Taking an early influence from Paul McCartney, bassist Chris Squire truly pushed boundaries in the late sixties and early 70s and took the four stringed instrument into new territory. Using the rhythmic instrument as a lead, Squire gave the bass a distinctive voice and with progressive rock band Yes, he subsequently became a huge influence upon bassists around the world.
Prior to his death in 2015, Squire gave his blessing for Yes to continue without him. In many ways, any form of Yes without Squire seemed like an odd proposition since his writing and arranging skills were always pivotal to everything, but the official Yes (featuring long-time members Stece Howe and Alan White, alongside vocalist Jon Davison) have toured harder and more extensively than ever, keen to keep Squire’s memory and legacy alive. With Yes releasing their own tribute in October 2018 via Cherry Red Records (including new recordings by Yes men Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood), it’s only right that the band’s founding father should have his own tribute too, and while on the surface, this US release ‘A Life In Yes’ (issued via Cleopatra/Purple Pyramid) doesn’t appear quite as glossy as its UK counterpart, it is every bit as interesting. A few recordings even make it an essential listen.
Opening with a version of the epic ‘On The Silent Wings of Freedom’ seems incredibly bold, but the musicians involved manage to replicate the Yes milestone with a great affection. That’s hardly surprising since two of the key players are actually members of Yes at the time of its recording release. Billy Sherwood takes an incredibly complex bass part and pumps a real energy into it, very often capturing a similar force to the original 1978 recording, while vocalist Jon Davison adopts an easy high tenor, showing why he was always a fine replacement for Yes’ most famous voice, Jon Anderson. Sherwood’s bass continues to be flawless throughout and once the track reaches a multi-layered vocal for the mid section, this is about a great a cover as you could hope for. Ex-Yes man Patrick Moraz’s keys are occasionally a little unsubtle, but overall, his playing is in keeping with the original spirit. A special mention must go to drummer Jay Schellen (a member of Billy Sherwood’s other band World Trade) who seems completely undaunted by a jazz inflected drum part.
While often maligned by fans, the ‘Tormato’ album is well represented here with two other cuts tackled: Candace Night turns in a safe rendition of ‘Don’t Kill The Whale’ with Brian Auger, which never rises beyond okay despite best efforts from all concerned and ‘Onward’ – the album’s big ballad – is left in the more than capable hands of Renaissance’s Annie Haslam. While the recording date is not clear, Haslam’s voice still cuts a strong presence, especially on the higher notes. Occasionally showing signs of a little wear around the edges – only fair, given how many years she’s been in the business – you’d hope that would lend more of a human quality in places, but it seems filtering effects have been used in others, making the recording more of an acquired taste. As before, Sherwood’s bass work is exemplary, so it’s still worth an ear.
Of great interest, a standout from Squire’s excellent 1975 solo album ‘Fish Out of Water’ also manages to be one of this tribute’s real winners, when ‘Hold Out Your Hand’ is passed on to Marillion’s Steve Hogarth. Adding his distinctive tones, the track retains its status as a superb pop-rocker, less fussy than so much Yes stuff from that decade. With Larry Fast’s synths and Hogarth’s pop sensibilities at play, it’s actually possible to view this great track as a forerunner to Yes’ own more commercial style on ‘Big Generator’ and ‘Union’ a little further on. Squire’s signature piece, ‘The Fish’ isn’t always quite as faithful on the recording included here, since Sherwood adds a few new flourishes and an altogether angrier, more disjointed style to the very familiar melody. Given that he was chosen by Squire personally to take on the bass player’s role in Yes, Chris might well be thrilled that Billy has more than enough confidence to mix things up just a little and give it new life and a new angle for the twenty-first century, but it’s definitely not for the purists.
Less fortunate, the pop-rock classic ‘Owner of A Lonely Heart’ (a radio staple that never gets old), loses most of its spark in the hands of Nikki Squire and Dweezil Zappa. Zappa is a fantastic musician, no question, but something this melodic just isn’t right for him and he really muddies Trevor Rabin’s riff before offering a wonky, arty solo that doesn’t quite fit. …And the least said about Ms. Squire’s unremarkable voice, the better. In the words of Primus, they can’t all be zingers – and after a listen out of curiosity, this is a track unlikely to be played again by many. Fortunately, another Yes signature piece, ‘Roundabout’ is left in the hands of some fine, fine musicians. Ex-Yes man Tony Kaye steps in on keys, ex-Porcupine Tree guitarist John Wesley does his very best with a set of chopping chords and art-rock legend Todd Rundgren has the unenviable task of hitting Jon Anderson’s high notes. Luckily, he’s wise enough not to actually try and chooses instead to put his own stamp upon the recording… He doesn’t much sound like Toddzilla of old, but somewhere in there is a reasonable voice. The real magic during this number happens midway when Schellen steps up a gear behind the drum kit and Kaye slunks from out of the shadows with a huge blanket of keys. This is a great example of musicians making something their own, without being disrespectful…and Sherwood, especially, can hold his head proudly.
Renditions of ‘Union’s ‘The More We Live – Let Go’ and ‘Parallels’ further show why Sherwood was the best choice to fill Squire’s almost unfillable shoes. On the former, he offers a fine vocal, while guitar legend Steve Hackett replaces Steve Howe’s ethereal, jazzy style with something fuller, as his soaring notes truly compliment Sherwood’s voice and – following a wobbly intro – Jon Davison returns for a cracking take on ‘Parallels’, a number that represents Yes’ melodic and challenging side in equal measure. On this track the spirit of Yes’ current live set is able to give the recorded work a real edge. One of the very best tributes on this release, though, has far less of a connection with the Yes band in any configuaration. On paper, it seemed unlikely that session keyboardist David Sancious and Billy Idol’s old guitarist Steve Stevens would be able to absolutely nail the intricacies of ‘South Side of the Sky’, but the evidence is here. Stevens is in particularly great form, transforming Howe’s jazzy noodles into something a touch more direct but without losing any of the necessary feel, while Sancious sounds as if he’s in his element, tackling things not from the original perspective of a classically trained musician playing rock music, but from a jazz angle. It’s great to hear them both cutting loose while Sherwood adds another vocal. For Sherwood fans, in particular, at least half of this disc is a real treat, but this is worth the price of admission alone.
While this tribute isn’t all brilliant, most of it ranges from good to great and gives an interesting alternate look at a few classics, as well the chance to rediscover a couple more obscure tunes found within the Yes canon. It’s possibly of greater interest to fans of the featured artists paying tribute as opposed to dyed-in-the-wool hardened Yes fans, but or lovers of Billy Sherwood’s work, Steve Hogarth and Steve Hackett in particular, ‘A Life In Yes’ is certainly worth investigating.
[Squire’s version of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb from ‘Conspiracy’ and The Prog Collective’s ‘Technical Divide’ are included as bonus tracks.]