LIVE CONCERT REVIEW:
Yes and Procol Harum Live in Snoqualmie, Wash. (August 12, 2012)
When I was a sophomore in college nine years ago, I remember a representative of the Student Government giving me a questionnaire asking me what sort of musical acts I would like them to bring to campus. I filled in "Procol Harum." I realized, even at time, that was a pretty dorky thing to request. But hey! Doesn't The Bible say 'ask and you shall receive?' Unfortunately for me, I didn't end up receiving Procol Harum at that campus. But that was OK. Because on August 12, 2012, Procol Harum would come to my town. Although there was one slight caveat: They would be the opening act for Yes.
OK, so why don't I just go ahead and admit it: I was also looking for an excuse to see Yes. So I wasn't exactly struggling with the notion of paying $80 to go to this concert. Yes, as we all should very well know, were the most technically proficient progressive rock act of all time. They were also the all-time best progressive rock band of all time, depending on who you talk to. (Me, I prefer Genesis!)
Seemingly since the beginning of time, Yes has been putting on shows in the Seattle area once per year. Except every year it seems there is a dramatically different line-up! Perhaps even more volatile than the line-up shifts were the supporting acts they'd tour with. Last year, it with Styx. (...Blech!!!) So I'm very glad I waited for this year to see Yes, because they were touring with... Procol Harum!!! One of the finest art-rock bands to ever grace the earth.
As far as opening acts go, of course, Procol Harum completely blows everything else away. They released some of my most favorite rock albums of all time... And I'll even go on the record to say that I even prefer a good handful of Procol Harum albums to Fragile. (I know. I'm in the minority there...) I've owned six of their classic albums since I was in my late teens (10 years ago!), and I've treasured them about as much as I've treasured anything in my collection.
As the opening act for Yes, however, Procol Harum were unfortunately reduced to a no-frills act; their touring band was relatively scant--just a pianist, lead guitarist, bass guitarist, Hammond organist, and a drummer. They also had to play amongst Yes's much larger instruments, which were on stage covered with black shrouds. But the worst thing of all was that they had only gotten around to performing nine songs. Naturally of course, some Procol Harum is better than no Procol Harum, and I was pleased as punch being able to see an actual flesh-and-blood Gary Brooker sing all those songs I like.
Also, I think it's important that I point out this version of Procol Harum only dates back to the '90s. Gary Brooker is the only original member these days, but given that he wrote the songs and sung them, then you could say he's the main draw. I knew him from his photographs from the '60s and '70s, but I wouldn't have recognized him today. However, as soon as he started singing with his distinctive butterscotch vocals, there was no doubt we had the right man. ...Albeit, he divulged to the crowd that he contracted a bit of a cold. I didn't particularly notice it, however. Come to think of it, I guess his voice pretty much always seems like it has a cold, so a little extra graininess to it hardly did a thing.
The first song he'd performed was “Wall Street Blues” from Procol Harum's latest record, The Well's on Fire, released in 2003. For sure that's a good song, but it's not one that I'd originally listened to all those years ago! (Huh, I guess I actually shared that in common with people in the audience, most of whom were Baby Boomers.) However, I did want to hear them play the song considering that most of the line-up I was watching actually participated in recording that album. (The exception is Matthew Fisher, Procol's original organist, played on the album instead of Josh Phillips, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Richard Lewis.) Another song they performed from that album was “Old English Dream,” which--again--I don't quite enjoy as the average song from their '60s and '70s output! But it was nice all the same!
After singing "Wall Street Blues," Brooker told the crowd he hoped that any people in the audience who worked in finance weren't terribly offended by him singing that. But then he said they could get a little bit of retribution for his next song, which was likely to upset psychiatrists and lawyers. ...And oooooh, when he said that, and I knew right away what he was about to sing! That was, “As Strong as Samson” from Exotic Birds and Fruit, which was among those albums I've been listening to for ages. It's an excellent song, and I loved every millisecond of it!
At one point their lead guitarist Geoff Whitehorn (looking like James Belushi but speaking with a British accent) leaned into Gary Brooker and requested that he play "In Held 'Twas in I." But then Brooker protested and said the daylight outside (at this outdoors venue) meant that performing such a song would be inappropriate. However, he nevertheless read off the opening sentence in that same dramatic tone the read it in Shine on Brightly. “In the darkness of the night, I am occasionally relieved...” But then he abruptly stopped.
“Hold on, we can't play this!” he said. “It's a twenty-minute song!” Brooker said he would perhaps like to play it with the Seattle Symphony, but that would be only if they let him. (Dear Seattle Symphony: PRETTY PLEASE?!?!?!) I also was intrigued to discover that Brooker pronounced his band Procol HAR-um at the show. As in HAR-dy HAR HAR. Most people say HAIR-um. I guess we were wrong.
Speaking of daylight, Brooker said during the show he had been noticing the setting sun moving shadows across the stadium. When there was new group of people staring into the sun, he said “Oh now you're in misery.” He then said all they needed was for a great bald eagle to swoop down from the sky and block out the sunlight. I thought it was kind of cute he was noticing the Sun move, but it didn't occur to me that I would be staring into the sun pretty soon. It happened while they were in the middle of performing my favorite Procol Harum song of all time: “A Salty Dog.” I saw that nasty old sun starting to peak itself out underneath the top of the stage canopy. I sat up straighter in my seat, which bought me a few seconds, but that thing kept on moving. What the hell did the sun think it was playing at moving so fast? Before I knew it, my body and neck was stretched up as far as they could do, and there was nothing else I could do to block the Sun. I succumbed to the fact that if I were going to continue to watch Procol Harum, I'd have to stare into the sun. This was why it was definitely a good thing that I had a baseball cap with me. However, not even the hat could have prevented Procol Harum from turning into The Procol Harum Silhouettes.
But even as silhouettes, their performance of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was gorgeous. My favorite bit was when members of audience cheered after Brooker sang “And the crowd called out for more.” ...I'm sure people do that at every show, but it never occurred to me that the audience would do that. Also, for some reason during this particular song, I had my critic 'hat' on (which was different from my sun-blocking baseball 'hat'), and I found something to criticize about this performance: I didn't care for the electric guitar solo that Whitehorn played there. Really, I don't even think an electric guitar solo belongs there; it clutters it up. I think that song is best served when there's nothing to take us away from those cool, soothing tones of the Hammond organ. Maybe Whitehorn should have switched to an acoustic guitar instead to contribute a lovely but strictly non-intrusive texture? That song was of course on Procol Harum's debut album, which (no surprise, really) also was their most represented album that night. In addition to “Whiter Shade of Pale” they also performed “Cerdes (Outside the Gates of)” and “Homburg.” I loved both of them tremendously, of course! ...I can't remember which song this happened anymore, but at the end of one of these songs, the organist was goofing around a little bit and hit a sustained, REALLY low note. That made a pretty cool sound. If I ever get to mess around with a Hammon organ sometime before I die, I'm totally going to do that.
But despite what I wrote in the previous paragraph, I do want to stress that I found Whitehorn to be an excellent guitarist. Especially when he got to really shred it for “Simple Sister,” which of course was a song that's supposed to be shredded! Maybe one of the most interesting song-choice from that evening was “Pandora's Box” from Procol's Ninth. While that wasn't among those albums I bought 10 years ago and listened to over and over again, I did finally get around to buying it... one year ago, and I listened to it maybe a half-dozen times. And, yes, I even love that song.
At one point, Brooker said the real reason he'd left London was not so much to tour with Yes, but it was to avoid the Olympics. However, he did say he was impressed by how many medals the English had won this year, which usually isn't very many. Even though, he said, most of the medals England won were for sitting-down sports. He then marveled over the fact that the English beat South Koreans at something. (I didn't follow The Olympics myself, so I wasn't sure what he was talking about.) However, after saying that, he must've seen someone in the audience raise a fuss (I couldn't see), and he back-pedaled that statement a bit.
“Not that I have anything against the Koreans,” he said. “It's just nice to win something every once in awhile.”
The strange omission from the set-list was the lack of “Conquistador!” And I mean literally that they didn't get around to it. According to published set-lists of shows earlier in the tour, they had always closed their set with that song. This time, they didn't. I'm guessing the show ran a little late, and so they had cut it short. I did hear a few protests from the crowd regarding this. There were people clapping, cheering, and carrying on as loudly as they after Procol Harum left, trying to entice them back. However, when the roadies came out and started tearing down their instruments and setting up the stage for Yes, it was clear their efforts were in vein. It was a pity! But at any rate, I was still ecstatic to have finally gotten to see Procol Harum, even it was just a tiny smidgen of them.
But next, it was time for the main course of the concert: Yes. Strangely, this was the first ever concert I've been to where I didn't actually feel obligated to like the headlining act. Over the last few years of so, I've been reading plenty of negative things about the shoddy state Yes were in, and I was expecting the worst. They'd even recieved some negative fan reaction regarding their new lead singer, Jon Davison, who I'm sure wasn't even born when Fragile was released. (I guess the original Yes frontman Jon Anderson is out of the group permanently. He'd gotten ill one year and had to bow out of a tour, and apparently the rest of the group never asked him back in.)
Easily Yes' main draw was Steve Howe, and if any future line-up of Yes ever tours around without him, I'd be leery of it. That wasn't only because of his impeccible guitar playing (although that was mostly the reason), but it was also his appearance. Even though Howe is definitely into old-fart-territory now, he's an enjoyable old fart. It seems the older and older he's getting, the more he's been morphing into the look of a mad scientist. He's as skinny as a rail; he has a receding hairline but the hair that remains is long and starkly white; he has rather tiny spectacles that have to be pushed pretty far down the bridge of his nose in order for him to carefully observe his fancy finger-work on the guitar... But enhancing his mad-scientist look more than anything else is his friggin' huge mouth. The only thing keeping him from looking 100% like a mad scientist was that in lieu of a white lab coat, he wore a wavy blue, white and black overcoat. Also, I suppose, a mad scientist wouldn't be able to acrobatically play his guitar like he did, never missing a note. Occasionally I would see Howe hitting a long note during one of his intricate solos, and for one second, look up at the audience with that mad scientist face of his as if to tell everyone cooly "Yeah, I did that.” I also saw him try to kick the air a bit as played guitar, although they were rather slow kicks that were very low to the ground. ...Hey, at least he gave it an effort! The guy is in his mid-60s!
It suddenly dawned on me early on in the show that the guy I was watching on keyboards was Geoff Downes who was........... IN THE BUGGLES!!! (He was also in Asia, but that wasn't so thrilling. Steve Howe was also in Asia, and I didn't care enough to mention that in the previous paragraph.) Downes didn't tour with Yes last year (when it was actually Rick Wakeman's son), and so it turned out that was another good reason I waited for this year to see Yes. Downes had himself enclosed within a cubicle of keyboard-towers (or a keyboard-closet), and the set-up consisted of seven or eight keyboards in total. He was often seen furiously switching back and forth between them and sometimes even played two at once. (Never three, though! ...I'm sure Downes wished once or twice in his life that he could have been born part-octopus.) For me, as a Buggles fan, the ultimate Downes experience for me was watching him sing “Yes! Yes!” through an old school 1980s vocoder in “Tempus Fugit.” He'd also gotten out of his keyboard-closet for a bit in the middle of "Roundabout" and danced around with a keytar.
“Roundabout,” by the way, was the ultimate proof that Yes were as much on top of their game as they possibly could have been. ...At least from my perspective of never having seen them perform live before. (I wonder if people in the crowds saw Yes in the '70s and would be able to report otherwise. ...I did, however, hear someone in the crowd while I was exiting the place exclaim gleefully that "they're getting better and better.") The one Yes song I know the more than anything else is “Roundabout,” and I can report that every note they played was exactly as I remembered from the studio version. What I watched most during that performance was old-man Chris Squire playing that familiar bass guitar line as furiously as he could, and he was utterly dazzling. I guess I didn't fully realize until watching him how involved his bass parts were for Yes. Another song I wasn't expecting was a Yes-ified version of Simon and Garfunkel's “America,” which wasn't anything less than purely exciting.
At one point Squire came out with a three-necked bass guitar, and I could see that--as he was walking out with it--he had cool strut to his walk and a collected expression on his face as if to say "Yeah, I have this thing. I let you see it.” The song he performed that with was, I believe, “Awaken,” a selection from Going for the One. As Yes were performing that, I looked to make sure that Squire had a use for all three of those tiers. Because otherwise, he would have come off as a pompous ass for bringing that out! ...Granted, he still off as a pompous ass for bringing out that instrument, but at least I was able to confirm he used all three of those tiers. Also during that song, Downes was required to play a pretty involved and loud organ solo, which meant that he also couldn't play a repetitive crystal-synth sequence that song required. This was where the services of the Jon Davison were used, who didn't seem to have anything better to do during that extended instrumental interlude. He used a special, tiny keyboard that was separate from Downe's keyboard tower to do that. I did enjoy that performance, of course, but certain parts of it I found to be a bit slow. Another song that I thought was good overall but occasionally slow was a performance of their six-part suite “Fly By Here” from their new album. (I remember hearing a little bit of grumbling around me when Davison announced they would play that entire suite! I noticed particularly the man sitting next to me scrunching his nose a bit and making the 'so-so' hand gesture.) My complaint about that song is that some of its busier parts came off as wonky. ...And I did listen to the studio cut, and it's sounds exactly the same there, so there was nothing particularly off about their performance of it. But these duller moments didn't really matter, since they made up for them handily with a song like “Heart of the Sunrise.” That was, of course, a pure classic that virtually everyone in the crowd was excited to hear. I really, really, really liked watching Steve Howe play those familiar and furious electric guitar-lines that song is best known for. It sounds a bit like surf-guitar, come to think of it. Maybe the biggest radio hit they played there was "I've Seen All Good People," which in addition to "Roundabout" was one of those songs I had been hoping they'd perform at the show.
I noticed during the show that Howe was a man of many guitars, and he required an entire tent to house them all. I would see him fairly frequently retreating into that tent and coming out with a brand new guitar. Even during the show sometimes, I'd see a roadie roll out a guitar that was fixed on a stand. Howe, who still had his usual guitar hanging off his shoulder, would let it dangle while he reached over to the guitar-on-a-stand and play a few licks off of it. ...I remember specifically the guitar-on-a-stand being used to produce that ringing guitar you hear at the beginning of “Roundabout.” However, lightning-fast, he would have to switch back to the fuzz-guitar to play that fast, furious riff.
There were also a few points during the show when Howe rolled out a device with four metallic legs and was torso-high. No, it wasn't a walker! It was a slide guitar! Another instrument he played a few times I thought might have been a mandolin, but it appears to have actually been a Portuguese 12-string guitar. There was also one time when the entire band exited the stage except for him, and he played an intricate solo on a ususal acoustic guitar. He'd started this sequence off with a brief rendition of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” After that I didn't know precisely what he was playing, but that didn't matter. Despite literally watching Howe play this from eight rows back, I found it hard to believe such complicated sounds were coming from just one guitar! In the last half of the performance, I saw Davison come back on stage and start to sing “Leaves of Green,” which was just a small piece of Tales from Topographic Oceans.
I'm not really into following Yes' politics, but at least this particular crowd seemed to approve of the new lead singer. Early on in the show, I saw Davison playing a set of bongo drums nearby his microphone and someone, from the back, yelled: “Go, lead singer!” ...So even without knowing the guy's name, this crowd approved of him! He was obviously selected for this tour because his voice is highly reminiscent of Jon Anderson's. Despite the obvious age gap between him and the rest of the band, it seemed like he meshed reasonably well with the rest of the group. He wasn't quite the virtuoso/scientist at an instrument like everyone else was in the band. If he played an instrument at all, it was typically the bongos or the tambourines. I did notice him at one point coming out with an acoustic guitar and strumming it simply, and I already mentioned before that he played the keyboards once.
Anyway, not being a particular fan of Yes, I enjoyed watching these guys perform immensely. Proof of my feelings was that it seemed waaaay too soon when the band took their final bows! As they did so, I saw Geoff Downes give me the thumbs up sign. ...Of course that signal wasn't meant specifically for me, as I'm sure to him it looked like he was sticking his thumb out into the blackness of the night. However, I nevertheless pretended that he did direct it at me on purpose, because I freaking love The Buggles. So when he did that, I clapped harder, just for him. (Hah, and I've just now put Asia on my want-to-see list. I guess Downes and Howe tour around as Asia when they're not touring with Yes. I'm even less of an Asia fan than I am a Yes fan, but I can't deny that such a concert wouldn't be enjoyable as hell. ...Unfortunately, though, it doesn't look like they'll be stopping by the Seattle area anytime soon! Oh well. Maybe next time.)