Classic Rock Corner

Yestival Turns Smart Centre Into Prog-Rock Paradise

Yes guitarist Steve Howe
Yes guitarist Steve Howe Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Feat. Yes, Todd Rundgren, Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy
Smart Financial Centre
August 23, 2017

The classic/prog-rock bill of the summer brought out fans of shifting time signatures, fantasy worlds with rocky landscapes, and keyboards – lots of keyboards – last night to Sugar Land. It was definitely running full steam on the past, the present, and the future of the genre. And hey, you had 3/4ths of the lineup of Asia on the bill!

With the deaths last year of singer/bassist Greg Lake (cancer) and keyboardist Keith Emerson (suicide), drummer Carl Palmer is the sole remaining member of Prog’s Greatest Trio. Unfortunately his so-called “Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy” does a disservice to the band’s rich catalog by not employing a vocalist, and having a guitarist play all of Emerson’s keyboard parts. Huh? What an Unlucky Man I was.

click to enlarge Carl Palmer (center) - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Carl Palmer (center)
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
This head-scratching substitution certainly crippled the group’s short all-instrumental opening set, which also included a short video reel of the band’s presence in pop culture (shout-outs on The Simpsons and Cheers), and Palmer’s heartfelt comments to fans. And while there were some pre-recorded bits, the trio hit very high marks on the whirling dervish of “Knife-Edge” and their bombastic cover of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” And the 67-year-old band leader played one hell of a pounding solo spot — not to mention he pounded on two gongs with a flourish!

While it’s true that Todd Rundgren is best known for a string of quirky, romantic '70s soft-rock hits (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “We Gotta Get You a Woman”), like an Arya Stark in the House of Black and White, he’s an artist capable of putting on many different faces. His Prog Face is pretty prominent, both as the leader of Utopia and a solo artist. He was also an early and still-ardent practitioner of using computers and synthesizers and offbeat sounds in his music, right up to his current record, White Knight. After all, this is a guy who once shed his human identity to tour as "TR-1" for a bit. He spoke to the Houston Press last week about the tour.

In this challenging and intriguing set, Rundgren led a flawless band (and two eye-candy backup singers in pink bras and short shorts) through his many phases: icy EDM/Chill music (“Come,” “Rise”), proggy epics (“The Ikon” a helter skelter “This is Not a Drill”), disco/Prince (“Party Liquor,” “Buy My T” – both freakin’ hilarious), and pleas to coming togetherness and One World (um..” One World,” “Just One Victory”). “Buffalo Grass” was the epic rocker of the set.

click to enlarge Todd Rundgren preaches the word for music! - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Todd Rundgren preaches the word for music!
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Rundgren restlessly strode back and forth across the stage in abrupt steps while throwing out dramatic hand gestures and (yes) dancing and twirling with abandon. He’s like your cool, weird uncle at the family reunion, albeit one that routinely wears tight clothes two sizes too small. (Hello, Todd’s White Belly and, um, Little Todd!) And while he left plenty of the heavy guitar lifting to his bandmate, he still peeled out many solos and his utterly unique and operatic voice – which sometimes a shock to the system with its sometimes off-kilter sound. Hell, it was an instrument all of its own.

His set was buoyed by a great light show, but judging by audience reaction, not to everyone's liking. But it was fearless and exciting and very, very buzzy. He did deliver one big hit in “Hello It’s Me,” but even then it was with a slightly different arrangement from the FM-radio standard. It’s a set I’ll be thinking about – like the song says – for a long, long time.

For their headlining slot, Yestival namesakes Yes made a similarly ballsy move. There was nothing played past 1980; sorry those wanting to hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Rhythm of Love.” Nor was it an easy greatest-hits set; sorry again for those hoping for “I’ve Seen All Good People," "Starship Trooper," and “Long Distance Runaround.”

Instead, they mixed some familiar tunes and some deep cuts. Sure, “Yours Is No Disgrace” was a punchy highlight, but so was the more ambitious and lengthy “South Side of the Sky,” “Don’t Kill the Whale,” and one of the heaviest songs in the band’s catalog, “Machine Messiah.”

click to enlarge Yes: Steve Howe, Dylan Howe, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison, Alan White, and Billy Sherwood - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Yes: Steve Howe, Dylan Howe, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison, Alan White, and Billy Sherwood
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
The set was definitely a manna for musical virtuosity, though it did drag occasionally. The current lineup of this official version of the group (another competing version is out there now) has two classic-era members in guitarist Steve Howe, who heavily showcased his pedal steel playing, and drummer Alan White, who spoke to the Press last week. Yes also had latter-day member Geoff Downes, surrounded by a bank of ten keyboards, three laptop computers, and one iPad, his playing was the sonic glue that kept the band together.

Vocalist — and, as he told the audience, current resident of New Braunfels! — Jon Davison’s crystal-clear voice pierced and lifted the songs. And accompanied by otherworldly visuals on the screen behind both of computer generated images and Roger Dean scenes of planets and landscapes (or a good imitation), it really did put Yes into another dimension.

Personal Bias: Not seen any of these acts before, but eager to dive below the hits-surface. Was accompanied by my sibling, Jamie (aka “Classic Rock Bro”), who is a deep-level Todd Rundgren obsessive.

The Crowd: It’s a ‘70s-era prog-rock show – so mostly a middle-aged sausage party. Lots of Yes and Rush T-shirts, and one for Houston’s own Josefus!

Overheard in the Crowd (from Brother Jamie):
“Todd came to Rockefeller’s for four nights in a row when I was working there in the mid-‘90s. He wore a kilt with nothing underneath it, so the front tables all got to see his dick and balls all night long. And one couple was at a front table all four nights.”

Random Notebook Dump:
Steve Howe’s white chin beard makes him resemble the Village Elder Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Also...did I spot…KHOU news anchor Ron Trevino wearing a Todd Rundgren T-shirt (which correctly had “Sugar Land” instead of “Houston” on the back tour itinerary)? “I LOVE Todd Rundgren,” he told me, very meta journalist-to-journalist. “I remember seeing him a Cardi’s a long time ago. Can you get me backstage to meet him?"

Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy

Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2
Lucky Man
Fanfare for the Common Man

Todd Rundgren
Sir Reality
The Ikon
Buffalo Grass
This is Not a Drill
Party Liquor
By My T
One World
Hello It’s Me
Just One Victory


Time and a Word
Yours Is No Disgrace
South Side of the Sky
And You and I
Leaves of Green
Going for the One
Don’t Kill the Whale
Machine Messiah

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero