I’ll start this off by admitting that, for the longest time, I’ve had my doubts surrounding the worth of live albums. There’s a dimension of immediacy and spontaneity in experiencing a band live that a pre-recorded product could never emulate; to me, it often seems like a live recording in rock music becomes limited. Though little of this criticism has anything to do with Yessongs, it does feel like most live rock albums sound like garbled facsimiles of a band’s studio work, with three-word introductions and a static howl from a crowd that sounds the same no matter which album you’re hearing their applause on. I think the way Yessongs has wowed me in spite of these doubts only goes to show what an amazing album it is. Consider me convinced that a live album can offer something fresh and exciting to a band’s discography. If a band’s studio performance suggests a default manner in which a song should be performed, it is the live album’s duty to play with those conventions in the hopes of creating a fresh experience. Though it’s still a bit rough around the edges, I cannot think of another live album in rock music- perhaps save for Led Zeppelin‘s How the West Was Won- that encapsulates the essence of a band so successfully.
There are plenty of things you can peg a live album’s quality on, but the most determinant factor usually is (as evidenced here) the choice of songs themselves. Prime cuts have been drawn from The Yes Album, Fragile andClose to the Edge, with the latter of the three enjoying a complete representation. All three studio efforts have earned a spot as generally acknowledged classics in the progressive rock canon, and while I’ve never been entirely sold on the ‘give peace a chance’ cheer of The Yes Album, there’s no doubt that the album’s uplifting tone translates well in the live arena. “Southside of the Sky” would have made for a better choice than “Perpetual Change” or “Yours Is No Disgrace”, and it would have been pretty cool to hear Yes attempt “We Have Heaven” live, but I don’t think the selection of music can be faulted without delving into obsessive nitpickery.
Praise of the music itself should come as no surprise to anyone with experience in any of the three albums represented here. “Close to the Edge” is a perennial masterpiece of a composition which alone would be deserving of a paragraph’s analysis (the likes of which I’ve given in the studio review). “Siberian Khatru” and “Yours Is No Disgrace” are heinously energetic rockers, with more than enough sophistication to keep the mind engaged as much as the body. On the other end stylistically, the slower pieces “Mood for a Day” and “And You And I” demonstrate Yes‘ rare ability as a prog band in tune with feeling and emotion. It might seem undercut to offer a live album as a perfect place to introduce oneself to yes, but Yessongs is an all-encompassing document of what made the band’s golden era so awesome.
A short detour from Yes‘ flagship material comes in the form of “Excerpts from the Six Wives of Henry VIII”, a medley comprised of sections from Rick Wakeman’s then-recently released solo album. Besides taking a break from the longer-form epics and giving fans a taste of Yes music they may have never heard before, this inferno of synthesizers pretty much embodies the Yes keyboardist’s style and approach. Grand piano tones are traded in for Moog synths, all under the context of Classical pomp and bombast. The mellotron interpretation of Handel’s “Hallelujah” in particular is shockingly good. I’ve never been too inclined towards Wakeman’s contributions to Yes’ studio material, but here and throughout the rest of Yessongs, he does well to convince me he’s deserving of the lavish praise people have aimed his way. The live setting offers more liberty for solos and extended instrumentation, and Wakeman has capitalized on the opportunity wonderfully. The same goes for Steve Howe, whose lead guitar playing has only benefited from these live renditions in the form of added flourishes, improvising and conscious deviations from the studio versions. “Siberian Khatru” and the instrumental passages of “Close to the Edge” are plenty fertile landscapes for this sort of creative license, and it’s no surprise they’ve ended up becoming my two favourites on the album.
Fans of Bill Bruford’s drumming should find “Perpetual Change” and “Long Distance Runaround / The Fish” to their liking (they are, I believe, the last published recordings of Bruford in his original stretch with the band) but Yessongsis an incredible introduction to Alan White, then a newbie to Yes but destined to become one of the band’s longest-lasting members. Listening to the aggressively packed fills on “Siberian Khatru”, I get the strong impression White was clearly set on impressing and staking his claim in the band. For my money, I’ve usually preferred White’s work in Yes to that of Mister Bruford’s, but there are clearly those within the band’s fanbase that disagree. If you’re one such listener, give Yessongs another spin and see what you think afterwards. Alan White nails it.
Of the criticisms I’ve seen regarding Yessongs, almost all are directed towards the quality of the recording itself. Re-issues appear to have solved some of the more overt flaws, but the sonic clarity is still a far cry from the studio material. To be honest, it doesn’t affect an appreciation of the music at all. Yessongs isn’t trying to compete with the studio versions, it’s operating on a different wavelength. The fact alone that Yes can stay true to the original wonder of these songs while simultaneously refreshing them seems to achieve exactly what a live album should set out to do.
Disc 1: (66:04)
1. Opening (Excerpt from “Firebird Suite”) (3:45)
2. Siberian Khatru (8:50)
3. Heart of the Sunrise (11:26)
4. Perpetual Change (14:08)
5. And You and I (9:55)
a) Cord of Life
c) The Preacher the Teacher
d) The Apocalypse
6. Mood For a Day (2:52)
7. Excerpts from “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (6:35)
8. Roundabout (8:33)
Disc 2: (63:12)
1. I’ve Seen All Good People (7:00)
a) Your Move
b) All Good People
2. Long Distance Runaround / The Fish (13:45)
3. Close to the Edge (18:41)
a) The Solid Time of Change
b) Total Mass Retain
c) I Get Up I Get Down
d) Seasons of Man
4. Yours is No Disgrace (14:21)
5. Starship Trooper (9:25)
a) Life Seeker
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass and vocals
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards
* Bill Bruford – drums on 4 and 10
* Alan White – drums on everything else
* Steve Howe – guitars and vocals