the burgeoning progressive rock movement further — and with a longer running time — than anyone else had dared to before. Album-side suites, cosmic lyrics inspired by yogis, circular chanting, odd time signatures, squiggly synth sounds — if there was a glass ceiling to this thing we still called rock, Yes was going to smash through it. Some said prog rock was excessive. Well, so was going to the moon — but someone had to try, and thank goodness Yes got us there musically, bless its starship-trooper heart.

Growing up in a heady climate like that, where musicianship was king, the men of Yes seemed superhuman. Jon Anderson hitting helium notes, which made singing along an impossibility for any post-pubescent male; the towering highs and lumbering lows of bassist Chris Squire; the rhinestone-caped key-thumping of Rick Wakeman; the polyrhythmic majesty of drummer Bill Bruford, playing in 17/16 time when it was all we could do to understand basic algebra.

And, of course, you had the crazy flying fingers of classically trained guitarist Steve Howe. A high school friend who saw a particularly rowdy Yes concert at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City in 1976 swears he witnessed Howe perform a miracle of musical dexterity. Although he can't quite remember whether it was a beer can or a Frisbee, something flew out of the unruly audience and crashed against Howe's fretboard in the middle of a typically complicated guitar run. What happened next? Nothing. Howe's steely concentration couldn't be broken for even a millisecond.

"Well, I'm delighted to hear that," laughs the man himself, all the way from England via telephone. "That sort of occurrence at Yes shows is very rare. Now we just get people filming the whole show on their phones, which is rather annoying. These people are watching the whole show through a camera lens, so they could just as well be home than in a theater."

Fans aiming their smartphones at the current tour will capture Yes alumni Howe, Chris Squire, Tony Kaye, and Alan White, along with new lead singer Jon Davison, performing the entirety of three of the most enduring and popular albums in Yes' discography — 1970's The Yes Album, 1973's Close to the Edge, and 1977's Going for the One. But don't worry, they encore with a rousing "Roundabout."

The idea to perform complete albums in concert has been in vogue for quite some time, but it's something new to Yes. Howe suggested they perform three complete albums, since they haven't done anything like that that since first touring in support of Tales from Topographic Oceans nearly 40 years ago.

"When we did that album, we played the whole thing live, and a little bit later we only did sides 1 and 4. I would welcome playing it again," says Howe. "For this tour, we chose The Yes Album, which is the first one I played on when I joined. It made sense since it had a lot of the songs we always play live. And Close to the Edge — we'd dropped those songs from the set, so people would be excited to hear them again."

Going for the One arrived in stores at a time when punk rock emerged to put music back into the hands of people who couldn't play it. In the rock history books, this generally is portrayed as a good thing, and in some ways it was.

If you want to look at it another way, it was the first genuinely conservative movement in rock. No future is right. By and large, punk rock was the reinstitution of music that had already happened before — only now played faster and with more spit caked on it. From that point on, rock was just going to be a smorgasbord of our past influences with only divergent window-dressing to make it seem current.

Even Yes reacted to changing tastes by scaling back its large concept albums in favor of shorter individual songs, jettisoning their traditional Roger Dean cover art in favor of sterile Hipgnosis designs, and penning lyrics more colloquial and earthbound than they'd been since Time and a Word in 1969.

Going for the One concluded with Yes' last large-scale composition until it reunited as a recording unit in the '90s, the hypnotic 15-minute opus "Awaken."

"We brought 'Awaken' back into the show before we even decided to do the whole Going for the One album on this tour," says Howe. "It was great to be playing such an emotional number."

After 1977, Yes seemed confused and lost as the rest of us humans, issuing the unpopular Tormato, singing "Don't Kill the Whale" as they themselves seemed the ones beached to extinction. That was followed by the Jon Anderson-free Drama, the first Yes album in a decade not to go gold.

That began a trend of retrenchment that led to most of the major prog-rock groups, like Yes, ELP and King Crimson, going away, leaving a pool of talent free to join other AOR supergoups like GTR (which featured Howe and Genesis refugee Steve Hackett) and Asia, which featured Carl Palmer, John Wetton (ex-UK and King Crimson), and Geoff Downes, also late of Yes and the Buggles.

Howe kept busy in Asia for a good chunk of the '80s, during which time Yes commercially reinvented itself with the Trevors — Trevor Rabin as guitarist and singer/songwriter and Trevor Horn producing. When a long-running, successful band never maintains a consistent lineup for more than two studio albums in a row, it becomes possible to summon up ex-members whenever someone leaves; Yes, for all its changes, has always been able to call itself Yes. So for those of you keeping track . . .

"The first two Yes albums I wasn't on," Howe says, "and I wasn't on the couple of albums that Trevor Horn was on. And then I did the reunion album in 1991, which had everybody."

That album, ironically titled Union, was not unlike when spouses remarry and they all show up for awkward moments at Christmas. The album sounds like a demilitarized zone, with several participants implicitly struggling to take control, but to Yes' credit and their accountants' delight, they toured as a nine-piece for the first and last time. Did they tag-team and jump onstage only for the songs they knew?

"There were different ideas on how we would do. In the end, we stayed on the stage the whole time," he says, with what sounds like measured displeasure. "I left for one song, and then I came back, and we couldn't get any of the other guys to leave."

Earlier this year, Howe decided to lighten his roadwork woes to concentrate on solo work and Yes, which meant bailing from Asia — which had been touring in its original lineup since 2006.

"I'd been doing two bands, Yes and Asia, and I got a bit squashed and stretched and pulled trying to do both. So I made the decision that Yes has more to do with my overall musicianship than Asia."

When asked which Yes songs he finds the most challenging, he laughs and says, "The ones I don't know how to play. One of the ones I hadn't played for a long time. 'Sound Chaser' is one I like that we haven't done for a while. And there are parts of 'Gates of Delirium,' all those bits in the arrangement you have to remember."

The process of relearning Yes is not unlike what a cover band of mere mortals would have to do — the difference for Howe being that at some point auto-memory impulses would kick in, and he'd be STEVE HOWE OF YES in big letters.

"Everyone has to do their homework before heading into rehearsals. You have to dazzle up the part, you have to study the arrangement on the record — that's your Bible, and you learn it very thoroughly with no compromise."

"Because," he says with some severity, "there will be questions."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic