Concerts

Prog Rock Legends Yes Go Close to the Edge and Celebrate a 50th Anniversary

Legendary prog rock band Yes will play the 1972 album Close to the Edge on Thursday at the Arena Theatre.  Lead singer Jon Davison (pictured) says that the group is "hitting a great musical stride."
Legendary prog rock band Yes will play the 1972 album Close to the Edge on Thursday at the Arena Theatre. Lead singer Jon Davison (pictured) says that the group is "hitting a great musical stride." Photo by Clausgroi. Creative Commons.
The notion of a band anchoring a tour around the performance of an entire classic album has taken hold in recent years. The Eagles (Hotel California) have been most successful with this strategy, but many others have jumped on the bandwagon: Patti Smith (Horses), the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Pet Sounds), Aerosmith (Toys in the Attic), Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run), and the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers) to name just a few.

Yes has been at this complete album thing for a while, performing The Yes Album, Fragile, Tales from Topographic Oceans (most of it anyway), Relayer, Going for the One, and Drama over the past decade or so. And then there’s Close to the Edge, a 1972 release that the cognoscenti view as the band’s best. Yes has played the album on previous concert tours, but this time the band is going all out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this prog rock classic. The show comes to Houston on Thursday, October 20, at the Arena Theatre. Speaking from the road, lead singer Jon Davison says he is excited to be delving into Close to the Edge every night. “The tour is going really well,” he reports. “We’re hitting a great musical stride, and everyone’s creating magic on the stage, you might say. I think this always happens within a tour. It’s just familiarity, getting to play with each other onstage, when theory actually becomes experience.”

Davison joined Yes in 2012, replacing Benoit David, who had replaced founding member Jon Anderson a few years before. Since Davison is a bit younger than most of his bandmates, how and when did he first become aware of Close to the Edge? “I was born in 1971,” Davison says, “so by the time I came of age and was discovering music, I was about 16 and in high school. A lot of fans talk about when they were young and hearing it, maybe, from an older brother. Their older brother would be in their bedroom with their mates, and the younger brother would want to hang out with the older brother and his friends. So there was more of a cultural family upbringing with music like Yes.”
When performing music that most members of the audience have heard hundreds if not thousands of times, does the band shoot for a note-for-note recreation of the record, or do the musicians concentrate more on channeling the original vibe? “It's really both. I think initially, in theory, we really want to recapture the album as much as possible, to have a faithful recreation,” Davison says. “But as soon as you start playing the music, you realize that there is a difference between how something is created in the studio, perhaps in sections, on different days, and even in different studios over a course of time, versus note-for-note, beginning to end, trying to play it. There are things that come into play regarding tempo changes and what works live. Sometimes things groove a bit more at a slower tempos, and there is more of an ‘in the moment cohesion’ that is established. It just comes naturally.”

“That was a hometown gig for me, right near where Taylor and I had grown up. It was heart wrenching, and there were a lot of tears, but a lot of tears of healing as well. Although touching, it was very difficult.”

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Davison points out that a deep familiarity with the material influences the performance when Close to the Edge is recreated onstage. “Remember that Yes has played these songs for 50 years. There are things that develop over time that really work, so we try to incorporate that as well,” Davison says.

Since the band’s inception in 1968, 19 (at last count) musicians have played in Yes. Naturally, the group’s sound has morphed, sometimes substantially, depending upon the comings and goings of various personnel. One of the most notable shifts occurred in the early ‘80s, when guitarist Trevor Rabin replaced longtime member Steve Howe, bringing with him “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which, according to the composer, was written during a lengthy visit to the bathroom. Ultimately, the song became the band’s biggest hit and only No. 1 record. Having said that, the change in style didn’t sit well with longtime Yes fans, largely due to its gimmick-laden production. But those days are long past, as Howe is back in the band and, these days, its undisputed leader. Fans and band members alike are happy, as the group has returned to its classic ‘70s sound. Davison says, “We have real harmony in the band, and I believe we’re the longest standing Yes lineup. I think Steve feels he’s in a very solid place. He can have his version of Yes, the Yes he’s always wanted. We’re accomplishing things in Yes, with Steve as our leader, that he’s wanted to accomplish for years. He’s so happy now that he has his version of the band.”

In September, Davison participated in a tribute concert honoring the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Their connection? The two musicians grew up together, and Hawkins recommended Davison for the job in Yes. It was a day of conflicting emotions at the Los Angeles event. “That was a hometown gig for me,” Davison says, “right near where Taylor and I had grown up. It was heart wrenching, and there were a lot of tears, but a lot of tears of healing as well. Although touching, it was very difficult.”

According to Davison, Hawkins was possessed of a unique spirit. “Whoever he was taking to, that person would feel, as I always did, that he was the only person in the room. He just gave you 100 percent,” Davison recalls. “Taylor always kept a childlike enthusiasm for music. So when he met [late Yes bassist] Chris Squire, he was so abundantly expressive and appreciative that it really helped smooth a pathway for me into the band.”
Not long after Hawkins’ passing, Yes lost its drummer, Alan White, who had played in the band since 1972. Though Davison had not known White as long as Hawkins, the Yes drummer’s death was a tough blow due to the relationship that they had developed while playing music together. “I was on the road and onstage with Alan for so many years,” Davison says, “and we always enjoyed a camaraderie. It was on an intimate level that is beyond words and communication in the verbal sense.”

The music of Yes often conjures up a bucolic sort of atmosphere, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Davison sought out that sort of existence. But who knew that he did it in New Braunfels? “I lived there from 2016 through 2019,” Davison says. “I have some really close friends there who are basically family. We lived on the river, and it was one of the highlights of my life, so far.” While in New Braunfels, did he float the river, two-step at Gruene Hall, and chow down on barbecue? “Yeah, I did all that,” Davison says. “I lived as the locals live.”

Yes will perform the album Close to the Edge, along with a selection of classic cuts, at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway, on Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39-$129. For more information, call 713-772-5900 or visit arenahouston.com.
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Contributor Tom Richards is a broadcaster, writer, and musician. He has an unseemly fondness for the Rolling Stones and bands of their ilk.
Contact: Tom Richards