Friday, August 1, 2014

Yes' Step Beyond: Imagining a Change

All week long I have been at Aikido Summer Camp, and have had the great pleasure of watching my wife take her black belt test.  Classes have been great, and her success has made me very proud.  As I climb in bed at night, however, I've been playing meaningless little imaginary games that only the hardcore Yes fans could even understand. If that's not you, this post might not make much sense.  At the very least, if you are just tuning in, you might want to back up to yesterday's post for context.

While Fly from Here was a pretty good effort, its essence laid in revisiting past material and really did not provide a sustainable vision for Yes’s future. Heaven and Earth, however, is quite a different story. Like it or not, it has an inarguable Yes-ness, and Davison's enthusiasm for the band hints at a longer range, perhaps past the point at which some of his elder bandmates might be willing or able to continue.

At different times, Yes' ex-keyboardist Rick Wakeman and bassist/musical director Chris Squire both have hypothesized that the band could, in fact, exist after its originating members have retired. Many people draw the line at Anderson’s departure, but with Jon Davison injecting new blood into the band, it kind of begs the question: Could the Yes name move forward with even more new blood than Davison, maybe without a single original or classic member?

It is a tricky proposition, but an important one for the classic rock generation. As bands with strong identities reach the age of retirement, can they “sell the business” in a way that the fan base will accept? Yes, a band whose identity has already survived so much change, is uniquely positioned to address this issue. There are certainly musicians out there with clear ties to the band’s heritage that could move the Yes name forward not by just playing the classic albums well, but by creating new music in the Yes tradition.

Because there is a tradition, there are roles to fill, but fortunately, Davison has emerged as Anderson’s heir apparent and a member to rally around. If a full changing of the guard were to come to pass, however, it would have to follow the retirement of Chris Squire, who has been keeping Yes’ flame alight for the past 45 years. In addition to his distinctive bass playing, his backup vocals are absolutely integral to the Yes sound, and he is, for all intents and purposes, the band’s musical director. The only person that could come close to covering all these bases would be Billy Sherwood.  He has worked behind the scenes with Yes for over a decade at this point, and it would be really exciting to see him form the core of a new Yes with Davison. Watch him tear up this classic:

A potential successor for Howe was a bit less obvious, but in doing research on Sherwood, I discovered a contender in the above video clip. Clearly, Jimmy Haun has some rapport with Sherwood and he has the flexibility to cover both Howe and Rabin’s guitar work. His contributions as Howe's stand-in on the politically troubled Union album weaves him even further into Yes’ DNA. It would be interesting to hear his unique voice officially take the lead in the context of a Yes project.

The most fluid role in Yes’ history is that of the keyboardist, and there are many players that the fanbase would love to see come back. In my opinion, however, Oliver Wakeman never really got a chance to shine on his own before he was ousted in favor of Geoff Downes during the Fly from Here sessions. His presence would simultaneously acknowledge and sidestep the issue of his father’s rather long shadow.

That leaves the drummer, a role that has not been as fluid, but perhaps the one that needs to be addressed. I can’t help but think that if White abdicated the drum throne and allowed some fresh hands behind the set, the energy of Heaven and Earth would have been much different. Despite White’s immense contribution to the Yes canon, significant part of the fan base still laments the loss of Bill Bruford. At the risk of turning this lineup into “Yes Kids,” bringing Dylan Howe into the fold is an interesting option, and one that would satisfy the more conservative fanbase. The last name alone buys him some credibility, and he would most likely bring back the jazzier approach that characterized the early days of Yes.

Davison, Sherwood, Haun, Wakeman, and Howe: I would like to think that if these five guys were put in a room and told to “make a Yes album,” the results would be phenomenal. At the very least, they would know what to do.  Of course, it’s all just fantasy football for the prog-rock nerd. These are real live musicians with their own careers and political complications, and not just pieces on a chess board. In any case, such a reconfiguration of the group would be interesting no matter what form it took, and would be a distinctly Yes thing to do. Considering the resistance to Anderson’s departure, however, I can’t imagine the resistance that would come from more conservative factions of the fanbase. Such a next-generation group would absolutely have to have Squire’s blessing if there were any chance of acceptance. That and a Roger Dean cover.

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