Yes man Jon Anderson makes Aspen debut at the Wheeler |

Yes man Jon Anderson makes Aspen debut at the Wheeler

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoJon Anderson, former singer of the rock band Yes, makes his Aspen debut with a solo performance Friday at 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – About six years ago, when Jon Anderson first began performing unaccompanied, solo concerts, he found himself in a situation he had probably never encountered before. Using a MIDI guitar and an assortment of pedals to generate an array of electronic sounds, Anderson found it necessary to tell the audience where the music was coming from.

“Some people thought I was doing karaoke,” Anderson said Thursday afternoon in the lobby of the Hotel Jerome, on his first trip to Aspen. “I had to explain how I was doing it, with five different pedals.”

In his previous career, it was always obvious where the sounds were coming from. As the leader singer of the British progressive-rock band Yes, Anderson was surrounded by exceptional musicians – the core members included keyboardist Rick Wakeman, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White – who could be flashy in style, and didn’t hold back from dragging enormous amounts of equipment onto the stage with them.

But several years ago, in the middle of a Yes tour, Anderson became sick, and realized he needed to find a different way of pursuing his art. “The guys in the band weren’t that interested in finding other ways of making music,” he explained. So Anderson turned to the MIDI guitar his wife, Jane, had given him a few years earlier, and took a year or so to work out a way to perform solo, in a stripped-down setting.

It was a fairly radical adjustment – “like walking a tightrope, a real challenge,” he said. For one thing, Anderson had never been much of an instrumentalist in Yes, playing just bits of guitar and harp. “It was, ‘Jon, you’re the singer – uhh, do you have to play guitar?'” he said.

But while he couldn’t match his mates in instrumental prowess, Anderson was the one who was thinking big in terms of the musical architecture. “I was the musical director, and the visionary of the band,” he said, explaining that his inspiration were the great fusion bands of the early ’70s, including Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, as well as classical music. “I was able to get such great musicians, and direct them in different ways. I was listening to structure in music, and bringing that into the rock format. I’d drive them into doing that, and the audiences were amazing to follow that.”

On an early solo tour, Anderson had his equipment confiscated in Turkey. Turkish officials who might have recognized guitars and keyboards and microphones were stumped by the electronics he was using at the time. So by the time he got to the gigs in Sweden, Anderson was left with just acoustic guitars on which to play the likes of “Roundabout” and “All Good People” – Yes songs that were fleshed out with grand instrumental flourishes. But the gigs went well, and Anderson – in addition to the collaborations he has formed with the Greek composer Vangelis, the Japanese musician Kitaro, and various youth orchestras, has continued to tour as a solo act. When he makes his Aspen debut Friday, at the Wheeler Opera House, Anderson will be accompanied only by his guitar, dulcimer and piano.

Anderson seems well suited to make the adjustment from lavish rock shows to solo appearances in smaller venues. Physically slight, with a distinctively high voice, and an engaging, down-to-earth personality, he hardly seems to have been built for rock ‘n’ roll to begin with.

“I wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll singer, a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll singer,” he said. “I was singing about my journey, my sacred journey. I was more part of the band than the front man.”

Anderson said he had one moment when he felt like a rock star – in 1983, when the band reformed after a three-year break, and released the album “90125.” Spurred by the No. 1 single “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” it marked the height of Yes’ popularity. Anderson said he had 10 minutes of basking in the rock-star limelight – but the following week came the release of “Spinal Tap,” the mockumentary that punched a whole in the very idea of rock stardom, and Anderson came back down to earth.

Anderson says he has also found artistic pleasure in reshaping the Yes repertoire – and coming up with new songs, and presenting songs by Vangelis – and working them into a solo show that also includes a good bit of storytelling.

“I play the songs as I wrote them, as they were taken to the band,” he said of the Yes tunes he does now. “The songs remain the same – it’s a song, it’s music, it’s lyrics. It’s like Stravinsky doing ‘The Rite of Spring’ on piano. It still sounds really interesting. It’s a joyful experience for me.”

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