REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Yes, The Classic Tales of Yes Tour, York Barbican, May 28

Yes, here seen playing live in 2023, returned to York Barbican last night, having toured there in 2022. Picture: Gottlieb Bros

YES know how to play the long game. In the second half of their fifth decade as a band, this incarnation is led ostensibly by Steve Howe, who first signed on in 1970.

It is Howe’s skilfully selected setlist that lifts this concert, and gives it an appeal beyond the die-hards. Chosen with the same care Howe puts into his guitar playing, over two hours, two sets and 12 songs, they charted many of the interesting points on the Yes musical map.

With any longstanding group, there are line-up changes, and while there have been some negative reviews of their most recent album, May 2023’s Mirror To The Sky, it was clear they remain a potent musical proposition. Cut From The Stars, the sole ‘new’ track in the show, was there by merit, driven by some exuberant bass.

Yes’s long-form music is a byword for difficult, and as Howe observed late in the second set, “Yes members have to put the work in”. It was akin to watching an orchestra where everyone was the soloist – holding the entire set in their heads while playing for and with one another.

The first half showcased Howe, who played between six and seven guitars during the set (I lost count). With the air of a wizened professor at 77, his dexterity was amazing, switching styles without batting an eye. Like Yes, this is music that is hard for a newcomer to love. It takes effort, and Howe’s guitar work is the same, not people pleasing, but always coming at a composition from an expected angle.

The opening Machine Messiah showed off the heavier side to the band, starting with crunching chords before taking off around the ten-minute mark with some wonderfully propulsive ensemble playing.

Arguably the most memorable moments were when Howe’s guitar tech wheeled on a second guitar on a stand. Still with one instrument around his neck, Howe then produced the most lyrical sounds of the evening, and in this way he closed out Turn Of The Century to finish the first set.

The love the band and the audience have for the music is a powerful force, best experienced in person – and from his skips and hops, Howe looked totally absorbed in delivering a great performance.

The poster for The Classic Tales Of Yes Tour 2024. York Barbican was their only Yorkshire location

Jon Davison was game on vocals, taking on Jon Anderson’s lyrics in choral style. He is a wonderful singer, but the lyrics were generally pretty woeful. Don’t Kill The Whale being a good, if well intentioned, example.

Given the imaginative musical leaps in motion around him, the singer often had to sing the same things over and over – but never quite run into the ground.

There were some affecting moments with just Howe and Davison – and there is obvious rapport and affection between the men on stage. Talking of choir boys, it transpires that keyboard player Geoff Downes began his musical apprenticeship at York Minster. He had his hands full too, with eight keyboards to man, plus pedals.

There was too much intricacy to keep up with, but there was no room for noodling or drum solos mercifully. Stage lighting was also deliberately simple.

The second half was perhaps the better of the two, despite starting with the weakest number of the night (South Side Of The Sky). It shone a light on the incredible bass shapes produced by Billy Sherwood, very much a lead instrument.

It’s unlikely Yes get many plaudits for their sonic voyages on Tales From Topographic Oceans. This 1973 album marks an outer limit, even in the expanded prog universe, and now serves more as a warning to others not to take themselves so seriously. It was striking, therefore, that their 20-minute distillation of this 80-minute work was a real highlight (Howe having told CharlesHutchPress this was “a mini-representation…visiting each of the sides” in his interview.)

Not listening too closely to the words, but feeling the emotion, the interplay between the players, and the thoughtful way the sections had been stitched together, was a veritable masterclass.

The audience were on their feet for the rousing encore Roundabout, and by Starship Trooper we were as one in our appreciation of this vibrant, iconic musical institution that is Yes.

Review by Paul Rhodes

Drive to give a great performance fuels Yes guitarist Steve Howe after 54 years on classic tour return to York Barbican

Yes, seen here playing live in 2023, return to York Barbican tonight. Picture: Gottlieb Bros

PROG-ROCK legends Yes bring their Classic Tales of Yes Tour to York Barbican tomorrow night (28/5/2024) in the only Yorkshire show of May’s nine-date itinerary.

In the line-up will be Steve Howe, on guitar and vocals, Geoff Downes, on keyboards, Billy Sherwood, on bass guitar and vocals, Jon Davison, on vocals and acoustic guitar, and Jay Schellen on drums.

“We’re putting together a great setlist covering the length and breadth of Yes’s career,” says Howe, whose band last played York Barbican on their Close To The Edge 50th Anniversary Tour in June 2022.

Divided into two sets, the Classic Tales of Yes Tour show comprises myriad songs from Yes’s back catalogue covering 50-plus years.

Definitely it will include a 20-minute medley from 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans and “possibly” music from latest album Mirror To The Sky, released on InsideOutMusic/Sony Music in May 2023.

“As always, we are committed to pushing new boundaries and are very excited to be performing another chapter in the rich legacy of the band,” says Downes.

“This tour format does open up a few corridors,” says Howe. “Choosing the running order, I’ve dreamed up the set list, put it to the guys and said ‘what do you think?’, and thankfully they’ve liked it.

“I don’t pre-set it until I’m fairly sure it’s watertight, making sure we pick songs that reach out broadly across our catalogue. Like playing It Will Be A Good Day (The River) from [1999 album] The Ladder, which is something we’ve not played since maybe The Ladder Tour, and Time And A Word [from the 1970 album of that title], a song that is so warm and beautiful to play.”

Central to the Classic Tales of Yes Tour will be the Tales From Topographic Oceans section in the second set. “I got into the idea of visiting each side, drawing the lines together to form a mini-representation,” says Howe.

The poster for The Classic Tales Of Yes Tour 2024. York Barbican is the only Yorkshire date

This tour finds drummer Jay Schellen becoming a permanent member of the band, with the blessing of long-serving Alan White, who died in 2022. Schellen had begun performing with Yes in 2016, when White was beset with health problems. 

“Alan would not give up but he was getting a bit weaker, so we bought in Jay as a standby. For the bigger sets, Alan would come on and do the encore, as his general strength wasn’t capable of doing two and a half hours.

“When Alan couldn’t do the next tour, and later passed away, it was logical to pass on the baton to Jay, who was there already. He’s been very excited to take on the drummer’s role and be constantly involved. It’s a very complicated job but he makes it look easy.”

Will latest album Mirror To The Sky feature in the setlist? “We just do one song from it, Cut From The Stars, the opening track,” confirms Howe. “We’re happier with one, having earlier done two from it.”

As with 2021’s The Quest, Yes began work on their 23rd studio album gradually. “We started in our own studios and then a centralised studio,  building the songs. [Vocalist and acoustic guitarist] Jon Davison started to reside in the UK, in Wales, so we could get some of it done physically together, but with a great deal of file sharing first and then maybe rearranging it with greater dynamics,” says Howe.

“We then went on tour, but fortunately we didn’t do any touring in 2023 bar America in September and October, so we had time to finish earlier in the year.”

Howe has embraced the role of new technology in extending the possibilities of recording remotely as well as together, on The Quest and Mirror To The Sky, but also revels in the pleasures of performing each show. “When you’re playing live, you’re doing it differently, presenting it in an immediate way. That’s a beautiful thing; in between the start and the last chord, anything can happen, anything can become exciting. That drive to give a great performance.”

Performance is a combination of “a lot of structure” and the here and now, the difference maker from night to night. “There are parts that really come alive every night, and we put so much into tunes like America [an instrumental cover of the Simon & Garfunkel song]. It’s a challenge to play but bringing it to life is a joy.”

North Londoner Howe, now 77, says his greatest pleasure is playing solo guitar. “It’s the Chet Atkins in me that wants to play acoustic guitar,” he says. “I’ll be demonstrating that I have the will and determination to do that on my new solo album. It’s got me, lock, stock and barrel, me and the guitar, so I hope to do shows like that in the future.” As well as still saying yes to playing with Yes after 54 years, of course.

Yes, The Classic Tales Of Yes Tour 2024, York Barbican, May 28, 8pm. Rearranged from 2023; tickets remain valid. Box office: