Yes Live at Montreux 2003 Eagle Eye Media
With nearly a dozen video releases available spanning almost its entire history, one has to wonder if another Yes concert DVD is really necessary. Those who picked up the Essentially Yes (Eagle Records, 2006) box set, which features a teaser bonus CD of an hour's worth of material from the group's performance at the 2003 Montreux Jazz Festival, know that this was one of the best live performances documenting the classic Yes line-up. Whether or not you've heard that bonus CD, the Live at Montreux 2003 DVD confirms that, long in the tooth though it may be, Yes still has the power to deliver.
That this line-up focuses primarily on music from its 1971-1977 glory days has been a source of some criticism, but with a performance like this one can easily forgive the group's generally backward-looking stance. That said, the group's 2001 tour (complete with symphony orchestra) in support of Magnification (Eagle, 2001) demonstrated a group on the creative upswing, and the two tracks performed at Montreux from that recordthe title track and "In the Presence Of"find this new material fitting right in with more well-heeled material from The Yes Album (Atlantic, 1971), Fragile (Atlantic, 1971), Close to the Edge (Atlantic, 1972) and Going for the One (Atlantic, 1977).
Performance aside, Live at Montreux also boasts its own distinction: nearly the entire Fragile album is recreated, including the seldom-performed "South Side of the Sky" and the even rarer "We Have Heaven." Close to the Edge gets fair representation, with both the majestically symphonic "And You and I" and harder-edged "Siberian Khatru" (a longtime set opener) played as if the group's life depended on it. Guitarist Steve Howe may appear a little emaciated and thin on top while bassist Chris Squire could use a good dietician, but if one closes one's eyes, the years melt away.
Nor is opening one's eyes a problem. Always the group's most animated live performer, Squire, even with the added years, doesn't look like an aging rocker trying to replicate his old moves. His gritty sound, commingling counterpoint and rhythmic anchor in a way that has been often imitated but never copied, is in full force, and while it's a bit of a shtick by now, his feature with drummer Alan White, "The Fish," is still a guaranteed show-stopper.
Howe has never been a particularly dynamic performer visually, but his playing here is looser and more spirited than on the somewhat embarrassing House of Yes: Live from the House of Blues (Beyond, 2000). His solo segment, which includes the crowd-pleaser "The Clap," is even more notable for its introa solo acoustic version of "To Be Over" from Relayer (Atlantic, 1974), the album that competes with Close to the Edge as Yes' finest hour.
When White replaced Bill Bruford in Yes after Close to the Edge, many fans missed the founding drummer's crisp attack and metrical precision. Over the years, however, White's sound and approach has evolved, and in many ways it's hard to think of Yes with anyone but White on board. He's proven himself to be a different but equally creative a player with a more aggressive rock edge.
While the advent of midi and sampling technologies make such things functionally superfluous, Rick Wakeman not surrounded by a myriad of keyboards simply wouldn't be right. That said, Wakeman remains the perfect keyboardist for Yes. While bombast isn't a foreign term for either Wakeman or Yes, there simply hasn't been a keyboardist in the band before or during one of his many absences capable of matching his combination of blinding virtuosity and ear for texture. Wakeman would leave the group for the first of many times after Tales from Topographic Oceans (Atlantic, 1974), but hindsight finds that, while he many not have had the spotlight on him as much as he'd have liked, his unique contributions as a player were absolutely essential to the success of that double-disc concept album.
Yes (L:R):Steve Howe, Jon Anderson, Alan White, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman
That vocalist Jon Anderson can still hit the high notes at his age is a remarkable feat in itself. Anderson's lyrics have sometimes come under fire for their apparent lack of sense ("...rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace"?), but somehow they always manage to work, if not in clear meaning then as rhythmic articulations that mesh hand-in-glove with the music. Again, his performance here is a major improvement over House of Yes.
If there's one progressive rock band that can be accused of excess and pretension, Yes is it. But on the epic "Awaken" (From Going for the One) the group proves its ability to approach subtleties of texture and ambience as adroitly as it does blinding technique and the occasionally over-inflated self-indulgence.