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Concert review: Jon Anderson @ Lynn Auditorium, March 29, 2019

Jon Anderson in concert at Lynn Auditorium. Photo by Jason M. Rubin.

Jon Anderson made his name and earned his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame credentials fronting Yes, a collective of virtuosic musicians he co-founded with the late Chris Squire. From 1968 to 1979, Anderson was not only lead singer and lyricist for the band, he was its chief creative conceptualist, a role that is perhaps his most important. More about that later.

Anderson left the group and was replaced for a 1980 album, then returned for two albums before forming a consortium of Yes alumni called Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe in 1988. There was, however, another band, featuring Squire, that had the rights to the name Yes (which original Yes drummer Bill Bruford sneeringly labeled “California Yes”) and the two eventually were merged in a corporate maneuver engineered by lawyers and labels that resulted in an ill-advised, too-many-cooks album in 1991. After that, Anderson resumed his leadership role in Yes for another decade. From there, Yes splinter groups proliferated with varying degrees of integrity and success.

But back to Anderson. In a band full of high-octane, high-testosterone players, he was an elfin presence, part Scottish gnome and part pixie fairy, contributing highly cryptic and impressionistic lyrics that demonstrated his preference for sonic consonance over meaningful narrative. More than that, though, Anderson was an amazing conceptualist, providing through his unique musical vision an extraordinarily large canvas for the other musicians to paint on—be it Steve Howe’s Chet-Atkins-meets-Paganini electric and acoustic guitar work, Squire’s thunderous bass torpedoes, or Rick Wakeman’s multi-keyboard bombast. Bruford was wise enough to see that the other musicians were all busy soloists and Anderson’s lyrics included a dictionary’s number of words, and so deftly left spaces where the music could breathe. His eventual replacement, Alan White, spent his first years in the band filling in all those spaces but by 1980 was playing with more economy.

Still, it was the immense canvases that Anderson constructed that enabled the band to distinguish itself from other groups, first with 1971’s The Yes Album, featuring three nine-minute songs; then later that year, the big commercial breakthrough album, Fragile, which featured the eight-and-a-half-minute hit “Roundabout” and a 10-minute track, “Heart of the Sunrise.” The following year, the title track of Close to the Edge was a nearly 19-minute magnum opus that took up all of side one; the two tracks on side two averaged nine-and-a-half-minutes in length. Tales From Topographic Oceans in 1973 was a two-record set with one song each appearing on the four album sides. Notes Wikipedia, “It is a concept album based on singer Jon Anderson’s interpretation of a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) by Paramahansa Yogananda that describes four bodies of Hindu texts, collectively named the shastras.” The next year, Relayer repeated the three-song structure of Close to the Edge.

Since 1976, Anderson has released 15 solo albums, representing other sides of his life and art. He has long been an advocate for environmental issues, the rights of native peoples, and globalism, and world music influences have appeared off and on in his music; at the same time, his lyrics have become less opaque. Beset by respiratory issues in 2008, he was out of action for a while, but after working in various combinations with folks like Wakeman and jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, he seems focused on his solo career again, having just released 1000 Hands: Chapter One, which he is supporting with a tour that kicked off at Lynn Auditorium on March 29, 2019.

Fronting a multi-ethnic eight-piece band, half of whom are people of color, Anderson has successfully united the classic Yes aesthetic with African and Eastern influences. The band comprises Michael Franklin on keyboards, sibling Tim Franklin on bass, guitarist Tommy Calton, violinist Jocelyn Hsu from China, African percussionist Steady Joseph, multi-instrumentalist Joe Cosas (keyboards, guitar, banjo, and trombone) from the Philippines, Billy Meethers on saxophones and flute, and drummer Rayford Griffin, who has a long history with Ponty.

In his two-hour, two-set performance, Anderson played seven Yes songs: the opener, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, was the only one from the post-Bruford era (Bruford left Yes in 1972 after Close to the Edge to join King Crimson). It was also, in my opinion, Anderson’s only misstep of the evening. While the song was undeniably a hit, it is also rather insipid and was not his song to begin with. It comes from the sessions for 1983’s 90125, where Trevor Rabin was taking over for Howe on guitar and presumably for Anderson on vocals until Squire invited Anderson to participate. To my way of thinking, Anderson doesn’t need that song and is better off without it. It’s kind of like Brian Wilson doing “Kokomo”.

He quickly righted the ship, however, launching into “Yours Is No Disgrace”, the longest song from The Yes Album, played in its entirety. Though Calton was not really up to the task of emulating Howe (he played the notes correctly, but did not convey the music), it was exciting and unexpected. The other Yes songs were “I’ve Seen All Good People” (also from The Yes Album), “Sweet Dreams” from 1970, “America” (a Simon and Garfunkel song the band covered in 1972), “Starship Trooper” (also from The Yes Album), and “Roundabout” was the rousing encore. Wisely, Anderson shortened “America”; on record, it’s another of those 10-minute epics but Anderson cut out much of the instrumental overkill so that the focus was on his expression of Paul Simon’s evocative lyrics. Similarly, he effectively weaved in an excerpt from “Solid Space” from his first solo album, Olias of Sunhillow, during the extended instrumental section (“Würm”) that concludes “Starship Trooper”, giving him more of the spotlight during a piece that had always been a feature for Yes’ guitarists.

The first part of “I’ve Seen All Good People” (titled “Your Move”) was rendered in a reggae style, as was a section of “Roundabout” (beginning with the line, “Along the drifting cloud the eagle searching down on the land”). This inventive rearrangement went a long way toward bridging the stylistic gap between classic Yes, the four nods to Olias, and the five new songs from 1000 Hands—which, by the way, are very good. Anderson earned numerous standing ovations from the crowd throughout the evening, not just on the more familiar material.

After a long and twisting road, Jon Anderson seems to have once again found the ideal musical context for himself. The material released on 1000 Hands: Chapter One comes from a batch of compositions dating back 30 years, so one expects sequels to follow and, hopefully, more tours like this one.

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