by Greg Mullins
Under a beautiful, starry night in the hills above Saratoga, California, the Mountain Winery was the perfect place to spend an evening swimming in the philosophical musings and eclectic virtuosity of one of the best-known progressive rock groups of the 70’s & 80’s – YES!
What a beautiful place for a concert! The recently revamped Mountain Winery is easily one of the most stunning musical venues I’ve ever stepped into – the lush vineyards surrounding the property, an incredible view of the South Bay area, the winery motif played up for elegance, and there just isn’t a bad seat in the house.
My view from about 6 rows up on stage right, put me practically eye level with the legendary Steve Howe, and a perfect place to watch Geoff Downes work his magic in the keyboard cage. On the far side of the stage, the big man on bass, Chris Squire, his Rickenbacker bass looking almost toy-like in his large hands, and 2nd-part vocal harmonies were really a joy to behold. At center stage, Jon Davison was on task with his interpretation of the inimitable vocals of Jon Anderson. And buried behind his massive drum set was the rock-solid Alan White. The stage there isn’t huge, however it fit the band nicely, and its proximity to the audience is very comfortable. The sound system was very clear and not overpowering, but I did feel that there could have been a bit more sound support on the sides of the stages– just a single 3-speaker drop gave me a bit of a mono-like sound field, as there isn’t any back-of-house reflection, just audience and sky!
It was interesting to listen to the comments of those around me while walking in, many reflecting on the lineup and their respective talents, while several times the discussion of pulling off a 3-album performance in their entirety, guessing which albums would be performed, although this was not a secret. The audience was a very respectful and responsive crowd, which was really a pleasure to experience. We’re talking a packed house of 30 to 70-somethings, with an elderly woman in her wheelchair right up front and center! My friend and I couldn’t help but point out to each other different folks in the crowd who were playing air-guitar riffs and drum grooves as the night went on, and as the more popular radio tunes were played, most everyone joined in. Each album’s conclusion brought a standing ovation, which brought smiles to this aged quintet.
One of the main topics of conversation, even while out in the parking lot preparing for the evening by enjoying a bottle of ‘YES’ wine from the Rockin’ R Winery in Paso Robles, was the daunting task of finding someone to sing in the shoes of Jon Anderson! Knowing the difficulties other mega-groups like Chicago and Journey have had in procuring suitable replacement front men, finding someone to shine in a progressive rock band of this stature reminds me so much of the movie, Rock Star, in that the commitment to the lyrical difficulty, incredible alto/soprano vocal range, and powerful stage presence are so important to this type of show. The fellows of YES made a great choice in Jon Davison. I’m guessing 30ish, singing all these classic songs, and taking the horse by the reins … He was close to spot on with inflection and vocal quality. He probably wasn’t even born when these tunes were being played in stereophonic quality on America’s turntables. Although I expected a sort of ‘cover band’ experience, right from the get-go, his first vocal lines began to make believers of us. I did find that I continued to compare and contrast what I was hearing throughout the show, and by the end of the night, I felt quite satisfied with both his vocals and stage presence. Was it the dream of a lifetime for him? Maybe not, but he did demonstrate full commitment to the role.
In my career as a guitarist, I’ve always been impressed with the talents and musicianship of this band, enjoying radio cuts and a few of their albums, but I’ve never actually been to one of their shows until now, so I was really looking forward to this experience. Sitting just a few rows away from a member of Guitar Player Magazine’s ‘Gallery of Greats’, my treat of the evening was feasting on every lick this icon could toss out! Watching Steve Howe work through the evening’s set list played on a multitude of guitars and other stringed instruments, including kicking in a ‘sliding’ steel guitar, rolling in on rails whenever he desired – and, oh what a great sound he coaxed out of it!
As the night progressed, I couldn’t help but notice that as they laid out their intricate ‘prog-rock’ fare, watching them work through passages that, for the most part were executed cleanly and tastefully, it was a little loose in places. This type of music really relies on solid synchronicity – and with Howe trying to jam in all of his little nuances, sometimes he forced things to fit, but he did it honestly, which probably went unnoticed by most.
With my experience as a musician who has spent several years in the tribute band arena, getting it right is tough to do. Getting it right from the original acts perspective is a completely different animal, what with newer technology challenges and roadblocks of sheer time gone by! After all, what we are experiencing is a real phenomenon – aging bands still playing and drawing quite well, all the while trying to capitalize on their youth before it’s too late. Some pull it off well, while others – not so much.
Overall, the great 3 and 4-part harmonies, layers of keyboard sounds, intricate guitar riff adventures, and the strength of the rhythm section proved to win the night, as the audience demanded more after the third album came to a close, and were gifted with the obvious choice of Roundabout! We managed to move from our stage-right seats to the upper level balcony area and proved to ourselves that the view from above was just as sweet, and I finally got a look at Alan White’s drum set in action!
Although I wasn’t entirely blown away, as my interests in this type of music were more in line with King Crimson and other more fusion-based bands such as Return To Forever and Weather Report, I’d give the show 8 Skulls for bringing their talents out, and playing with as much heart as they always have!