Review: Can progressive rock still soar? Yes answers in the affirmative

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesBritish rock band Yes, with guitarist Steve Howe, made its Aspen debut Tuesday night at Belly Up.

ASPEN – The members of the British rock band Yes look convincingly, almost comically, like the stereotype of the aged rock star: thinning, graying hair, still kept long and unruly. Most of them have grown paunches; the one who hasn’t is entirely too thin.

But the way the band performed Tuesday night at Belly Up Aspen, in their local debut, was anything but the caricature of the old band dutifully and nostalgically trotting out the big hits from decades of yore. True, the band did play the old songs, and nothing but – the current tour features the performance of three albums, all from the 1970s, in their entirety. But Yes’ renditions of its past catalog crackled with fresh energy, not the reproduction of familiar guitar riffs. The crowd seemed to be there not for a social event, but a musical one, which is what they got.

Jon Anderson, the singer whose voice has graced almost all of Yes’ work, is no longer in the band. But it’s hard to imagine a better replacement than Jon Davison, an American whose resume includes a stint in the Yes tribute band, Roundabout. Davison nailed not only the original sound – not an easy thing, given Anderson’s distinctive high pitch – but also Anderson’s elfin persona. But Davison didn’t disappear into some nostalgic character; he had plenty of personality to offer.

Still, it was the old blood that provided the biggest sparks. Guitarist Steve Howe, who has been on and off as a member since 1970, remains a spectacular talent. Progressive rock, the genre with which Yes is closely identified, might be about oversized musical constructions and grand instrumental playing, but Howe’s guitar work has also a more intimate quality that translated well to the small nightclub. Many of the night’s highlights came when Howe slipped more into the role of a jam player, improvising jazz-oriented licks, including toward the end of the song “Siberian Khatru.” Another high point was Howe’s solo acoustic turn, when his style veered toward folk-blues.

Chris Squire is the only member to have been through all eras of Yes. That seems fitting for a bassist, and Squire played well the role of the band’s solid center, musically and spiritually. It was Squire who made a toast to Peter Banks, the original Yes guitarist who died on Monday. With Squire and drummer Alan White, who has been a consistent member since 1973, Yes’ rhythms, emphasizing precision and sharp turns, were expertly handled.

The lone piece that failed to impress was keyboardist Geoff Downes, who, tucked away toward the back, seemed a minor presence. Much of Yes’ heyday was defined by the splashy synthesizer work of Rick Wakeman, and Downes, who was a member of the band for a short spell in the ’80s before returning recently, seemed reluctant to step into that prominent a role.

Progressive rock might have seen its day. But on Tuesday at Belly Up, it sure had its night.