Music Preview: Jon Anderson says Yes to the School of Rock

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Jon Anderson has found himself a young band, and when we say young, we're not kidding.

The singer for Yes turns up at Mr. Small's this weekend with musicians as young as 14, which makes them about 40 or 50 years younger than his usual bandmates. They are Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars, as seen in the documentary "Rock School." With guidance from the Philadelphia-based Green, an avid classic-rock fan, the kids became fans of Yes' style of progressive rock and invited Anderson to perform on the soundtrack for the film.

The next step was a tour, for which he happily obliged. The band is playing a set that includes about 10 Yes songs, including the challenging, nearly 20-minute-long suite "Close to the Edge" from 1972.

Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars with Jon Anderson
  • Where: Mr. Small's, Millvale.
  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
  • Tickets: $28.
  • More information: 1-866-468-3401.

Anderson, known for his choirboy voice and mystical lyrics, was born in Lancashire, England, in 1944. After a stint with the Warriors and two singles as solo artist Hans Christian Anderson, he formed Yes in 1968 with Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Bill Bruford and Tony Kaye. They debuted in 1969 and broke through with "The Yes Album" in 1971 and the hit "Your Move," followed a year later by "Fragile," with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman both in the fold for the enduring hit "Roundabout."

Anderson left in 1980 and then returned in '83 for the more New Wave version of Yes, which hit big with "Owner of a Lonely Heart." In the late '80s, it got ugly, with Yes splitting into two warring camps and, long story short, it has been the typical on-and-off affair since then. Anderson's last ride with the band was a 35th anniversary tour in 2004.

Outside of Yes, he has recorded more than a dozen solo albums and collaborated with the likes of Vangelis, Kitaro, King Crimson and Tangerine Dream.

Last week, from his home in San Luis Obispo, Calif., he talked about his young band -- and his old one.

How did you get involved with this project?

It happened about six years ago. We were playing Philadelphia and the young musicians came backstage to say hi and they gave me a T-shirt. Then, about three month later, Paul Green called me and asked if I would be interested in singing with the band -- they're going to do a CD to accompany the documentary that was coming out. I said, 'Yeah, what do they want to do?' He said, 'Heart of the Sunrise.' I said, 'You're crazy. That's so hard.' 'Oh, no, no, my kids want to do it.'

All of a sudden they sent it and it was really good. A little bit fast. I said to slow it down and they did, and when the film was released I met the kids again and got up and sang with them. That was about four years ago. Last year, they talked about let's get together. I went to Philadelphia and met 25 kids and started rehearsing and a couple days later we had a show. They're really wonderful ... I call them kids ... but they're really wonderful people. Really sweet guys and girls, just an incredible hopscotch of people. They love music, and it's a good grounding for them for their life.

What do you think you've been able to teach them? And vice versa?

Yeah, yeah. It goes both ways. I think stage presence is important, just to be able to be confident on stage. Tempo. The high and low of music, not to be too out there with it all the time. You have to ease back, like breathing. It's interesting when I'm working with them because they're playing from the record, so they sound like the group sounded 40 years ago. They sound like the group! It's amazing. Obviously, the band would write a song, rehearse it, record it and it would evolve on tour because people grow older and more mature and the music evolves. When they played the songs from 'Fragile' it was just like the record. It was like, 'Wow, I love it!'

It's probably a little easier to tell them what to do than it was with the other guys.

I don't tell them what to do. I just say, 'Slow down. Calm down! You've got too much energy.'

With Yes, you were used to these giant stages, and now you're probably playing clubs. How is that adjustment?

Of course, over the years, you start doing clubs. I do my one-man show, which is sometimes clubs and theaters. But I've always been interested in experiencing opera centers and music centers and not being like, 'Oh, it's got to be big or I won't do it.' I'm very interested in theater and have been writing operas and theatrical pieces over the past 25 years. I'm getting them finished slowly but surely -- they're part of my life experience and they will eventually come through. It's like, I was 25 before I picked up a guitar and 30 before I played piano, so I was very slow in learning about being a musician, so I'm discovering musicianship today, tomorrow; it's an ongoing experience.

Now, you're doing "Close to the Edge" ...

Yeah, it's kinda wild, it's funny because halfway through another eight kids come up. They swap over halfway through. It's a 20-minute piece, so they have to keep rotating. Heavy rotation.

They switch in the middle of the song?! It's like a soccer game.

Yeah. Paul Green's got it together. He really makes them work because they have to learn the stagecraft, learn music, try to learn the basics. If the basics are Yes and Zappa, in 10 years time, they're going to be playing all sorts of music. Whether you're working with this or UNICEF, you realize we've got to take care of the children of the world or else we're nothing. We seriously are nothing even with our ... bling [laughs].

Can you talk about your inspiration for writing that song?

Me and Steve were really connected at that period, like Siamese twins. He came up with the line 'close to the edge' and I said 'down by a river.' I was thinking 'close to the edge of realization,' because we were going through a strong metaphysical change. We were getting success and we were doing some interesting music, but we weren't pop stars. We were doing it through music. I was really into the 'Well, why? What is music all about?' When you start looking into the spirituality of music and why does it touch us, I started reading different books and all of a sudden I'm reading Herman Hesse's 'Siddhartha.' And it's the idea that we are closed in our minds if we don't realize there are so many different rivers to the divine, so many different ways to understand God.

That was what 'close to the edge of realization' was all about. [Sings:] 'Seasons will pass you by/I get up/I get down.' I get really up about life and really destroyed about life -- 2 million people die every day of starvation. How do I personally figure that out? I hear that Siddhartha finished up sitting by the river and saying, 'This is God, life is God, all that is.' That's a hard thing to perceive, but it's not as hard as a guy with a beard sitting on a throne. You actually can see God if you look out the window. You can see God in other people's faces, in their eyes.

Did the band understand where you were coming from with this?

We all understood what it was, but we all had a different reflection of what it was, 'cause we're not all the same. It's impossible for everyone to be sitting on the same bicycle so we had to share our road together. And it's a long road. Everyone goes through life and so many different experiences. We are not the same people.

We would meet together and make music and then go off and have our own experiences and then get together and go on tour and that was the kind of thing you go through over the years, the experience of connecting and disengaging. But the reason to get together was to make music and whenever you stood on stage and played 'And You and I,' in the middle of that, the harmony of that, that's the reason we are together, there's no other reason. It's not the money, it's not the business, it's not physical, it's something you can't really put your finger on. At that moment in time when you're halfway through that song, the energy on stage is so sublime and so beautiful, as it should be. That happens all around the world in all forms of theater, all forms of light, all forms of art, all forms of music, we are part of a jigsaw puzzle.

The last time you were on stage with Yes was four years ago. What keeps you guys from doing it again?

A lot of things. Life. You know, we were on that tour and we would play and get to these cities with this ginormous stage design and beautiful lights and you'd be walking down the street and bump into someone and they'd be like, 'Hey, Jon Anderson. Are you doing a show?' 'Yeah.' The PR was bad, there was no record out. It was very under-promoted and we'd say, 'Why are we doing this?' 'We're doing it for the fans.' 'Do we do this again or not?' And the last three or four years, it's been 'not.' But I was talking to Roger Dean [the album cover artist] about an hour ago and he has this idea for a stage setting and design and we talked about it and maybe we'll tour later this year. But it's a question of timing. You ask everyone and they're doing different things. So we're juggling.

Now, you hit some really high notes throughout your career ...

Helium! I was on helium!

From your point of view, how are your vocals holding up?

Pretty well. But I'm a tone down. I'm one tone down because, you know, I'd kill myself. It sounds the same but it's an easier position to sing from, 'cause I'm an alto tenor and I can sing certain high notes, but I could never sing falsetto, so I go and hit them high. I could hit one now but it would probably break the telephone. [Sings:] Aaaaaaaa! There's one. My God, what the hell was that?

Do you keep tabs on progressive rock?

Not much. I'm more interested in what I was interested in 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, which was Stravinsky, Sibelius, modern theater, modern technology. I have a podcasting system in my garage. I really believe if you work with technology, it will work with you.

So you don't live in a castle in England?

Oh, gosh, no. I think I did for 10 minutes. I was emperor of Lancashire.

Have to ask you this: How do you feel about not being recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

I'm am so annoyed! So [angry]! You can quote me on that. [Dramatic pause.] No, I don't care. [Laughs.] When it happens, it will happen. It never bothered me until 10 years ago. The manager who was managing Yes said 'I'm going to put you in the Hall of Fame next year' and we said 'cool.' And then it didn't happen. We said, 'What happened?' He said, 'They don't want you.' It went on for five, six years, with him making this pitch. ... When it happens it will happen.

It's not just you, it's a slight to the whole genre -- Genesis, King Crimson, etc.

Well, that's OK, you can't expect people to like, uh, yellow paint all the time. They don't like custard. And that's the way it is sometimes. The three or four people who run the whole thing don't like custard, and we're custard. La di da.

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.


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