It has become popular for a band, particularly a classic one, to go out on the road playing an older album in its entirety. Yes, which actually has never done that, is multiplying the formula times three.
The current tour has the respected British prog-rock band -- which features core longtime members guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White with keyboardist Geoff Downes and new singer Jon Davison -- performing "The Yes Album" (1971), "Close to the Edge" (1972) and "Going for the One (1977).
Why three albums?
"One seemed to be an incomplete picture," Mr. Howe says in a phone interview. "You're going to go see them do an album, but what else are they going to do? They're going to play a selection of songs, which most bands do. So, we heard through our agent and promoters that by making it a complete show that featured albums it's really a great strength in our response that we get from fans and ticket sales. They know what they are going to get and enjoy that idea. If you just did one album, I guess the rest of the show would just be like any other show, but doing the conceptualized performances, I think it's helped us a lot."
Yes, which formed in London in 1968, had a big catalog to choose from -- an even 20 albums, ranging from the 1969 debut to 2011's "Fly From Here" (its first album in a decade).
The members liked this trio, the guitarist says, because "it doesn't start too far at the beginning, it doesn't end it too far at the end. Basically, we were looking for a mixture of music, and 'Close to the Edge' does feature very large-scale pieces, 'The Yes Album' is kind of smaller-scale pieces and 'Going for the One' is sort of an in-between version with five songs and one of them is very big, 'Awaken.' We didn't want to make it so easy for ourselves that it was like falling off a wall, but we didn't want to make it so hard that it was grueling, so it was a middle ground."
"The Yes Album" -- which includes the classics "Yours Is No Disgrace," "Starship Trooper," "I've Seen All Good People" -- was a transitional album for a number of reasons. The band's third record was the commercial breakthrough and, not coincidentally, the first to feature the virtuosic Mr. Howe (replacing Peter Banks), who came from the little-known bands Tomorrow and Bodast.
"I was looking for a band of people that I respected, and all the band members were outstanding, particularly Bill Bruford, who had a very individual drum style, which affects the way we play Yes music today," the guitarist says. "He was very individual, and I always look to a drummer as an essential role in a band. It's the foundation. So, I enjoyed it. I was hungry and I didn't want to join a band that wasn't going to do much. That would've been pointless. I'd been to auditions, and I had a band that was meandering and not very powerful, so I was looking for a band that was empowered and strong and very ambitious. I hadn't met a band of guys that was as ambitious as I was to that point. So there were a lot of things that were good about it."
Yes' first two albums were sprinkled with covers by the Beatles, the Byrds, Stephen Stills and Richie Havens. Mr. Howe says that while they were ambitious albums -- "Time and a Word" even used an orchestra -- the result was "reasonably inconsequential."
"I had just spent a year trying to get a band off the ground that was original, and I thought that's what was important. I said, 'I think we should make an original album,' and they all jumped on it. It was time that Yes did something wholly, wholesomely original, and I think that was the difference between the older albums that had covers on them, which you didn't really need to hear again because the original versions were pretty good."
The band, he says, almost collapsed when the manager left, and "it caused a bit of hunger and a bit of anxiety and a bit of debt, but there again it proved that everyone was committed."
"Fragile," which came out later that same year, would have been another logical choice for live performance -- adding the favorites "Roundabout" and "Long Distance Runaround" -- but Yes chose to hold back on that one for 1972's "Close to the Edge," a three-song album led by an adventurous and intricate nearly 19-minute title track.
The current Yes trek then jumps over two albums to get to 1977's "Going for the One," which found Yes thriving even as the restless British music scene was being turned upside down.
"We were pretty oblivious to what was happening. We'd been called the people's band, and then the next year we were called rock dinosaurs. So, it was like water off a duck's back," Mr. Howe says. "We were fortunate enough that, kindly, America was very enthusiastic about us and wasn't really aware that punk and all this sort of three-chord, I-can't-play-the-guitar-but-I-can-spit-on-people kind of music was about to dominate. America wasn't quite so aware of all that. So we were falling out of favor a little bit in England. We still had fans, but the publicity changed.
"I just said this cliche about 'rock dinosaurs.' We partly created it ourselves by Rick Wakeman telling everybody he didn't like ['Tales From Topographic Oceans']. Telling the audience that you've got cracks is the worst thing you can do."
Mr. Wakeman, the flamboyant Yes keyboardist, thought the album, with one song on each side, was pretentious and insubstantial, and he parted ways with Yes after the tour.
"So, we did 'Relayer' without Rick, and Patrick Moraz was sensational, but he wanted to go in an even more jazzy direction than that album, so the strength of 'Going for the One' was that it was a reunion. Rick came back, so it was all, 'We're all getting along well,' and we played great together, so we made some great music. A lot of that music was constructed before Rick came back to the group and, as usual, he didn't contribute a lot of music, but his presence and his performances and his take on being the keyboard player in Yes was fantastic. So that's one of the ingredients that makes 'Going for the One' strong."
Another is the album's sonic diversity.
"I wanted to play steel guitar more. So the opening track isn't a guitar but a steel guitar. And then we went acoustic with 'Turn of the Century,' and we went power rock with 'Parallels' and we went pretty-pretty with 'Wonderous Stories.' "
And then there was the epic closer "Awaken," which is no picnic to play and which he refers to as his last major expedition into songwriting with former Yes singer Jon Anderson.
"We wrote some great stuff together which I'm very proud. We did write stuff together on 'Keys to Ascension,' which was in the mid-'90s. So we did kind of regroup the band also on 'Union,' but I seem to remember 'Awaken' being the last time it was a natural flow for Jon and I to write a song, where every chord on the guitar is in the song. There's no chord we missed out. Major, minor chords, every chord is there. It's unusual, it's simple, it's complicated. It has a lot of basic contrasting styles. I think 'Awaken' is the ecliptic moment on 'Going for the One.' "
As Yes fans well know, Mr. Anderson is not with Yes to share these new moments on stage. The singer, whose high voice soared to the heavens, did his last performance with Yes in 2004. He was set to join them in 2008, but when he suffered acute respiratory failure, he was replaced by Benoit David from the Yes tribute act Close to the Edge. Mr. David fronted Yes until the spring of 2012, when he too contracted a respiratory illness. The band has turned to Jon Davison from the band Glass Hammer.
"Like I said about myself in 'The Yes Album' phase, Jon was like an opportunist," Mr. Howe says of the new singer. "He was hungry for something like this. He very quickly showed his dedication to our music. He knew the words, he was in the right key. Every single nuance, the melodies he was going to sing, he rose to the occasion fantastically well. Fans also didn't want an egomaniac on stage, someone who thought he was the new Steven Tyler or Freddie Mercury -- as great as those guys are. But we don't have singers like that. We don't have band members like that. ... I mean, we tried to not have band members like that. I think he has the right softness and mellowness for the fans rather than getting in everyone's face when you're just trying to step into some pretty big shoes. Jon Davison has done a great job of being humble at the same time very confident."
Mr. Anderson, meanwhile, hasn't gone quietly. He toured with Mr. Wakeman in 2010 and is doing acoustic shows this summer. In a recent interview, he restated his interest in returning to Yes along with the keyboardist.
This is a touchy subject with Mr. Howe.
"Well, I've got two choices here," he says. "I either don't answer the question because I could say this is not a question I can deal with. I could say it's none of your business. People say all sorts of things about this, and I don't want to get into any deep water, but I will say that we've got a wonderful band at the moment and we've got a lot of plans for the future. So I don't really understand where that's going myself, because we're very settled into keeping this lineup as close as we can to what we have. It's what we know, it's what works, it's what's been proven. Going back to something that everyone thinks, 'Oh, it's what they want' ... it might not be what we can deliver."
Scott Mervis: email@example.com or 412-263-2576.