Steve Howe had gotten distracted again.
“What’s the word again? ‘Taxing’?”
We were chatting by phone a few hours before Michael Jackson died. Howe, the legendary guitarist, had just arrived in Southern California to kick off a tour that for the first time pairs pioneering prog-rock outfit Yes — in a new configuration that doesn’t include vocalist Jon Anderson and finds Rick Wakeman’s son Oliver filling in for the keyboards whiz — with early ‘80s supergroup Asia.
Why would such an undertaking be taxing? Because, as fans of either band will tell you, Howe plays in both.
Howe built his reputation, of course, via Yes, joining the group in time for its pivotal third effort — “The Yes Album,” source of “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” — and soon after providing hooks and atmosphere for the band’s most memorable tracks, including “Roundabout” and the epic “Close to the Edge.”
Fleetwood Mac may be the only major band in history to have undergone as many lineup changes as Yes has endured; bassist Chris Squire is the sole member to have anchored every incarnation. But at the dawn of the ‘80s, after the coolly received album “Drama” (the first not to feature Anderson on sky-high vocals), the group actually split up for a time — only to quickly reform without Howe and head in a slicker direction with 1983’s “90125,” yielding Yes’ sole chart-topping single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
By then, however, Howe had joined Asia, formed from other pieces of prog-rock forebears: one-time King Crimson bassist John Wetton, Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes (who had served in Yes on “Drama”) and drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The relatively short-lived outfit, which has reunited in original form, issued three albums before disbanding in 1986, scoring a Top 5 hit with “Heat of the Moment.”
Yes, meanwhile, survived still more personnel rotations in the ‘90s — including a 1990-92 tour that featured virtually every member it ever had — to reach this decade more or less in the same shape it was in the ‘70s. But after Yes’ last tour (ending in 2004) Anderson grew both restless and unhealthy. The latter emerged as the leading factor in the cancellation of a trek planned for last year, as Anderson needed to recuperate from acute respiratory failure.
And yet now the diminutive singer has solo European dates scheduled — so Yes, having regrouped last November, is on tour with a new vocalist, Benoit David, who was discovered (like Journey’s Steve Perry clone Arnel Pineda) in a Yes tribute band.
Howe describes him as “a natural. I’ve never met anybody who sounds so similar to Jon. It’s been said that there are a few ladies who actually sound like Jon more than blokes. But here’s a bloke who sings in a very unaffected, very humble way, and sounds just like him.”
Why exactly did Anderson need to be replaced?
Howe is reluctant to get too deep into details, noting that the rest of Yes already has been “made to look like the bad guys” when the group opted to carry on without Anderson shortly after reports of severe asthma attacks surfaced.
“There are many reasons why a group has to bond,” he says, “has to harmonize on all levels — professionally, personally, managerially, economically. The public are not going to know which of those are the most influential for our current solution.
“But I can tell you that three, four years of waiting for Jon to decide to come back and tour — and yet he was doing solo tours — influenced my thinking about the way in which Jon loves Yes music. Because if he was fit enough to tour on his own, I thought maybe he was fit enough to tour with us. But he still turned us down.”
Not everyone realizes this, Howe says. “There were years — I’m not exaggerating, years — when Jon was unwilling to tour. He had his reasons, and some of them were health. But when the health ones got better, there seemed to be another reason: he wanted to explore what else he could do outside Yes. But meantime he went out and played Yes songs on his own solo tour.
“That’s partly the reason why I’m back in Asia at all, is that with Jon for so many years saying, ‘No, I think I’d like another year off,’ I thought, well, ‘Blow it.’ It’s a great shame, because Yes were always my priority. But I love to perform, and I don’t want to wait around.”
The only problem was that the remainder of Yes (filled out by drummer Alan White) wanted to move forward into a summer tour — “and we didn’t really have that option,” Howe explains, “because Asia pretty much had the summer all sewn up.”
In the end, a compromise was struck — and a teaming that had been mooted in the ‘80s and ‘90s as often as a Yes/ELP package had been in the ‘70s was suddenly a reality.
Howe views it as “a golden opportunity to play in both in one evening, rather than a load on my back.” Yet he’s keenly aware that not all Yes die-hards are Asia fans, and vice versa. “Some were Yes fans and weren’t introduced to Asia in a conducive way — and then there are people who happened to get into Asia but found that Yes was too stretched out or whatever.
“Asia never wanted to be like Yes. We more or less clarified that we were not going to echo or copy or attempt to fill in that space. We wanted to be something different, and I think that gave us some pride, some individuality. You meet people who say, ‘Oh, it’s more commercial than Yes — but there again, what did Yes do when I left? The ‘80s were an era of progressive rock musicians going pop.”
As for whether or not the tour will indeed be a taxing one for Howe, the guitarist, now 62, says he is taking precautions. Yes would normally play for 2 1/2 hours with a short intermission — so logically Yes and Asia are doing the same, with the latter getting 55 minutes and the headliner 95.
“And I’m quite rigid about that,” Howe says. “I don’t think it’s sensible for me to play more than that.”
Some Yes fans might find that discouraging — depending on the selections, an hour and a half might be time enough to spotlight only eight or nine classics. Howe says the group has to choose carefully to ensure enough benchmark songs are included.
More than anything, though, he’s hopeful that audiences will discover a happier Yes on tour.
“There’s a new lifeblood in us now. There’s a new reason to do it, and there’s a new happy group here that likes to work. When you’ve got that much effervescence ... I mean, people now say, ‘Wow, Steve, we’ve never seen you like this in Yes. We’ve never seen you smile, joke, have a laugh — on stage.’ Maybe people should look at that and ask themselves what that tells them.
“People can see that there’s always been a difficulty in Yes. There’s been so much back-forward-back-forward with Jon that we just decided this is what we’re doing, and let’s get on with it for a while. Nobody’s saying never again with Jon. We’re just saying that until the circumstances are right, then it’s just wrong. There’s a balance to strike — and we can’t strike it at the moment.”
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