VARIOUS ARTISTS – Yesterday And Today: A 50th Anniversary Tribute To Yes

Fifty years is a long time for anything. It seems an especially long time for a band to exist…and particularly one that always set out to push boundaries and create music that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to the pop music buying masses. …And yet, here we are: prog rock legends Yes celebrated their half century in 2018. Granted, they’ve had an ever evolving, less than stable line up – no fewer than nineteen members have passed through the official ranks of Yes since their inception in 1968, and at the end of 2018, none of the band members are the true founders – but there is still a Yes. Detractors be damned.

Masterminded by Dave Kerzner, ‘Yesterday And Today’ is an all-star tribute that celebrates all line-ups and all eras of a great band, featuring a few very familiar faces, some of whom have been brave enough to tackle a couple of deeper cuts from the Yes catalogue.

One of the very best recordings is used to open this collection, as Big Big Train drummer/vocalist Nick D’ Virgilio teams up with ex-Circa guitarist Johnny Bruhns and Yes keysman Geoff Downes for a storming rendition of ‘Machine Massiah’. The opening track from the underrated ‘Drama’ LP, ‘Messiah’ always had what could be considered the heaviest guitar riff in the Yes canon. Here, in the hands of a very different musician, it manages to retain all of its original menace, which along with a solid drum performance from Joe Cass, really gets things off to a great start. Downes, obviously, just replicates his performance on the original take and Nick’s high tenor vocals fall somewhere between Yes’ own Jon Davison and Trevor Horn, sounding great throughout. The main difference on this recording comes courtesy of bassist Fernando Perdomo, who adds a couple of extra flourishes. In one of the sections where lead bass is called upon, he chooses an odd, wobbly tone that sounds more modern, but elsewhere – and especially during a couple of later sections – he plays very much to Squire’s own blueprint, but plays it extremely well. For lovers of ‘Machine Massiah’, this slightly different take will definitely provide a wondrous listen.

In a strong contrast, the gentle ‘Soon’ section from ‘The Gates of Delirium’ is left in the capable hands of Curved Air, augmented by Dave Kerzner on extra keyboards. Sonja Kristine approaches her vocal distinctively with a haunted wail. By using a register that’s actually lower than Jon Anderson’s original take, it’s really unsettling and becomes especially so once she decides to throw in some unexpected noises during the coda. Musically, several blankets of keyboards and mellotrons also have the effect of making the piece sound darker than the Yes original. It’s quite nice, but at the same time if approached in the wrong frame of mind, it just ends up far too mournful to listen to.

One of this tribute’s biggest surprises (and best strengths) is that it doesn’t overlook the Yes debut. That 1969 long player might occasionally feel like a world away from the Yes experiments and indulgences just three years on, but on it’s own merits it’s a fantastic record, covering rock, pop, jazz and a little psychedelia. The two cuts reworked here are both terrific. Wilco’s Pat Sansone offers one of the disc’s best tributes when he reworks ‘Sweetness’ into a more modern arrangement. It always sounded more like Badfinger or The Zombies than “typical” Yes and, thankfully, the core of the track remains unchanged; it’s just bigger and warmer. With plenty of acoustic guitars meshing with some good old hippie-rock, Pat’s clean vocal carries a very strong melody, but it’s the way the multi-layered vocals compliment a fabulous bassline and the chosen melodies form the roots of seventies rock that really makes the track. Dr. Danny’s ‘Yesterday And Today’ has a similar loving haziness and a much fuller sound than Yes were able to capture back in the 60s, which really reinforces some summery soul vibes. Those wanting prog with a capital P will not necessarily find so much listening pleasure here, but it’s fabulously arranged. If there’s any justice in the world, these tracks will remind listeners of the many merits of the band’s earliest recordings.

Much less interesting, Leslie Hunt and Jonathan Shang work through ‘Long Distance Runaround’ meticulously on the kind of recording that’s so straight, it might as well be a royalty-free recording, before Yes bassist Billy Sherwood steps forward with a recording of Chris Squire’s signature piece, ‘The Fish’. As with his recording on the Chris Squire tribute album ‘A Life In Yes’, it is respectful but also adds a couple of new ideas. The main melodic root sounds multi-tracked; the busier parts again have a harder sound, but Sherwood’s playing is great. Joining him are various bells and keyboard noises, before a choir sings out the latin vocal hook. If anything, in terms of both performance and production, this is the superior version of the two recorded by Billy in 2018. Musically, ‘Starship Trooper’ seems almost as sparkle-free as ‘Long Distance Runaround’, which is especially frustrating considering it’s a number that carries so much of the Yes spirit and so much could’ve been done with it. Often sounding like a man going through the motions, Roger Houdalle’s guitar parts have absolutely no presence at all during the ‘Life Seeker’ section – he only redeems himself when it comes to the acoustic ‘Disillusion’ bit – but by that point, chances are you’ll be wondering why you’re actually still listening when there’s a copy of ‘The Yes Album’ within reach. Ex-It Bites vocalist Francis Dunnery isn’t any better on this recording, either: he might be one of the bigger names here, but his voice is flat and almost powerless. For all the reasons to check out ‘Yesterday & Today’, this really isn’t one of them. Moving swiftly on, then…

Celebrating the 80s and a more commercial Yes, the legendary Steve Hackett turns in an absolutely fantastic rendition of ‘Cinema’, with his distinctive guitar tones being absoluetly perfect for the main hook. With a harder edge to parts of the riff and a more other-worldly tone on the spacier parts, rather than a Yes piece, it now sounds like an undiscovered track from Hackett’s own ‘Defector’ sessions and is worth the price of admission here alone. Fans of Hackett’s classic work will want to hear this again…and again. Similarly cool, Billy Sherwood and Robert Berry team up for ‘Changes’, a tune that shows off Yes’ pop and prog skills all at once. Musically, they’re happy to play everything as close to the original as possible during the complex intro, but moving into the verses, things are quite different – but in a good way. Berry’s voice is arguably better than Rabin’s and he’s in fine form throughout a more spacious verse and has enough presence to hold his own when the music becomes less fluid. Taking the reins for the chorus and bridge, Sherwood is keen to make this seem more like a World Trade recording, but again, that works very well…and without ‘90125’, there might not have been a World Trade at all, so it’s easy to see why he’s been so upfront with his embellishments. ‘I’m Running’ – performed by Robin Schell – is harder than before, pushing the percussive aspects with extra bells and some technical aspects via various (less than welcome) vocal filters. Overall, it’s this tribute’s second least enjoyable contribution but, that said, it’s nice that the ‘Big Generator’ album is getting some love.

Another genuine highlight, Marisol Koss and ex-Yes man Tony Kaye turn in a stellar version of ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’. Musically, the intro comes across as a little heavy handed (Jay Schellen is a fine drummer usually, but this shows he’s no Bill Bruford), but any misgivings can be swept aside once Koss starts to sing. Anderson’s vocal parts often sound strong when taken on by women, but this is absolutely amazing. Koss is by turns ethereal, melodic and angelic, applying her own tones to a complex performance that ultimately seems very empathetic and natural. Kaye, on the other hand, sounds as if he’s just lifted his keys straight off the ‘Yes Album’ master tapes, but it’s a superb cover, no question. Also keeping things within the Yes family, vocalist Jon Davison applies his talents to an acoustic medley. Joined by Sally Minnear on harmonies, the results are lovely – Davison is a great singer and Sally is his perfect foil, especially on ‘Your Move’. Also offering bits of ‘Turn of The Century’, ‘Wondrous Stories’ and ‘And You & I’, it perhaps plays a bit too much like a show-reel for Davison and acoustic Yes, but just looking at what we’re given, the performance is very strong indeed. The whole of one of these tracks – probably ‘Turn of The Century’ – would have been better still, but you can’t always have everything.

Whilst Sherwood’s almost simultaneous Chris Squire tribute ‘A Life In Yes’ played things very straight, Kerzner takes a genuine liberty with a second appearance of the beautiful ‘Turn of The Century’. Back in 1977, this track was a fantastic show piece for Jon Anderson, with his pure vocal weaving in and out of almost seven minutes’ worth of musical intricacies. This tribute, performed by Dave Bainbridge and Sally Minnear, has cut the song down to its bare essence, removing all of the instrumental work, thus condensing it to a two minute interude. It’s hard to find fault with Bainbridge’s ringing twelve string and Minnear’s vocal is just gorgeous, but it plays like a trial run – as if they’re going to come back and record the whole thing properly later – and it’s so, so disappointing when it comes to a rather abrupt end. It should be a highlight; Minnear’s voice alone deserves such a distinction, but the truncated approach really sells the song – and the duo’s own talents – very short.

A few of the recordings here (chiefly those by Steve Hackett, Robert Berry and Marisol Koss) rank among some of the best Yes covers ever recorded. The fact that those have to share space with Francis Dunnery’s travesty and a couple of particularly bland offerings makes ‘Yesterday And Today’ far less consistent than Billy Sherwood’s own Chris Squire tribute. When this disc is good, though, it’s marvellous, so for Yes fans there’s a lot here to enjoy. That’s assuming the material can be approached with a reasonably open mind…

Read a review of ‘A Life In Yes: The Chris Squire Tribute’ here.

November 2018