Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two by Yes.
CD. Rhino. 081227950417
More than one P*nk partial, Prog averse rockumentary that I’ve suffered through has cited, as ultimate proof of how unbearable life before “Year Zero” was, the fact that Yes were actually allowed to release triple live albums in elaborate Roger Dean sleeves. Well, a lot of water has flown under the bridge in the last forty years or so and by 2015 the situation was so transformed that Rhino were able to release this 14 CD (!) box set, curating in their entirety 7 gigs from Yes’s autumn ’72 tour of North America. … and yes, those 14 CDs come in a rather nifty little box, designed by Mr Dean.
Devoted to sonic clarity in their concert performances, Yes struggled to capture anything like it in on any of their live albums. YesSongs, the 1973 artefact mentioned above, has stood as the go-to document of this band at their prime and in their pomp for decades now… but boy, does it sound murky! 1980’s Yesshows (culled from two different line-ups over the period 1976-8) fared scarcely better in this regard and the 2005 Rhino box The Word Is Live, a chronological trawl through the band’s by-then byzantine concert history, was a mixed bag soundwise… and of course all the earlier stuff, from arguably “the glory years”, was resolutely lo-fi.
For Progeny, Steve Woolard and Brian Kehew went back to the tapes of the gigs from which the bulk of YesSongs was compiled, found them in deplorable condition and collaborated on the sonic miracle under consideration here. If you want to know why these tapes took so long to unearth, what was wrong with them and how Woolard and Kehew weaved their magic on them, I’ll refer you to the 40 page booklet that comes with the box… what do you mean, you haven’t bought the box? Buy it! Give or take a bootleg or two, the “classic line-up” (give or take a Bruford or two) has never sounded livelier, crisper or fresher.
Over the eponymous seven shows (Toronto, 31.10.72… Ottawa, 01.11.72… Durham NC, 11.11.72… Greensboro NC, 12.11.72… Athens GA, 14.11.72… Knoxville TN, 15.11.72 and Uniondale NY, 20.11.72) Yes present their latest offering Close To The Edge in its entirety, punctuated with classic cuts from The Yes Album and Fragile. The set list – Siberian Khatru, I’ve Seen All Good People, Mood For A Day / Clap, Heart Of The Sunrise, Close To The Edge, Excerpts From The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Roundabout and Yours Is No Disgrace holds constant for each gig, the only slight variations being that Heart Of The Sunrise and Mood For A Day / Clap change places in the running order after Toronto and that the latter sometimes becomes Clap / Mood For A Day, depending on how the mood strikes Steve Howe at any given gig.
Each one kicks off with the band tuning up to and noodling along with the familiar strains of perennial opener, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, then we’re off. Howe’s guitar and Rick Wakeman’s keys square off against each other in your left and right ears respectively, Chris Squire and Alan White hold the centre and bottom while Jon Anderson’s ethereal Lancastrian tones soar high above them. Although this box might well have been conceived partly in tribute to Squire, who was entering the final few months of his life when it came out, the bass throughout is subdued by his sublime standards… not exactly the old Motown cliche of being most effective when you don’t hear it, but with nothing like its thunderous range and presence on other recordings (even Yesshows showcases him to better effect than this.) The booklet suggests that Squire is here still concentrating on locking with White and leading him through the complexities of parts devised by Bill Buford before he decamped to King Crimson on the eve of Yes’s summer ’72 tour.
What it boils down to is that these gigs are all about the interplay and competition between maestros Howe and Wakeman, with Howe emerging a clear winner. While Wakeman’s keyboard workouts are undoubtedly virtuosic, he doesn’t vary the formula much from gig to gig while Howe rings the changes constantly, making it up as he goes in a joyous eruption of spontaneity. In a much mocked radio broadcast, Tommy Vance once observed that Steve Miller could “make his guitar recite Ohms Law if he wanted t0” but Howe genuinely gives the impression here that he can pluck whatever he wants from his fretboard, at the precise moment it occurs to him to do so. Is he inspiring the rest of the band onwards and upwards with these serene flights of musical fancy or taking advantage of the rock solid foundation they’re laying down for him? Whichever, it’s noticeable that the two nights when Howe’s improvisational inclinations are taking him down some dead ends are the ones (Greensboro and Knoxville) where the band as a whole aren’t quite hitting it.
Despite the ups and downs that would be inevitable for any band over seven nights, this is overwhelmingly excellent stuff and a week spent getting your head round it would be a very well spent week indeed. Who’d have thought that we’d ever get the chance to listen to such a run of classic Yes gigs in this pristine form… certainly not Jon Anderson, who otherwise might have varied his “ad libs” a bit (though in Athens a spot of anti-Burger King rhetoric joins the familiar rap about protest songs which prefaces each performance of And You And I.) Anderson announces in Ottawa that he’s about to leave the stage and “change me trousers” to distract the audience during the regular awkward gap that accompanies Howe tuning up for his solo acoustic spot (easy to see why Peter Gabriel started improvising his macabre Jackanories during similar longueurs during Genesis gigs.)
Other things to listen out for and enjoy… the awed “Woah!” from each crowd as a mirror ball is deployed to shower them with light at the commencement of every Close To The Edge (a still recent addition to the set that has attained monumental proportions by Durham)… somebody in Toronto shouting “Not bad!” (“Not ‘alf, mate!”) and, later in that gig, Wakeman’s unplanned duet with Chuck Mangione as a radio broadcast invades the P.A. in a moment that was obviously inspirational to the makers of Spinal Tap… some refugee from The Boys Own Paper shouting “Hurrah” when Anderson announces CTTE in Ottawa… Wakeman getting higher and higher in the mix as the Knoxville show proceeds (sorry, progresses)… and the band defying microphone malfunctions that repeatedly threaten to derail Uniondale before a slowburn slide into a barnstorming YIND that closes the tour on an appropriately ecstatic high.
The best (sez who?) renditions of each track have been assembled on a 2 disc sampler, Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two but who among you would settle for that? Bloody lightweights…