Even rock bands that approached their music more with the sensibility of jazz musicians, never wanting to play the same song the same way twice, like the Grateful Dead, say, or the Allman Brothers Band, hadn’t released this many seemingly identical recordings, as far as I could find. But Yes was far and away my favorite band, and I had to believe that the value of such seeming indulgence would be clear if I just gave it a chance. In fact, I was going to do more than that: I was going to listen to it all in one day. Just me and my stereo from sunup to sundown. Extreme? Okay, sure. But I have been listening to Yes since Bruce Jenner and O.J. Simpson co-hosted the “Battle of the Network Stars.” I could give the band a full day, absolutely.
Yes fans, in particular, had to wonder, though: Out of all the tours, why this one, since there was already a live album from this tour? In 1972, Yes was at their artistic zenith. They’d just finished recording their fifth album — what many believe to the shining crown of progressive rock — “Close to the Edge.” A massive tour was planned. The problem was, Bill Bruford, their exquisite drummer, announced quite suddenly that he was joining King Crimson, the darker, more brazen, improv-oriented prog rock band. For Yes fans, it was like seeing your daughter elope with the town’s juvenile offender.
Enter Alan White, who had played with George Harrison and John Lennon and had just finished a tour with Joe Cocker. He was available, but the first show, in Dallas, was in three days. And the music, with its razor-sharp shifts in tempo and mood and intricate solos, was as complex as quantum physics.
White accepted the offer and plunged into listening to the music nonstop before the first show. (After his intense listening session he would become the drummer for Yes. After my intense listening session I would . . . still be an editor.) After Yes finished the “Close to the Edge” tour, they released a concert movie from it called “Yessongs” (flowing capes, slow-motion shots and footage of Venus flytraps) and a triple-album of the same name. By high school, I knew every second of that recording. I knew when someone in the audience coughs during the bass solo, and sometimes I liked to cough right along. I knew when someone shouts “Louder!” before the relentless opening riff of “Heart of the Sunrise.” The album features harder-charging performances than the studio versions, with White driving it all home with cool fury. But hadn’t the best performances from the 1972 tour been available for decades? Couldn’t Yes have released a box set from the 1974 tour, the 1979 tour, 1987?
Forty-seven years in, is this massive new box set a result of Yes simply cleaning out its celestial basement? Or is my favorite band delivering one more, and possibly last, triumphant thrill?
Before my day of listening could begin, the conditions at home had to be just right. First, get my sons out the door to school. Make sure my wife wasn’t planning to work from home. The dog had fewer options.
I’d be listening to all it on my old stereo, with speakers that, these days, look as sleek and inconspicuous as a “Space Invaders” console. I’d be relying on the same stereo receiver I had in high school, glorious in its knobs, which are as prominent as corks. It hadn’t played this much music since I’d taken Introductory Geology in college.
I’d be parked on the couch in a room we call the “reading room” because it gets more natural light than any other. And no checking e-mails, no Googling or puttering around the house. I was going to sit on the couch, notebook in hand, and listen to these 12 hours of music harder than I had ever listened to anything in my life. Was I on the verge of profound revelations? Was I about to die? Or was I about to be taken somewhere I couldn’t even imagine?
Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto
Because this music is described in the liner notes as, essentially, lost recordings found again, I’m not super-confident how the sound quality will be. But immediately, as the band launches into “Siberian Khatru,” (there is no such word as Khatru, by the way, and forget what Siberia has to do with anything) the clarity of each instrument is startling. Particularly Jon Anderson’s vocals, which, in his alto tenor, deliver notes as high as mountains. They move on to “I’ve Seen All Good People” with the same arrangement they’ve played their whole career, but still, it’s delivered with youthful vigor and frenetic urgency. Steve Howe’s guitar solos are torrid throughout.
Then Jon Anderson says they’re switching the order of a couple of songs because “someone’s trousers are falling down.” (That’s the only deviation in sequence in all seven concerts.) In a solo acoustic spotlight, Howe demonstrates his classical chops on the lovely “Mood for a Day” and then dovetails into the country barnstormer of “The Clap.”
In “Heart of the Sunrise,” the band is intensely locked in throughout the merciless, machine-gun main riff. The heavenly “And You and I” is scrubbed of its acoustic moments and is sonically rawer, which undercuts the recorded version’s more subtle shifts. And then, when they begin “Close to the Edge,” which begins with a recording of warbling birds, the band uses their instruments like battering rams and, alternately, delivers passages so tranquil and pastoral they could be played on the shuttle bus to heaven. Overall, this version is sublime.
An elaborate keyboard solo by Wakeman follows. The problem is his Mellotron is intercepting a local radio station whose DJ is discussing Chuck Mangione. But Wakeman forges ahead in a performance that is part Mozart, part Old West saloon player and, with his Minimoog and Mellotron, part alien interpreter. It’s also notably different than the “Yessongs” version.
There’s a new buzzing, but it’s not coming from the stereo. Outside I see a landscaping crew across from my house working the crude engine of a lawn mower. Up goes the volume.
The FM staple “Roundabout” is next. (A quick check tells me that I already have 11 live versions of the song on my iPod. What’s another seven more?) Like “And You and I,” this gets a rougher, rockier treatment than the studio version, but then Yes wasn’t trying to duplicate their studio recordings. And throughout “Progeny,” that’s what you hear: a band trying to break through to the next level.
For the encore, “Yours is No Disgrace,” the band indulges in a piano-boogie intro before stepping into the opening, pounding signature chords. White plays an assertive, masterful role in propelling it on, and then, about an hour and 40 minutes later, the show is all over.
Now just six more concerts to go.
Ottawa Civic Centre, Ottawa
Oddly, we return to the subject of trousers early on. Anderson announces he needs to change his — no explanation given. (Yes trivia fact: In 2008, Anderson will be replaced by Canadian Benoit David, not to be confused with David Benoit, who is also a musician but not Canadian.)
There are slight distinctions throughout the set here. White employs some woodblock-type percussion during a passage of “Close to the Edge,” and Wakeman uses a sound in a later movement of that song that plays like a car horn, which isn’t exactly pleasing.
Then some technical difficulties emerge — a buzzing in the keyboards. In his solo spot, Wakeman plays a new part that suggests background music for a PBS special on the brain.
“Roundabout” is rollicking, though, and White applies a remarkable bass drum to the last part that, on the studio version, is all sing-along and acoustic guitar.
Across the street, the mowing is done, but now two guys are waving around their blowers, and the yard sounds like the Grand Prix. But it gets worse. I see that they’re blowing full carpets of pollen out of that yard, maneuvering them across the street as carefully as if they were escorting toddlers, and onto my yard. Outraged, I run outside, and the landscapers are shocked to learn that someone is home at 11:30 in the morning. I realize too late that I am just in my socks, which clearly diminishes my position.
“Hey, fellows, it’s not okay to blow that on our yard,” I say.
One of the two immediately starts motioning in agreement, as if he had been making the same case to his partner and is still chagrined that he lost that argument. The other man appears to be wondering whether his machine could blow me back inside.
I head in again, but it takes some minutes to pluck all the pollen from my socks. As I do, I see that they are blowing all the pollen back off my yard and onto my next door neighbor’s.
Back inside, the intro to “Yours is No Disgrace” is more sure-footed this time. Still, advantage goes to Toronto.
Duke University, Durham, N.C.
The opening recording of an excerpt from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which not only begins all these Yes shows but many Yes shows in their long touring life, gets a little mired by Chris Squire calling for Anderson, but when the band kicks in, the first startling fact is the prominence of White’s snare. It’s huge and metallic. Zeus sitting in on the gig.
After a sturdy version of “I’ve Seen All Good People,” Anderson says, “It really is nice to be back here,” which sends me into a sort of seizure. You see, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and so it is my lot in life to hate our archrival Duke, a responsibility I take as seriously as, let’s say, being a good son. (The truth is, I’m surprised there was a demand for Yes to play at Duke. With Duke students, it seems to me that maybe Bread or the Bay City Rollers would have been a better fit. Ha ha!)
I have seen Yes 15 times. I own all their videos on VHS. I’ve read three and a half books on Yes. The first Yes album I ever bought is framed in our bedroom. My youngest son’s first name is Anderson, and that is not a family name.
I know Jon Anderson is from England, and he probably didn’t follow college basketball. And in 1972, there wasn’t a lot to follow at Duke. But in the years ahead of this show, Duke will end up drafting, time and time again, a lineup of athletes who make up NCAA Men’s Basketball All-Obnoxious and Insufferable team. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski, J.J. Redick, the Plumlee brothers. They will pound the court with their hands when they want to fire up their unbearable, taunting fans, and they will mold their faces in such over-the-top expressions of valiant determination that you could be forgiven for thinking that they had just stormed Normandy or safely landed a burning airplane in a shallow lake instead of grabbing a loose ball or taking a charge. But Jon Anderson can’t possibly know any of this now. That is the future.
Thankfully, White’s accompaniment in the bass interlude of “Heart of the Sunrise” is a titillating tightrope between restraint and skull cracking, and Howe’s classical shine, “Mood for a Day,” also proves calming for me.
Out of pure habit, I pick up the CD sleeve to see what the next song will be. As if I don’t know by this point!
The box set’s deluxe packaging features new artwork by Yes collaborator Roger Dean, who has done more to give a single rock band its visual identity than any other artist in music. See the floating islands and rock formations that twist out of iris waters, fish lazing on toadstools like bored retirees. Dean has produced new versions of some of the original “Yessongs” images, which are as burned into my subconscious as the face of my first-grade teacher. In high school, I spent more time drawing Dean’s iconic Yes logo in notebooks than I did working on the Pythagorean theorem.
Bassist Chris Squire’s backing vocals on “And You and I” are angelic. He is the greatest background vocalist any band ever had. Squire will not say a word about Duke! When Yes played the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill in 1988, I was seated in front of his part of the stage, just a few rows back. As far as I could see, I was the only one of the 15,000 attendees standing during the entirety of “And You and I.” Did I hear the people behind me call for me to sit down? I did. And what did I do? I motioned for them to stand up with me — what was this, a Yes concert or a campaign stop by Michael Dukakis? This gesture only brought more unrest to the situation. But did I care? I did not!
The ending to “Close to the Edge” is mostly aborted.
One surprise: My dog has stayed next to me throughout. I would have thought that the music, at this volume, would have instantly sent her away, but she has been a fine companion. But then, while the landscape crew is gone, she snores like Grover Cleveland.
Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
City of my first rock concert: Yes in 1984. My friend Bob, who was two years older, drove us the 100 miles to the show. Bob’s older sister, Roberta, had “Yessongs” on 8-track. She had bead curtains for a door.
Since I’m home all day, I’ve given my oldest son my car to drive to school. It’s past my lunch time, and I order Chinese food. Only, there’s a minimum for home delivery, so I have to order two dishes. When the deliveryman comes, with the loud music in the background and given the time of day, it must seem to him that my parents are out of town. (Okay, that’s wishful thinking. I don’t look like Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.” Maybe Tom Poston from “Newhart”?)
The opening disc gives us the first full treatment of the “Firebird Suite” excerpt, which swells with anticipation. Still, having been listening for nearly five hours, I have the sensation of having been driving for 24 hours straight. Plus, I’ve just eaten just two Chinese dishes. I am plummeting. To wake myself up, I decide that I’ll look through a kaleidoscope for the entire show. The images of a kaleidoscope will conjure the trippy spirit of 1972 quite appropriately.
The first half of the show is consistently strong, and there are notable differences compared with the other concerts. The trousers problems seem to be well behind the band. But by the time “Close to the Edge,” comes on, my eye is sore from squinting.
“Close to the Edge” is majestic here, with Wakeman’s cascading organ runs and an ending that Howe and Squire’s interplay makes ethereal.
“Yours is No Disgrace” has the best opening intro yet, with Wakeman playing hide-and-seek with the main melody and Squire goading him on with his shifty bass lines. Then Anderson does some delightful, soulful scatting before Howe scratches out the opening chords.
When I moved to Boston in 1989, right after graduating from college, Yes had only one other live album besides “Yessongs” — “Yesshows.” (Since then, they’ve released, not including “Progeny,” 10 more and another box set of all live music.) So when I came across an ad in the alternative weekly for live bootleg tapes, I wondered, naturally, if this was a way I could get more live Yes. I called the phone number.
“Yeah, I’ve got Yes,” the voice on the other end said. We worked out a time when I would come over to his place and see what I might purchase. He had an apartment in the dingiest part of the Kenmore neighborhood, and inside it smelled like scorched earth. There were clothes everywhere, ashtrays every couple of feet and various other odd-shaped glass vessels.
He handed me a grimy printout of all the recordings available, and I saw that he had a Yes concert from 1978 — recorded at the Boston Garden. That seemed perfect, and I dug out my money. He began to record a tape of a tape (and, surely, of a tape of a tape of a tape). I asked him how he had come to acquire so many unauthorized live concert recordings, and he held forth like a master thespian appearing in a community theater production. He had more connections than I could ever imagine, he told me, and shook his head to convey the high pleasures of a life of always being one step ahead of the FBI.
At some point, a young woman entered the apartment. Her face was awash in a dreamy smile, and she fell onto the other couch as if she’d been hit by a tranquilizer dart. He paid this almost no attention — it was as if a closet door had merely squeaked from a breeze. He continued his monologue on the virtues of lawlessness and bootlegs.
Fifteen minutes in, it wasn’t clear to me if the woman was sleeping or dead, and I asked him, “Is she all right?”
He looked at her, then back at me. “Don’t pry,” he said.
Howe’s long solo on “Yours is No Disgrace” is like musical fireworks.
University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.
After “I’ve Seen All Good People,” Anderson praises a vegetarian place he apparently got to visit before the show. Someone in the crowd replies, “Yeah, that’s heavy.”
Maybe expecting more of a response from the crowd, he goes on to scold a little, noting that the vegetarian place “is a lot better than your Burger King places and all that s—.”
That cuts close to home. I ate at the local Burger King pretty much every day of my four years of college.
“And You and I” is especially powerful here in its dreamy segments. Howe takes a more emphatic share of the intro to “Yours is No Disgrace” this time. There’s a second, though, when it seems to fall apart before they recover, and the pounding chords lurch forward.
When Yes came roaring back in the ’80s after a three-year hiatus and another reshuffling of the lineup, their album “90125” was a huge commercial smash, and for a brief time they were MTV darlings. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” got considerable airplay, and so did the second single off the album, “Leave it.” The video was directed by a duo that went by the name Godley & Creme and featured the band, rather jarringly, decked out in black suits and ties against a white backdrop. They were also upside down. The piece was a showcase for the directors’ video tricks, which, at the time, apparently, were groundbreaking. Yes’s heads disconnect from their bodies and spin around; their bodies stretch and bend like paper dolls. There were different versions you could catch, and then, one day, after a documentary about the making of the video, MTV proceeded to show every version that ever aired — 15 or more of them, I believe. (Generally speaking, everything Yes ever did is extreme: an entire album side inspired by Tolstoy’s “War and Peace;” a tour in which they played under something designed to look like a crab nebula; a drum solo accompanied by robotic arms that held other drums being played by computer triggers.)
As I sat watching, not exactly transfixed but more out of a sense of duty, my mother would pass between me and the television with folded laundry, or a duster and a can of Pledge in her hand. “My gosh, are you still watching the same song?” she would ask.
I am thinking about that day after my oldest son, Griffin, now home from school, asks me how many more concerts I have left to go through. He isn’t complaining, but he is struck by my . . . fortitude, perhaps. “It sounds good,” he says. “But it’s all the same songs.”
Knoxville Civic Coliseum, Knoxville, Tenn.
Nine hours in. The early shades of evening. I feel surprisingly roused. Several shows past my sleepy phase, my only problem now is a vague unease that I’m stuck in a time loop. Wasn’t Donnie Darko in some kind of time loop, and the only way he could end it was to let the engine from the airplane fall and crash down on him? But perspective is everything. What if I was stuck in a time loop listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s box set? Anderson and my wife are also home now, and both boys have homework — Griffin has two exams tomorrow. So my listening project is creating a sort of situation. Reluctantly, I realize I am going to have to switch to the computer to give everyone a reprieve. I slide on Griffin’s Beats headphones, which makes me feel like a code breaker.
The distinctions in each “Heart of the Sunrise” are as minute as snowflakes, but they are there, and pinpointing them is its own gratification.
I listen to the first disc of the Knoxville concert this way, and while you can better pick up on some elements through headphones, ultimately this is not how I want to hear music — at least not this music. So I decide I will listen to the rest while driving.
After an hour’s break to resume the role of family man (empty dishwasher too noisily; review history homework, insist on periods), I cradle the full box set to the car as if I’m transporting the Hope Diamond. It’s as quiet as a bank vault in here, and I luxuriate it in that for a full minute before I resume.
As soon as I put in the second disc to the Knoxville show and the early babbling of “Close to the Edge” comes on, I am jolted right back into just how much pleasure I have had throughout my life listening to Yes in the car. Belting out a remarkably high percentage of wrong lyrics to songs. (Hey, you try nailing the line “Dawn of our power we amuse redescending as fast as misused expression.” The title of that song, “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” is hard enough!) Drumming out the impossible time signatures on the steering wheel. The anticipatory joys of listening to Yes music on the way to Yes concerts (which is not, I don’t think, the same as eating while driving to a restaurant). All the beach trips. Trips home from college. Trips from North Carolina to Boston. And later, car trips introducing my sons to Yes music for the first time (young enough for booster seats, old enough to respond shrewdly).
In high school, I typically gave friends a ride home each day. One of them was a girl named Lesley. At the end of six periods of class, I had a profound need to listen to “The Fish,” which turns into a lengthy bass solo, from “Yessongs,” Every day, throughout the change of seasons — passing by the same old trees that grew as colorful as quilts, then bare as hotel refrigerators. I didn’t like to play it quietly.
I did understand that none of my passengers wanted to hear a bass solo at the end of their day — or ever, really. Part of my insistence was, I simply wanted them to appreciate just how great this music was. And every once in a while I’d see if it was going over any better for them. “It’s awful,” Lesley would say. And she meant it.
“Close to the Edge” is my favorite piece of music of all time. And as I’m driving, with no particular destination in mind, it becomes clear that this is not only the superior version of the day, but the best I have ever heard. Transcendent. And so I am having the most intense listening experience of my life. To my fellow drivers, it might look like I am trying to dislodge something from my throat. Howe is positively shredding it in the final bars, and I am pumping my arm in ecstasy. I am 48 years old, and rock music — Yes music — has never felt more vital to me than it does in this moment. I am 16 again, 22, 30. And I am also 75. Yes has been the biggest musical constant in my life — and always will be.
“Roundabout” comes on next. This was the first Yes song I ever heard, and it seizes me anew.
I spend the day your way
Call it morning driving thru the sound and in and out the valley
Okay, so I’m only driving on Rockville Pike now, but I’m definitely “driving thru the sound.” Maybe it’s just this way of listening in the car — the immediacy of the music, the closed-in potency. And the nostalgia of it. It may also just be, though, that the band, on this night, is playing the sheer hell out of their trademark song.
Jon Anderson’s mike fades out for a chorus, but no matter.
The problem is, I can’t drive and take notes at the same time. Besides, it’s late, and I haven’t eaten. So I pull into a Wendy’s that I go to from time to time when I have manuscripts to read and want to spread out. I’ve gotten to know one of the managers there a little bit — Muhammad — and we ask each other about our families. Almost every time I go there — always after 10 p.m. — the same group of guys ambles in. None can be older than 30, and after they get their food and grab a few tables, they begin distributing sets of role-playing cards. The proceedings are always overseen by a guy who wears a plush wolf hat and glasses as square-shaped as crackers. He goes from table to table, offering some insight about a spell that might be used or recalls with particular glee the time he acquired a certain weapon. The last time I saw them, one of the players told him he needed to get laid, and he said, “I know! That’s the problem.”
There is no sight of them tonight, though. My plan is to sit in the far corner of the parking lot and listen to the last show. But when no voice comes through the speaker box, I mosey on to the first window. When it finally opens, the cashier tells me the price of a Frosty. There is a car behind me now, and clearly he thinks I ordered the Frosty.
“That’s not mine,” I say. “I haven’t ordered yet.” I try to explain that no one ever took my order. He is shaken by this development and goes to consult a manager — not Muhammad. When he returns, I ask if I can place my order now.
When I pull up to the next window, the cashier tries to give me the Frosty.
“I haven’t ordered yet,” I say. The previous cashier has come around, and there is an intense powwow. The second guy comes back to me.
“I haven’t,” I say as Wakeman’s swirling organ coats the opening chorus of “Yours is No Disgrace.” “I’m trying to order.”
At this point, they consult with the manager again. He is wearing a black knit shirt, which seems, perhaps, a little too different from the rest of the staff. Is he running a Best Buy or a Wendy’s? The manager keeps pointing at the screen to the other two, who stare up at it in dismay. The manager then peers through the window at me, radiating contempt.
The first cashier goes back to his station, still a little dazed, and the other cashier comes back to me. “What would you like to order?”
Once I have my food, I park and resume listening. Before long, a police car pulls up. The officer gets out and takes studied notice of me: engine running, with very loud music playing while I write feverishly in my notebook. Am I taking notes for how to knock off a Wendy’s?
“Thank you,” Anderson tells the crowd, and the band leaves the stage.
Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.
“It’s our last night before we all go home,” Anderson tells the crowd. But before they do, the band will deal with a few technical difficulties.
“We’re just checking the organ just to make sure — it’s supposed to be reliable, these things,” Howe tells the crowd. Anderson’s mike will cut off several times during “Heart of the Sunrise.”
During “Close to the Edge,” Anderson’s mike gives out for a full minute or so.
I develop a worry that the police officer, while waiting on his food, says to the manager, “How’s it going tonight?” And the manager, still sweating over the Frosty incident, begins, “You wouldn’t believe it. There’s this customer, right . . .”
On “Yours is No Disgrace,” the technical problems disappear, and the vamping intro runs a full five minutes. This time, it’s dominated by Howe, and for the first time Wakeman switches from piano to synthesizer. Once the proper tune begins, it’s full throttle: five musicians with the fire of Olympic sprinters, exploring their momentous abilities, individually and together. In the fall of 1972, no rock band in the world was nightly performing music with this much sophistication, harmonic precision and sheer mastery of their instruments. That, ultimately, is the value of this box set. For a diehard Yes fan like me, it’s an affirmation delivered through 12 hours of concentrated, joyous listening. I should, I suppose, feel spent and exhausted, eager for a break from any music at all. Instead, I feel invigorated. I didn’t think I could learn anything new about my favorite band at this point, but my appreciation for what they were capable of — and for this phenomenal period in their career — has ascended once again.
Eventually I pull into my driveway and listen to the last, roaring seconds. When the crowd erupts at the final crashing chord, it is one minute after midnight.
I had, naturally enough, imagined that Squire, White and Howe — the three members of Yes in 1972 that are still in the band today, had pored over these tracks for weeks or more, asking for sonic enhancement here, requesting engineers to make this passage less muddy, say, or if something could possibly be done about the crowd noise in this spot. This turned out to not quite be the case.
I talk to White, 65, by phone and tell him I listened to “Progeny” all in one day. “Oh really?” he says and chuckles at the very idea. “I almost said you’re a glutton for punishment.”
He has, he says, “listened to bits of it.” But he couldn’t quite see immersing himself in it. “We played it,” he reasons. Fair point.
I talk to Squire, 67, too, and explain what I’ve done. He has a slightly different response: “I think you’re nuts.”
When executives at Rhino first approached him about their discovery, he explains, “I said, ‘What’s the point of this? We already chose the best tracks, and that was the ‘Yessongs’ album.’ ” The Rhino folks told him that there was a certain type of super fan who would want this kind of extreme set — whole concerts on multiple nights. He relented, but the project didn’t exactly thrill him. “I was not looking forward to having to actually listen to it all,” he says. And like White, he only listened to certain sections, but it “pretty much all sounded the same to me.”
Now that it is out, he is more sanguine about the release. But the occasion of these recordings doesn’t exactly make him wistful for that long-ago period. “That was then, you know? That’s what happened. And if people want a document of it and, like yourself, have the time to spend listening to it . . .” He thinks about that a moment. “I can’t really see you’re going to be doing it again,” he says. I unleash a too-eager, nervous laugh, which reveals too much. “Or maybe you are.”