Vocalist Jon Anderson and Yes aim for perfection at Fraze

Rick Wakerman of Yes; photo: Fred Kuhlman

by Ron Kozar

Yes, the classic progressive-rock band inducted last year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will be performing at Kettering’s Fraze Pavilion on Tuesday, September 12. The Dayton City Paper interviewed Yes vocalist Jon Anderson to find out what they have in store.

From the sound of things, both he, and they remain the perfectionists they have always been. “We still have that feeling of wanting to be great on stage and perform to the best of our ability, make sure the sound is really perfect,” Anderson says. Songs featured on this tour include Yes classics “Heart of the Sunrise,” “And You And I,” “Perpetual Change,” and “Awaken,” along with “South Side of the Sky” from 1972’s Fragile, which, says Anderson, “I haven’t done since we actually recorded it.” Also featured will be “I Am Waiting,” which Anderson and bandmate Trevor Rabin co-wrote for Talk, Yes’ often overlooked 1994 album. It’s a challenging repertoire. “These are not easy pieces of music to perform the way we want them to be done, which is perfection,” Anderson says. “And I’ve always been that way.”

He has always been that way. In Yes, others have always provided the fine-tuned instrumental talent. Anderson’s musical contribution is a choirboy voice that may be Yes’ most distinctive signature. But, in addition, he also provides the discipline, borne of an ambition for greatness that leads him to nag and prod his colleagues to create, to rehearse relentlessly, to aim high. “When we’re up on stage,” says Anderson, “we gotta play great.”

Discipline is sometimes necessary with artistic geniuses, two of which, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman, are accompanying Anderson on this tour. Fans recall Rabin as the youngish, multi-talented wunderkind who revived Yes’ fortunes with songs such as “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Lift Me Up,” fusing prog virtuosity and pop sensibility to garner more radio play than Yes ever before enjoyed. Rabin played both guitar and keyboards on the studio versions of those blockbuster songs. After his first stint with Yes, Rabin composed for movies, writing, among other things, the score for Disney’s “National Treasure” and themes from “Armageddon” and “Remember the Titans.” Anderson, who can’t read music, marvels at those like Rabin who, in Anderson’s words, “can make music in his head and write it down with dots. And that kind of freaks me out.”

Rick Wakeman’s fame may be wider than that of any Yesman. Though a classically trained pianist, Wakeman chose the rock stage over the orchestra hall. He had no fewer than five separate tours of duty with Yes, before and between which he composed vast set-piece works such as The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from which even the staid BBC has occasionally borrowed for theme-music fodder. Wakeman’s piano prelude to Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” and his Mellotron contribution to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” are among the most memorable riffs in all of rock. Wakeman had a second career as a comic on British TV’s “Grumpy Old Men” in the early 2000s. His bawdy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech last year had the crowd in stitches.

“They’re very silly,” says Anderson of his colleagues, but things get serious when it comes to their music. That’s when, in spite of his flower-power veneer, Anderson’s inner disciplinarian cracks the whip. “We’re very, very strict,” Anderson says. “When we get on the stage, we’re very, very committed to recreating the great Yes music because that’s who we are.” They rehearse often and at length to stay sharp. “When you rehearse for Yes music you can spend two or three hours performing if you’re not careful. It’s so much music.”

There’s little that Yes won’t sacrifice for that music. Sometimes, they’ve abruptly sent bandmates packing when the musical direction didn’t fit. The kinetic mix of personalities in the band has prompted so many comings and goings that you need a diagram to follow it all. First to be fired was showoff guitarist Peter Banks in 1971, to make way for the more painstaking, cerebral Steve Howe. Later firings victimized journeyman keyboardist Tony Kaye and virtuoso pianist Patrick Moraz, one because of Wakeman’s first Advent, the other because of Wakeman’s Second Coming. Among those who left of their own accord, aside from the ever-fickle Wakeman, were drummer Bill Bruford, guitarist-cum-keyboardist Rabin, and Anderson himself, twice, in 1979 and ‘89. With Anderson’s second departure, there were enough Yes veterans to staff two bands that jousted with each other in court over the right to fly the Yes colors. Record executives solved the problem by welding the two together into a single supergoup in 1991. More droppings-out and rejoinings since then have spawned more configurations. But the flame never flickered, even after the 2015 death of acclaimed bassist and Yes co-founder Chris Squire.

Since Squire’s death, the surfeit of Yes talent has again confronted the world with two competing Yeses, one led by Howe and drummer Alan White, the other being the Anderson-Rabin-Wakeman incarnation, which toured last year as “ARW” but is slated to play the Fraze as Yes. Happily, the Yes catalog has enough in it to keep both bands busy, whether those bands draw from classic LPs like Fragile and Close to the Edge, from the stadium-filling 90125, from the gloriously gargantuan Tales From Topographic Oceans and Relayer, or from any of a dozen other masterworks before, between, and after these others.  Listening to all of it just once would take days. And it’s all superb.

You might think they’re just too old for all this touring and drama. Anderson, now 72, suffered a respiratory attack in 2008 that nearly killed him. But he says it didn’t weaken his voice or diminish his stamina. “I just got better actually,” he says. “I think looking back over my 60 years, virtually 55 years anyway, of performing, I still feel that I’m getting better.” Nor has age diminished his musical ambition. “I sing every day, you know.  It’s my nature to go in my studio and sing some work that I’ve been working on, some songs that I’ve been trying out, even some new songs.” He’s still as driven as he was in Yes’s early days. “I’m naturally wanting to create constantly,” he says. “I don’t know why. It’s just my nature.” In off hours, he’s been working on an autobiography, the first part of which, tracing his story to 1980, is all but ready for publication now, with more to follow in two or three years. And his untiring energy has evidently infected Rabin and Wakeman, who are working with him on a new album. Anderson assures us it will scale new heights. “We’ve got incredible music ready, and it’s all in demo form,” says Anderson. “It’s the 50th anniversary of the band next year and we want to be bring something out that’s unique and refreshing and very powerful, which is what I do when I’m in Yes. I don’t want to create just an album. What for? I want to create something very spectacular.”

He might have said both spectacular and adventurous, a word Anderson thinks captures, better than progressive, the spirit of Yes. “We’re progressive,” he says, “but we’re adventurous. We should be called advent rock or adventurous rock.”

Wherever those new adventures take Anderson and his Yes colleagues, the journey won’t end anytime soon. They’ll keep going. “If the Stones can do it,” says Anderson, “we can do it.” And he assures fans that the product will never fail to satisfy. “We’re getting better all the time.”

Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman plays Tuesday, September 12 at the Fraze Pavilion located at 695 Lincoln Park Blvd. in Kettering. The show is $35 for lawn seats and $55 for orchestra seats. All ticket prices increase by $5 the day of the show. For more information, please call 937.296.3300 or visit Fraze.com or YesFeaturingARW.com.

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