Jon Anderson: “I was interviewed one time by this Finnish lady who said to me (adopts accent) ‘I listened to your music all the way through the 70s and I never understood one word of what you were singing about!’ So I said to her: ‘Well, I didn’t understand a word of it either!’” (Gales of audience laughter)
I was prepared for all sorts of things, but I never expected Yes to show a sense of, you know, Fun. Yet all the people on stage at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall – band and orchestra alike – were clearly having a ball. Bassist Chris Squire – wearing a flouncy black smock over skin-tight lycra leggings tucked into Doc Marten boots – was having more of a ball than most. Every now and again (particularly during Starship Trooper and Ritual), he would start galumphing round the stage, legs akimbo, alternately pulling fearsome “I AM THOR, GOD OF THUNDER!” type poses and cracking into broad “Isn’t this just the best job in the world?” type grins. In a flash of awful clarity, you suddenly saw where New Order’s Hooky stole his best moves.
In stark contrast, at the opposite side of the stage, Steve Howe’s aura was one of professorial detachment and studious concentration (though occasionally he would forget himself and allow a broad toothy grin to spread over his face). With his once much-envied tresses now receding, showing a surprisingly high domed forehead, he seemed to be morphing into an unholy cross between Stephen Hawking and Sven-Goran Eriksson. Midway through the third song of the night, he was already onto his ninth guitar (K was counting). By the end of the show, he had got through thirteen of them. Sometimes, he would have one guitar still strapped to him, but would actually be playing a different guitar in front of that, set up on a stand. His guitar technician, an almost constant presence on stage throughout, must surely be the hardest working roadie in show business.
Meanwhile, Anderson skipped about the stage like the irrepressibly cheerful space pixie he always was, his singing as high and clear as ever. He was only flummoxed once. Yes fans being the obsessives that they are, the real diehards down the front already knew the order of the set. So they were well aware that on some nights, the band weren’t bothering to play Gates Of Delirium (from 1974’s Relayer album) – a complex and challenging work, even by Yes standards, which I find almost impossible to listen to, but which can reduce other grown men to tears (I’ll name no names here…) So, when the appointed time arrived, shouts of “GATES!” immediately started reverberating round the front stalls. One bunch even unfurled a huge black banner, with “GATES OF DELIRIUM” painted in huge letters. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a designated “Gates night”. The orchestra didn’t even have the sheet music with them, so we were told. Anderson had thought they could all get away with it. Big mistake! Howls of protest. One very uncomfortable looking space pixie wringing his hands and squirming with embarrassment, at a loss for words.
This aside, there was, as they say, a lot of love in the room. The audience were mostly men in their forties, reliving their adolescence with unselfconscious glee (and, latterly, gimpy dancing). Their partners were, to a woman, all bearing the same Brave Smile. It was very strange being in the company of people whose lips didn’t automatically curl into a sneer at the very mention of the band’s name. Strange, and curiously liberating. Why, it almost felt like Pride marches in the late eighties!
The band opened with the first song of theirs which I ever heard (aged 12) – Close To The Edge. The experience of actually hearing it being played live in front of me, 27 years after buying the album, was overwhelming. For all of its duration (and it’s a long piece – maybe 20 minutes or so), I was on the brink of tears. I later discovered that I wasn’t the only one. The band played it superbly. The orchestral backing, which seemed so restrictive on their current album (Magnification), worked magnificently well on stage – it was a balanced, integral part of the whole.
I was watching the members of the orchestra closely. Sometimes, when a rock act adopts an orchestra, you can see a very particular expression on their faces. It’s a sort of distant disdain. It says: “My God, the things I have to do to pay the rent…” But not with this orchestra. I honestly think they, uh, dug it. Respect!
Other highlights: And You And I (the orchestra worked beautifully well on this), Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil), and a final, ecstatic Roundabout. In fact, even the new stuff sounded good. In fact, there weren’t really any boring moments at all. And I was completely prepared for boring moments. But this band know how to entertain – and by God, they can play their instruments. Technically, they were stunning. You remembered why you used to like “progressive” rock – because it was an exercise in stretching one’s capabilities to the very limits, and pushing back the boundaries of what a rock band was capable of producing. Is that really so very wrong?
And one other thing, which also struck me when I saw Gong last month. Somehow, the spirit of optimism was still intact and going strong. How the hell did that happen? I’d forgotten how important that sense of optimism was to the genre – of a simple faith in human progress and evolution. Hey, we weren’t to know what was just round the corner: punk, Thatcher, style fascism, the death of the socialist dream, all the rest of it (and if you really want to know what happened, read Jonathan Coe’s superb “The Rotters Club” – all will be explained). We might have been naïve then, but it felt so good to reconnect, just for one night, with something which meant so much at the time, and for which we have spent far too much time apologising.
In the pub after the show, eight of us sat round having the most animated conversation about prog acts we had loved. Gentle Giant! Greenslade! Camel! Focus! Gryphon! And if you must, Rush! (Though there was a major schism over that last one.) At the end of the night, as we were heading off home, someone said “God, we’re sad bastards, aren’t we?” To which I replied: no – it’s the people who shut themselves off to stuff just because it’s unfashionable who are the sad bastards. Not us!