Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Yes and The Ladder's Next Rung

Before I launch into the reasoning behind my support of Billy Sherwood playing bass for Yes on their upcoming dual-headline tour with Toto, please don’t misunderstand my intent. I am in no way trying to eclipse Chris Squire or make light of his recent leukemia diagnosis.  He is a historically significant rock bassist, and I have never lost belief in his vision as Yes’ musical director.  I am genuinely concerned for him and wish him the best in his recovery. By naming Sherwood as his stand-in on the tour, however, it is quite safe to assume that Squire believes the show must go on.

This isn't terribly surprising, because this mindset has circumscribed the band since their inception. Musicians have come and gone, but the band has forged ahead. The interwoven contributions of Yes’ various members have enough common threads for an essential “Yes-ness” to emerge that is easy to hear, but tricky to exactly pin down. For example, like many Yes fans, I see last year’s Heaven and Earth as a flawed but ultimately successful work because it evokes this indescribable “Yes-ness,” due in no small part to current lead singer Jon Davison’s persuasive conviction for Yes music.

Propelled by the theory that Yes’ music transcends any specific membership, I have spent an embarrassingly inordinate amount of time daydreaming about who could carry on the Yes name for another ten or fifteen years in the event that the band’s original members were to retire and pass the band on. I have posted a couple of times on this subject, and I still stand by February’s dream-team lineup.

This seemed like the meandering fantasies of a prog-rock nerd at the time, but Squire’s inclusion of Sherwood on this tour as his stand-in sets an interesting precedent. As I said last summer, he is the only artist who could realistically come close to stepping into Squire’s impossibly big shoes. His history with Squire and Yes make him the singular musician that diehard, open-minded fans would allow on stage (which are probably the majority of Yes' audience at this point, anyhow).

I have virtually zero investment in Toto, but I am seriously thinking about traveling to see what Yes looks like with Sherwood on bass. I feel quite sure that, with their limited performance time, Yes will be “playing the hits” once again. In an ideal world, however, their setlist would include some of the excellent music that Sherwood contributed during his time in the band, particularly from The Ladder.

Sherwood had been an official member of Yes for several years when this album was released in 1999. Although the band has had many good releases since, The Ladder stands, in my opinion, as the last really great Yes album. After nearly two decades of exploring various incarnations with sputtering success, this album represented something that the band had been searching for since 1988: a coherent compromise between their exploratory 70s work and the accessibility that they enjoyed in the 80s.  It was convincing enough back then to turn on some of my high school aged students on to Yes music on its own merit, rather than the merit of the band's long history.

Historically, the band has done their best work with a producer that takes an active role, so I think that it is fair to give some of the credit to producer Bruce Fairburn. Like Nick Raskulinecz did for Rush almost a decade later, he brought the objective ears of a longtime Yes fan to the recordings and encouraged the band to look at their own long history as a source of inspiration.

With his oversight, there was a sense that The Ladder recaptured the collaborative atmosphere that generated Yes’ best material. This allowed for the creative inclusion of keyboardist Igor Khoroshev, who managed to channel the best of Wakeman’s characteristics without cloning him outright. Although Sherwood’s performance contributions are much more subtle, his compositional fingerprints are all over The Ladder in terms of songwriting and arrangement.

It would be inspiring to see Yes include a couple of tracks from The Ladder on this tour to acknowledge Sherwood’s presence, but the band just doesn’t work that way these days.  Given the opportunity, they gravitate towards playing full versions of their past music even when they have new material to feature.  There are already rumors of Fragile and Drama features in 2016.  I will gladly accept seeing Davison and Sherwood together onstage, however, in the hopes that they generate some chemistry. With Davison’s melodic strength and Sherwood’s penchant for Yes-like compositions, I hypothesize that these two could one day form the creative core of a totally next-gen Yes.

There will be some who have the opinion that this sort of theoretical play is disrespectful to Squire, and you are entitled to that opinion. I feel, however, that it is the grandest compliment imaginable. To realistically propose that Yes’ music can convincingly transcend the confines of its originators and live on is a testament to Squire’s life work. If it were to happen, it would put Yes's music in the same league as legendary musicians like Count Basie, whose band continues to tour and record even today, nearly thirty years after his passing. No small company.

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