Before I dig into this review, I just want to say it is great to be back online at Scotti’s! Between some personal issues, and the storms that had invaded the area, I had been away for a while. I don’t know if you folks missed me, all I know is, I missed being on Scotti’s. Feels really good to be back!
This blog has exposed me to a lot of new music. It has also brought me close to many artists, opened many musical doors for me, and I learn something new every time I write something. This review is unique in that while I was fortunate enough to work with the promoter for Jon Anderson, and his subsequent projects, I got to experience what many say is the heart and soul of progressive rock mainstays YES, Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman live playing songs from the YES catalog that we all know and love, but also songs from Anderson/Wakeman’s new album The Living Tree. While this is a review of the live act, I will make a quickie commentary on the album The Living Tree: I am going to get the disc based on the performances I saw at the Sherman Theater.
The Sherman Theater is an old venue in the heart of Stroudsburg, which is undergoing a touch of a renaissance lately. The Sherman, I would say is undergoing it’s own renaissance, with some new elements and some signs of age. Will call got our order confused, but such associations with promoters, press agents, etc., usually leads to snafu situations. Unless person A talks directly to person B, and when I get there I talk to person B, then the situation usually devolves to Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.
While I most likely will recognize the YES tunes, the new pieces from The Living Tree and if Anderson does anything from his new disc Open, I may need help naming them. Thanks to a cooperative soundman and an equally cooperative stage manager named Neil (if memory serves, no chance of that happening), we managed to take pictures of Jon’s personal set lists.
Ask and you shall receive…
The theater darkens, Anderson will play nylon string acoustic guitars, Wakeman uncharacteristically only had two keyboards. The money some musicians can save with sampling, modeling, midi… It would also seem that Wakeman is a MIDI adapter. His organs, pianos, and layered voices mix, rise and fall with Wakeman devoting his fingers to the keys and letting MIDI do the program changes to provide flexibility, and allowing Wakeman to do what he does best: fly up and down the keyboard.
The comedy starts early as the poorly performed strains of the theme from “2001, A Space Odyssey” performed by what seems like a primary school band. Klunker notes, lackluster dynamics, I can picture the band leader swigging from a flask now. Anderson and Wakeman take the stage and put us out of our misery.
“Starship Trooper” from The Yes Album starts with a nice bell melody line by Wakeman. He then moves to the piano at about the “Sister Bluebird” line. I am keeping in mind this is two people (two extraordinary players mind you) with an acoustic guitar and two MIDI keyboards. With that in mind, any criticism has to be excused as both players are spot-on! Anderson’s vocals are in top shape, which is nice leading into Wakeman’s effortless yet grandiose solo (grandiose in a GOOD way).
Keeping things moving and lively, “Sweet Dreams” from Time And A Word is unleashed. A peppy, up-tempo tune, the speedy tempo gives Wakeman license to solo up a storm. They bring this snappy ditty to a crisp end during a part featuring a vocal ad-lib of “doo doo doo”. Well rehearsed.
After putting down his guitar, Anderson begins to chat up the crowd. Wakeman and Anderson reveal that the following portion of the show is what they call “The Recital” as they both have to resort to using music stands because they (truthfully aren’t familiar with the new material) claim they are old and forgetful. Wakeman breaks out one of many jokes: “My grandfather…, is well up in years but is still a functioning member of society…, he stains furniture… he doesn’t MEAN to…, he just does…”.
Two shows a night, folks, that’s all Rick can do, two shows a night, can’t handle more. Also try the veal and DON’T forget to tip your waitress.
Anderson reveals the underlying message of the song “Forever” from the new album The Living Tree is ‘love is powerful’. Now like I said, I do not have The Living Tree yet. But the songs I was exposed to all exhibited a maturity, depth and intensity that fire my curiosity to see how they approached these songs in the studio. The story about how the disc was written was interesting as well. It seems that Wakeman would email MP3s of the songs without lyrics, maybe some melodies if Anderson was lucky. Anderson would then mail the songs back with vocals, lyrics and melodies to Wakeman. Even if these sparse arrangements are how the songs appear on album, these songs are a tad more commercial and less explorative than YES material. After some keyboard interludes, Anderson picks up the guitar again and they launch into a well-known YES song “And You And I”. Wakeman’s keys come front and center for the break on this. Between my admitted unfamiliarity with YES material, the new material they are showcasing, and the fact that they are doing stripped down versions of some of prog rock’s most ambitious music recorded to date, dissecting a lot of these songs is tough. To try to find anomalies in their performances is similar to the proverbial needle in the haystack. I can note observations, and in the event of some miscues I will let you know all the dirt. But right now, all that is happening is two players of incredible accomplishment are burning it up on stage and it has nothing to do with the electronic candles decorating the stage.
Now we have the title track from The Living Tree. Anderson plays straight man to Wakeman’s funny man. A beautiful piano arpeggio starts things off. What amazes me is, not only is Wakeman playing a 10 on the degree-of-difficulty scale, but he does it so nonchalantly, he even has time and opportunity to brush some wayward hair away from his face without missing a note! MIDI adds and subtracts the strings from the voice automatically.
Wakeman seamlessly transitions into “Long Distance Runaround” from Fragile. Wakeman livens up the keys to fill out the arrangement and dynamic, Anderson contributes some strums to help fill the track as Wakeman wails on the solo. Another magnificent performance wrapped up with a tight tight tight ending.
Anderson intros “America” by Paul Simon by revealing that he is an American citizen. That revelation is met with applause (?!?!?!?!) which dies down as the song begins. Anderson is belting it out with magnificence. His voice is in prime shape. He is the living exception to what I now call “Gabriel’s Law”. That law being: “The songs you wrote in your twenties or thirties become more difficult to sing in your fifties and sixties.” They are so confident in their performance, they even honkey-tonk up the middle section.
Something I didn’t expect to happen, something I don’t see often (as a veteran of both sides of the stage) but it was an uproarious delight. First there was a bit where Wakeman lets us into his personal life, revealing he will be married for the fourth time at the end of this year. Glutton for punishment, no, but rather he says he doesn’t like the divorce part of marriage, but he’s not quite sure what part of marriage he DOES like, until the realization hits him: “It must be the cake…” While discussing their mutual appreciation of toiling in the soil, Wakeman again makes light of the fact that many musicians take up gardening as a way to let off steam, seeking inspiration, etc. Wakeman came up with “So many musicians either wind up gardening vegetables, or become vegetables”! Not only does the audience break out in laughter, but Anderson can’t contain himself to start the vocal. Wakeman has already repeated the intro phrase three times and Anderson can barely bring himself to join “The Garden”. I must admit it is a rather delightful tune. Everyone seems to join Anderson and Wakeman in their delight of all things natural.
Speaking of natural, Wakeman makes a natural transition to “The Living Tree” Part 2 by hopping over to his other waiting keyboard. All night long, Wakeman’s hands have been more active than atoms in nuclear fission. They have been the hardest working hands in show business all night long. Come to think of it, I can’t remember Wakeman playing many whole notes all throughout the night.
Anderson attempts to mislead us by claiming that the next tune is reggae. From the odor wafting from behind us, it smells like the kids behind us have been reggae-ing since before the show started. We are also forewarned by Anderson that they will take a short break after this next tune. Anderson claims they will take a respite for tea and crumpets when Wakeman interrupts Anderson and demands he tell the truth about why there will be a half an hour break! We, the audience, were on the edge of our seats waiting to hear the true dish… Sex? Drugs? What do they need to shut the show down for?
Wakeman dealt the truth. They are old and don’t have reliable prostates, so they need a twenty minute BATHROOM BREAK!! If the floor of the theater weren’t in a state of renovation, we would all be rolling on it by that time. After Wakeman blames his aged prostate, they break into the familiar territory of YES’s “Time And A Word’, the closing track from the album of the same name. While the lyrics of the song read” “Love is the word”, they managed to break into The Beatle’s “All You Need Is Love” for a few measures. After that, Wakeman starts to jam with abandon. Anderson attempts to get Wakeman’s attention to end the song and Wakeman plays the part of a man possessed. Anderson gives up and walks off stage during Wakeman’s key-tickling acrobatics. Once Wakeman “notices” that Anderson has left, he winds up the song with a trite, hackneyed ending and himself, exits the stage to wild applause.
I’m telling you, the comedic value alone was worth the price of admission. But it is break time.
After their restroom rest, they return to play “South Side Of The Sky” from Fragile. Although part of the “recital section”, they breeze through this with mesmerizing brilliance.
These songs aren’t exactly easy, folks.
Something to win the crowd over, Anderson breaks into the familiar lyric “I awoke this morning. Love laid me down by the river” from “Wonderous Stories” off of the Going For The One LP. Even without a full band, it was still a very whimsical version. Anderson did do the “doo-doot” vocal melody with ease. To build the dynamic, Anderson maintained rhythm while Wakemen, well, while Wakeman did what Wakeman basically did all night. Let loose!
Up next is another tune from The Living Tree, “Just One Man”. The theme of this track is inspired by what is happening globally, in that regardless of your religious, ethic, or sociological background, as long as you have a path to divinity, it’s all good. A delicate song of hope for these troubled times.
As a way to say thanks for picking this YES product (as opposed to the other product with the other members of the remnants of YES) we are treated to “Nous Sommes Du Soleil” from Tales From Topographic Oceans. While this is a fairly haughty track to undertake live, these guys have no fear.
And based on some of Wakeman’s (as well as some by Anderson) comedy bits, they have no shame either.
For as lovely a version as to “Nous Sommes Du Soleil” was, they wasted no time getting right down to “Leaves Of Green”, a piece within the track “The Ancient” also from Tales… It is at this point I make a startling realization: there hasn’t been an off-note, off time, off key ANYTHING all night long. As I come down from this breakthrough, Wakeman double-times the tempo of the keys as Anderson jazz-scat-vocals through the ending.
More from The Living Tree, “23.24.11” is referred to as a sad song even though Wakeman’s introduction is hilarious. For some reason, he tangents off, recalling an unfortunate incident where he mixed liquid Viagra with a liquid eraser concoction. He claims he was stricken with instant correction!
The numbers “23.24.11” stand for the measurements of time used by soldiers to countdown their tours of active duty in the many wars plaguing this planet. While Wakeman’s keys spiral up and down mournfully, Anderson adds the poignant line “in the darkness, there’s always a song for you.”
To cheer us up, Community Singing Time is announced. They reach back to an oldie but a goodie, “Your Move” from The Yes Album is presented for all to join in with a sing-a-long. Continuing on the anti-war tip, Anderson manages to interject “All We Are Saying, Is Give Peace A Chance”.
Who would have thought a “stodgy”, progressive band would pay such homage to The Beatles?
They break the song down so the audience can participate in the ‘doot-doot-doo-doo-doot’ chorus/bridge, but before the song can get out of hand, they segue quickly into “Seen All Good People” also from The Yes Album. Anderson takes back the vocal for one last time. Wakeman puts the riff through various modulations up and down, Anderson following with the melody loyally.
The final piece from The Living Tree is called “House Of Freedom”, about how the advances in communications technology have made it possible for those seeking to end injustice, corruption and rich-getting-richer mentality to unite, organize and form a collective voice of disapproval of these crimes against humanity. I have to say, of all The Living Tree tracks played tonight, this one is the closest in keeping with the YES traditions. Sounds the most YES-like. For the solo, Wakeman calls up an Oboe-type patch for a very sprightly solo.
Anderson flexes his guitarist muscle by keeping a delayed guitar line going for Wakeman to solo over.
The next tune is the middle section of a song called “Awaken” also from Going For The One. We are treated to a story about the history of the recording of this portion of the song. It seems in order to get inspiration; the members took to a local church to utilize the organ for that inspirational sound.
Anderson breaks from playing guitar during the middle portion, but picks it back up again to build a musical layer for Wakeman to do his thing. Wakeman is able to conjure that organ sound (again, mad props to sampling technology) for the ending of the last verse, to keep it full as Anderson once again puts the guitar in it’s stand to belt out the last lines. Not to be outdone, Wakeman nimbly runs up the climactic conclusion.
It’s not quite Sunday yet, but I feel like I’m in church. Either that or “Inna Gadda Da Vida” is going to break out somewhere.
Once mass is concluded, they leave the stage but the crowd will have none of that!
They are brought back to the stage to give us “Roundabout” from Fragile. You’ve heard “Roundabout”. Everyone’s heard “Roundabout”. So I can criticize this one. One of my prouder moments resulting from this blog was founding YES drummer Bill Bruford putting a link to my review of his book on his website. I feel that entitles me to this opinion: no Bruford, no sale.
All kidding aside, it was re-arranged for keyboards, but without those identifiable drums and Chris Squire’s distinct bass line, it did sound kinda hollow. Guess I was spoiled by the superb studio version.
To introduce the simply titled “Soon” from the album Relayer, Anderson does a diatribe about light. Considering the lyrics of this song (the full title of that piece is “The Gates Of Delirium” and “Soon” is the third movement from the song) have much to do with light, the diatribe seems appropriate. But this track is part of the reason I wanted to attend this show, madrigal, madrigal madrigal. It was a beautiful song executed to perfection.
Wrapping up the night, to all our dismay, they pull out something most unexpected. They reach back to the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howealbum for “The Meeting”. The most striking characteristic of this piece is the elegant piano line. But apparently some of the bugaboos we experienced at last week’s Tubes show have followed us to Stroudsburg. During the song, all the house lights go dark and Anderson and Wakeman are left with their on-stage music stand lights to see what they are doing.
Didn’t even phase them, they kept playing and never missed a beat. The lights came on and fell dark again., but they continued flawlessly. Although, Anderson’s voice is getting a little tired. Let’s face it, he’s been rendering powerful vocals all night long, his range is alto to mezzo-soprano, maybe higher. So it’s admittedly tough to keep that sort of vocal up for a two plus hour show. To Wakeman’s credit, regardless of what the lights did, he was on his game during the solo. Unshakable.
I make some small talk with the sound person, as well as Neil to get the set list. There is the potential of a meet and greet, but we decide that it has been a long day, we are drained from the concert experience, if an interview will present itself, I will talk with them then. If not, then it was never meant to be. But I do have questions galore now. When did Rick Wakeman become a comedian? How does Wakeman like using the Roland Phantom keyboard? How long has Anderson been playing guitar? You see the show, and it opens up a whole new world for you.
Would I recommend an Anderson/Wakeman show? Absolutely! I am thrilled to be involved with Glass Onyon, who turned me onto this act. I hope some of this new material will see itself to my door as it was highly intriguing. Imagine my surprise when new, interesting music originated from an older, reliable source.
Thankfully, Anderson and Wakeman are around making that interesting music, and having a good time doing so, and having an even better time sharing the fun!!
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