Climbing a Mountain of Yes!
“A river, a mountain to be crossed…”
That is the first line of South Side of the Sky, a heavy deep cut from Fragile, which appears not once in the fourteen disc box set that Yes just released, yet describes this set perfectly. Fourteen discs of music is a mountain to climb. And this isn’t a vast assortment of different career-spanning songs like most box sets (not counting the ones which are complete studio sessions for one album which are an entirely different beast altogether). This one is seven complete concerts from one tour in 1972. Now, if you were to take seven concerts from one tour of a band like the Grateful Dead, you would still hear an awful lot of different songs. But Yes have never been a bunch of California hippies who like to noodle and see where things end up. They are Englishmen, creating very precise, composed music. And when they tour, they play the same set every night. That’s not to say there is no room for improvisation within the precise structure of these songs. But it’s hard enough being able to perform such challenging music night after night let alone being up to speed on an entire catalogue of challenging music which could be different each night.
The idea of a collection such as this gives a casual listener a fright! Even progressive rock giants like Yes, who have a devoted following that eats this sort of thing up, has plenty of casual listeners thanks to classic rock radio putting songs like Roundabout on heavy rotation, and also thanks to their more accessible 80’s “hit,” Owner of a Lonely Heart. But a set like this is not made for them. Even for a fan like me, the sheer volume of music, let alone the fact that it is the same set of songs, is intimidating! A river. A mountain to be crossed. Indeed.
1972 is the year that I was born. And it was the year that Yes released their fifth album, Close to the Edge. It’s the third and last album they made with what has been considered the classic lineup of Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford. Bruford left after recording Close to the Edge to join King Crimson, giving Allan White only three days to learn it all before going on this tour. He rose to the occasion to be a part of a band at its prime, playing sold out stadium shows around the world. Other recordings later in this tour became the 1973 Yessongs live album.
At this point I have listened to the highlight set which compiles songs from the different concerts. This is two additional discs, sold separately for those unwilling to commit to the whole shebang. And I’ve listened to the first two discs of the box set (Halloween, 1972, Toronto). I’m enjoying hearing the different approaches to the same parts of the same songs. The song structure remains the same, the vocal harmonies are tight (though even only hearing two versions you can tell that sometimes they’re tighter than other times). Wakeman and Howe each get solo pieces, though the lack of a Squire solo piece is a very notable absence. The playing is all very fierce and raw. This is a band on fire, tearing it up and having fun doing it. I’d need to give it a more serious listen if I were setting out to write a review but the point here is how I, as a fan, can really properly digest this sheer volume of performances. Today, for instance, I listened to some of it while out riding my bike, some of it in the car with my family as background to various conversation, skipping the Wakeman solo and not yet finishing the encore of Yours is No Disgrace. That said, I enjoyed the hell out of it, noticing little bits that particularly pleased me, some snippets of tasty guitar or a moment of outstanding keyboard flourish that doesn’t happen on the studio version, or a vocal line that really touches me. I wish I had the time to set aside and really geek out on it, note for note. But however I get to take it in, I sure look forward to enjoying the ride.
If you want a more in-depth review of each show by a guy who sat down and listened to the whole thing in a day, there’s this.