Yes had a big year in 1972. Fragile, their first hit album, was released in America in January and the single “Roundabout” managed to reach the Number 13 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. After headlining their own US tour, Yes quickly got back to work on their next album. The resulting Close to the Edge was and still is a masterpiece of progressive rock, launching Yes beyond stardom and into the heavenly stratosphere of timeless classics. That year also marked the first time that a member of Yes voluntarily left the band. Drummer Bill Bruford decided he had had enough of Yes and went off to drum for King Crimson, Genesis, and his own eponymous jazz-fusion band. The band quickly snagged Alan White as his replacement, a musician who had the distinction of having played on John Lennon’s Imagine. White had a short amount of time to get caught up on the some of the most bafflingly complex rock music to hit the big time (I’ve heard everything from three days to one rehearsal). Yes embarked on a tour of 95 shows in America, Canada, England, Australia, and Japan. From this massive tour came the best-seller Yessongs, Yes’s first live album. By 1973, expectations were high for the band and how they handled those expectations has been up for a lively debate for over forty years. That, however, is a discussion for another time. For now, we are going to affix our gave on 1972 because the Atlantic Catalog Group is unloading 16 CDs worth of live Yes from that year alone.
Yes’s catalog is littered with live albums. I remember when there were only three (the latest being the puny 9012Live: The Solos). But by Wikipedia’s count, there are now 12 of them, not including Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two and its lighter companion release Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two. But if a label is to cater to the hardcore fan, the Yes archivist can’t go wrong with a slew of shows from 1972 — especially since many of these recordings were believed to be lost forever. But the casual Yes fan cannot go into either package expecting something that sounds like Yessongs, the official live album this tour created. No, Yessongs was released during a time when live albums were heavily treated in post-production. If there was a missed cue or a botched note, the musicians and producers would take the live tapes back into the studio to patch them up for release. Artists and fans were at peace with this since, in some cases, these touched-up live albums were the closest some fans were ever able to get to hearing their favorite band in-concert. Now, thanks to modern technology, live recordings are everywhere. The need for the perfect-sounding live album has fallen by the wayside. Music fans now crave the raw element, which Progeny has in great supply. The energy of these seven shows is high and the warts are plentiful. Yes has been active for almost 50 years now, so what’s the point in hiding a few slip-ups to what was arguably one of the most exciting years of their career?
No one needs to remind the reader that Yes’s music was complicated. But being such consistently good performers, hearing Yes’s numerous live albums can trick you into forgetting that this is tricky stuff to pull off onstage. All you have to do is capture a band like Yes in the midst of massive commercial success while showing a new drummer the ropes to hear the onstage tug-of-war that reminds you that they were only human. Bassist Chris Squire in particular had it rough. In addition to his complex bass parts accentuated by his aggressive style of playing, he had to absolutely nail his vocal harmonies with lead singer Jon Anderson. And Anderson, as you will hear on Progeny, wasn’t reliable 100% of the time. In addition to that, he spent most of his time away from the microphone trying to coach White through the music. According to some accounts, White’s first performance with the band was close to perfect but the following weeks were filled with mistakes. On Progeny though, White sounds awesome. In fact, he’s probably the most reliable member of Yes through all 14 shows. This probably explains the occasional flare from guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The foundation beneath them was solid enough for them to toss an experiment or two into their lead passages.
All seven shows were recorded on the North American leg of the tour: Toronto, Ottawa, Durham, Greensboro, Athens, Knoxville, and Uniondale. Each show roughly follows this order: “Firebird Suite/Siberian Khatru”, “I’ve Seen All Good People”, “Heart of the Sunrise”, “Clap/Mood for a Day”, “And You And I”, “Close to the Edge”, “Excerpts from The Six Wives of Henry VIII“, “Roundabout”, and “Yours Is No Disgrace”. Those who are familiar with Yessongs will notice some selections missing, like “Starship Troopers”, “Long Distance Runaround/The Fish”, and “Perpetual Change” (meaning there are no extended solos for Chris Squire and Alan White). “Heart of the Sunrise” might swap places with Steve Howe’s solo from time to time, but the setlist largely sticks to the one detailed above. The Stravinsky piece that the band walks on stage to isn’t always intact. On some recordings, you can hear it all the way back to the start with the quiet horn melody. Other times, it’s fading in at some point closer to the opening crash of “Siberian Khatru”. Speaking of “Khatru”, the ending kicks ass every time. And on “I’ve Seen All Good People”, the ending is sloppy every time. Both Howe and Wakeman largely stick to the format set by Yessongs for their solos, but there are occasional passages in each that will be new to you. “Heart of the Sunrise” appears to be an especially vulnerable tune. In one tour stop, I can’t tell what the hell Howe is trying to do in one lead passage. On another recording, Anderson’s voice fails him towards the end and the high notes suffer. “Yours Is No Disgrace” proves to be a spunky ending almost every time as Yes waits until the last minute to truly kick out the jams. This captures Yes at their loosest and, strangely enough, most intense.
Is Progeny worth the financial plunge? That depends. If you prefer not to peek behind the Yessongs curtain, thereby exposing Yes’s unrefined glory, then you can be forgiven for skipping this one. If you are mildly curious, you can purchase Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two and still get a pretty decent idea of what the 14-disc boxset is like. If you do, there’s no need to feel that you “cheated” by taking a shortcut. And if you are one of those fans who would gladly take out another loan in order to get your hands on some more live Yes — you’ve probably already made up your mind. You’ll be the roundabout.