Anyone who has followed Yes for a long time — the band’s existence has spanned over four decades — has known about the changing lineups, members quitting and rejoining, feuds over naming rights, and vacillation between pop sellouts and attempts to recreate the magic of early-70s albums like Fragile and Close to the Edge.
For those and other reasons, I hadn’t paid much attention to the band for a while. Yes was one of the least successful of the original A-list of prog-rock bands in making it past the 1970s. Genesis’s wholehearted embrace of pop made them superstars; King Crimson stayed fresh and creative; ELP floundered and then just gave up. Yes kept going… and going… and going.
One of the consequences of Yes’s insistent longevity has been the occasional appearance of bands with “Mostly Yes” personnel. The first of these was in the early 80s, when vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboard player Rick Wakeman had left the band. Their replacements were, respectively, Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the synthi-new-wave band Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”). The sole studio album from this lineup, Drama, is now considered underrated: its cohesive band sound and energy level were Yes’s best since The Yes Album in 1971.
Recently I found two live albums from other “Mostly Yes” lineups that had some surprising elements. One is An Evening of Yes Music Plus, a 1993 live album from the group that called itself Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (ABWH) after rejecting alternative names like “The Affirmative” and “No.” The lineup of Anderson, Bill Bruford on drums, Wakeman, and Steve Howe on guitar was responsible for the classic albums named above… along with bassist Chris Squire. Squire held the legal rights to the Yes name and had his own version of the band based in LA.
As it turns out, An Evening of Yes Music Plus is quite possibly the best of the 12-count-em-12 live albums Yes released under its own moniker. The difference can be summed up in two words: Bill Bruford. Anderson and Howe were mostly content to re-create the tracks’ studio versions, while Rick Wakeman’s most interesting contribution was his cheeky solo piano intro to “Long Distance Runaround.”
Bruford played like it was 1989 (when the performance was recorded) instead of the early 70s. His drumming style changed continuously from Yes’s beginnings in 1969 to forty years later when he retired from recording and performing. It wasn’t just the Simmons electronic drums that he picked up in the 80s; his entire style evolved, and he gained new creative energy from stints in King Crimson as well as several avant-garde and jazz settings. He brought all that to renditions of classic Yes material and thus made the songs fresh and vital. These are also his only recorded live performances of songs from Close to the Edge, as he left Yes for Crimson just after recording that album.
Subsequently I heard Yes’s most recent live album, In the Present: Live from Lyon, a small-label release taken from a 2010 performance. It was all oldies; no token would-be hit from some new album that fans didn’t care much about anyway. Intriguingly, it included two tracks from Drama.
Jon Anderson wasn’t on that album and had always refused to sing anything from it live. Now, there he was, singing the Pink Floyd-ish “Machine Messiah” and the rocking “Tempus Fugit.” He sounded fine. Otherwise, In the Present contains desultory readings of classic tracks, including “Yours Is No Disgrace” from The Yes Album at a particularly draggy tempo. The reading of “South Side of the Sky” from Fragile is not bad.
Then I Googled this album and found out the secret: it wasn’t Anderson singing after all. The vocalist was Benoit David, the Canadian singer whom Yes had hired in 2009 from a Yes cover band to fill in during Anderson’s illness — an updated prog-rock version of the Judas Priest/Tim Owens story that led to the 2001 movie Rock Star. I was really fooled.
Even after learning this, I still found it hard to believe that Anderson wasn’t singing. As a mimic, Benoit David is better than Owens’s Rob Halford, Brian Howe’s Paul Rodgers (Bad Company), David Coverdale’s Robert Plant, and even JohnnyVan Zant’s Ronnie Van Zant in Lynyrd Skynyrd.
David stayed with the band for its ensuing studio album, Fly from Here, dividing his time between Yes and Mystery, his own prog band in Montreal. On Fly from Here, he didn’t really sound like Anderson. In fact, he sounded more like Trevor Horn.