Say what you will about Yes. Jon Anderson's lyrics seldom make any sense and he seems to favor words like "sun," "sunset," and "sunrise" quite a bit. And yes, their songs do have a tendency to meander in such a way that you'd be forgiven for occasionally thinking they simply can't figure out how to end them. True enough. But damned if they still haven't created some of the most stunningly beautiful rock music of the past thirty-five years or so. They also aren't half bad musicians, by the way.
The first time I ever saw Yes was around the time of The Yes Album where they were opening for Jethro Tull who was white hot at the time and on tour behind their own biggest selling album ever, Aqualung. Tull's fans of this era were well known to be rabidly loyal to their heroes, and they had an equally well earned reputation for being brutal to Tull's opening acts. When Yes — and this is pre-Rick Wakeman Yes by the way — opened for Tull that year, they were called back for so many encores that a pitchman for the headliners finally had to run out to ask the crowd if "anybody here had ever heard of Jethro Tull?". This was absolutely unheard of.
Yes have made numerous live DVDs over the years, but absolutely none of them are as fine as this one. Recorded live at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in 2003 (sharing a bill with the likes of Radiohead and the Flaming Lips no less), this DVD features what most regard as the classic lineup of Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, and White. Some folks would probably quibble with that assertion, choosing Bill Bruford on drums over Alan White, but for a band that has endured more personnel changes than Spinal Tap over the years, it's a minor point. White sounds great here, as does the rest of Yes.
So a few things have changed since you probably last remember Yes. They've gotten older for one thing, which means the balding Steve Howe looks a little like a cross between a college professor and a bespectacled version of Skeletor. Chris Squire looks like he's gotten a bit wide around the middle, and Rick Wakeman's got a little wrinkly despite his maintaining the trademark long blond locks.
But much more about these guys remains unchanged. The cherubic Jon Anderson still has that goofy, New Agey sort of stage presence, but has also flawlessly maintained his voice. He still hits all those high notes you remember clear as a bell. And unlike most bands from the classic era who are still touring, this band doesn't play these songs in a lower key to intentionally avoid those highs (well okay, maybe they do once during "Roundabout"). As for the rest of the guys, they remain simply unmatched as virtuoso players on their individual instruments.
On this night in Montreux, Yes delve deep into their catalog performing most, if not all of the classic Fragile album, and making those songs sound as fresh now as the day they were recorded. Even a song like "Roundabout," which Yes have no doubt played so many times they could do so in their sleep, crackles with a rich energy here. "South Side Of The Sky" glides effortlessly between Steve Howe's still remarkable guitar and slide playing and the more subtle nuances of Rick Wakeman's piano during the middle section. On "Long Distance Runaround" and "Heart Of The Sunrise" the band changes tempos as rapidly as some people change underwear and never miss a step along the way.
Not everything here is perfect. On the Dolby 5.1 mix the sound is actually so pristine, that it also reveals the very occasional missed note or sound glitch, most notably so at the begining of "And You And I." If you watch closely, this actually produces a few genuinely funny moments as you see Jon Anderson grimace and Rick Wakeman crack up during some of Chris Squire's occasionally off-key background singing.
Speaking of Squire, those great bass runs of his are also sometimes buried in the mix, particularly when Steve Howe is producing his own ghostly sounding sounds on the slide. By the second half of the DVD though, this pretty much gets straightened out in the mix and Squire takes a particularly filthy sounding bass solo on "The Fish."
The other highlights here include a majestic sounding "Awaken" from the band's underrated Going For The One album. Here Yes builds from the Wakeman keyboard flourishes in the middle to an absolutely gorgeous sounding climax rife with mellotron produced choir backing Anderson's own voice, which once again effortlessly hits all of the high notes.
It should also be mentioned that the newer songs from Magnification sound nearly as good as the classics do here, with both the title track and "In The Presence Of" being among the standout performances of this concert.
Frankly, I don't know how Yes has survived all these years, not only intact but sounding better than they ever have on this great DVD. It is an equal mystery to me how they managed to become one of the biggest bands in the world while making records as adventurous and musically complex as anybody did at the time — even if it was during the somewhat more wide open climate of the seventies.
For Yes to produce a concert like this one in 2003, and sound better than they did in 1972 is to me nothing short of miraculous. As far as I am concerned, they can make the damn songs as long as they want if they sound this good. Yes, they can.