This Yes concert from Montreux in 2003 is regarded by the band and fans alike as one of the group’s finest hours. The film captures the only time Yes performed at the festival.
Since it formed in 1968 at the dawn of the U.K.’s progressive-rock era and quickly became the genre’s defining champion, Yes has witnessed innumerable lineup changes, not to mention splinter bands, sub-groups and solo projects. But few fans would argue that the definitive quintet coalesced on album and onstage with vocalist Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Alan White and the flamboyant, cape-wearing keyboardist Rick Wakeman. And none would debate that one of the joys of being a Yes fan is seeing these five virtuosos interact while rollicking live through their best and most timeless material, an intricate yet often hard-rocking canon that stretches from 1969 through 1978.
The stage is known as one of the best-sounding and most beautiful in the world, which may have prompted an especially inspired performance.
This band and some of this material has been captured in concert before, most notably in the 1973 film “Yessongs.” But the group was still early into its strongest period then, with plenty of great songs yet to be written, and that visual document suffers from dated sound and film technology, not to mention stoner cinematography. If the musicians were much longer in the tooth by 2003 — White was the youngest member at 54, and Anderson the senior citizen at 59 — they certainly weren’t suffering from a lack of energy or enthusiasm. Riding high on one of its least-embarrassing later-day albums, “Magnification,” Yes pulled into the Montreux Jazz Festival and its relatively intimate 4,000-seat venue on the banks of Lake Geneva. The stage is known as one of the best-sounding and most beautiful in the world, which may have prompted an especially inspired performance, and the filmmakers and recording engineers captured it in pristine glory. But remember, too, that this corner of Switzerland had brought out the best from these gents before, when they decamped there in tax exile to record 1977’s masterful “Going for the One.”
Alas, we do not get that album’s glorious title track, but the set does build to a transcendent and emotional rendition of “Awaken,” before the overly predictable closers of “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Roundabout.” Of course, I have my chosen substitutions and preferred omissions, and you’ll have yours. I could have done without the tracks from “Magnification” at the expense of older deep-cut gems, or the Wakeman solo spotlight, as much fun as it is to see the wizard manipulate his arsenal of knobs, dials and keys. But quibbling detracts from what we do get, including fantastic romps through “Siberian Khatru,” “We Have Heaven,” “And You and I” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” There’s also an absolutely ferocious take on “Don’t Kill the Whale” from the underrated 1978 album “Tormato”, which marked the beginning of the unravelling, reuniting and re-unravelling that has continued ever since (though, because of Squire’s death in 2015, the sad fact is we’ll never see this mighty quintet again).
The Squire and White rhythm section doesn’t get quite as much screen time as it deserves, but the film does make you feel as if you’re sitting cross-legged at Anderson’s sandaled feet for nearly two and a quarter hours, in gloriously close proximity to Howe at his right and Wakeman on his left. And while there are no peaks backstage or interview snippets, the perpetually impish and hippie-mystical singer gives us just enough stage patter to bring a smile to our faces without making us cringe. “Don’t kill the whales,” he chirps. “Don’t kill the trees. Don’t kill the butterflies. Don’t kill the bees, please! Because without them, we are nothing. Without nature, we are nothing!”
Sure enough, and those words are even more true today than they were 18 years ago when Greta Thunberg was making her debut in the world 1,600 kilometers to the northeast in Sweden. Thanks for always prompting us to go green, Jon, and thanks to Yes for reminding us again of its genius when these five giants came together as one.
Born the year the Beatles arrived in America, Jim DeRogatis began voicing his opinions about rock ’n’ roll shortly thereafter. He is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, and together with Greg Kot, he co-hosts “Sound Opinions,” the weekly pop-music talk show heard on 150 Public Radio stations and via podcast. DeRogatis spent 15 years as the pop-music critic at The Chicago Sun-Times and has written 10 books about music, including “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly”, “Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs” and “Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.”