Friday, July 31, 2009
The thrill of this package tour was hearing guitarist extraordinaire Steve Howe float effortlessly from his self-described "hard pounding guitar" in AOR gods Asia to the fluent, progressive rock orchestrations of Yes. Asia had its original core lineup intact (something Yes missed by a couple members) and were more than a perfect warm up, but this night definitely belonged to Howe's other baby.
For Yes, Howe took over the entire stage right with his world of guitars, gadgets and noisemakers. Longtime keyboard legend Rick Wakeman had sent in a replacement for the show -- his son Oliver. Chris Squire gracefully alternated between solid bass foundations and four-string lead counter melodies. Besides Squire's trademark growling low end, the defining sound of Yes has always been the high-pitched vocals of Jon Anderson. So it was with baited breath that the high-paying and hopeful crowd sat, shall we say, close to the edge of their seats waiting to hear how newcomer, Canadian Benoit David, would fill Anderson's shoes.
The strain and illness that sidelined the founding member last year lead to the dream job for David. When the former Yes tribute-band singer belted his first lines in the adventurous "Siberian Khatru," those in the audience who knew it wasn't Anderson sat back and breathed a sigh of pleasure as they heard their band sound more fresh and inspired than they have in ages. Those who didn't know the band had a new front man could just as easily clap along obliviously. Benoit hit every high and pranced around the stage with his tambourine and a smile befitting of the luckiest cover band singer to hit the gig lottery ... at least since Journey and Boston's current leading men did the same last year.
The most pleasant surprise of this night wasn't how accurate and passionate the vocals sounded, or even the perfect outdoor festival weather with Pittsburgh's skyline as backdrop. The best surprise of the evening was an outstanding set list that struck a perfect balance between radio staples like "I've Seen All Good People" and "Roundabout," and underground proto-metal classics that haven't been performed in eons, like the musician's paradise "Tempus Fugit" and doomy epic "Machine Messiah." The latter pair resurfacing as a silver lining in the sans-Anderson lineup, since he never sang on those songs, nor has he been keen to "allow" them into subsequent set lists in the years that followed his first, brief hiatus from the band. Howe may not relish playing the band's biggest hit, "Owner Of A Lonely Heart," since it occurred during his mid-career departure era, but he makes it his, keeping the riffs straight, and customizing the leads to his bizarre fashion.
Were it not enough that Howe opened and closed the show, he also served as its intermission: the acoustic came out, and this guitar hero payed homage to his own idol, Chet Atkins, as well as mingling in his own command of the six string for a relaxing recital. The rest of the band returned to the stage after their break and continued to own the night, ending with an encore of "Starship Trooper" that unleashed young Wakeman's nimble fingers for a mid-song synthesizer flourish. The finale's swirling, phaser-drenched crescendo was a perfect exclamation point on a statement echoed by many a satisfied fan filing out of the riverfront event:
Did the ol' Brits still have what it takes to retain their crown as kings of the art rock pantheon? The answer -- a resounding yes!