Concert Spotlight: Interview with YES

Rock Pioneers Play On

Progressive rock pioneer YES was among other greats at this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, alongside Electric Light Orchestra, Joan Baez, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur, and Nile Rodgers. The art-rock band plays the Ford Theater at Coney Island August 11 (followed by August 12 at PNC Bank Arts Center) with Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy for a night of hits and rarities.

YES, which formed in 1968, had a breakthrough with “Roundabout” in 1971 and may be best known commercially for their 80s tune “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and also hit it big with “Heart of the Sunrise,” “Starship Trooper,” and “I’ve Seen All Good People.”

Their harmonies and folk-meets-psychedelic instrumentation have given them one of the most loyal fan bases out there in rock music. Now consisting of guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geo Downes, singer Jon Davison, and bassist Billy Sherwood, the band’s current YESTIVAL tour celebrates the hits, but also brings together songs from various albums throughout their career, for an electrifying night of live music with history and nostalgia. YES veteran Steve Howe spoke with New York City Monthly about the April Rock Hall induction in Brooklyn, shared how they stepped up their current show, and revealed some of his favorite memories of the city…

Earlier this year, YES was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Brooklyn. Take us back to this moment: Was being in New York special for you and was this one of your proudest moments as a band?

There are awards and there are awards. There are some you can get multiple times. We were all very delighted. It shows a wonderful love for YES and that’s fantastic.

And being in New York, it’s a very special place. We were going to the Northeast a lot when we were starting out in 1971; New York and Philadelphia and those cities really opened their hearts for us.

What’s the most exciting thing about playing live for fans even if some of your biggest hits are decades old?

We’ve been doing the album series for about four or five years and that was something we enormously had control over. When we go back to the UK we will play Tales from the Topographic Oceans. Looking back, we love playing Close to the Edge. But Tales got pushed aside; we didn’t just need to play “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

YESTIVAL is coming to the Ford Theater at Coney Island August 11 and you will be joined by Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. Who thought of this witty title and how did you decide to pair up with these other acts?

It might be too long a story. We had a few names, other versions of what YESTIVAL might have been, YES FEST. We actually liked YESTIVAL, thought it was sort of tongue-in-cheek and kind of amusing. We work closely with Pete Pappalardo at the agency and I think it’s the intelligent thing to do which is listen to him; out of all the people who work with bands, you’ve got to admire the promoters. I love Todd Rundgren and he’s got — we are basically a progressive rock band and ELP is essential to that and the only show in town who can do that is Carl, so it’s a lovely blend.

Steve, you and Alan are the only two original members of the band YES. How do you continue this legacy with the new members and how have they contributed to the growth of the band?

The story of YES starts with change and I was one of the first changes, and Alan was like the third change. Basically, I’ve been convinced in these nine years with Chris Squire of course that this was the band that we were moving forward with. The kind of fluidness, it’s got to be a real band. The band’s gotta have a hunger to be perfectionistic and put great ideas in front of our audience. We basically have raised the bar on our production, we have kind of built the album series. The YESTIVAL tour is like playing a song from each of the first albums up to Drama from 1980.

Do you have a favorite story over the years about playing in New York City or visiting?

I’ll pick out just a few random things. One of the best times was near the end of the 70s, my wife and I had a weekend away without the family, we stayed at the Carlyle Hotel and we played Madison Square Garden. I love Souen, microbiotic vegetarian restaurant, the guitar shops in New York City in the 1970s. My eldest daughter Georgia lived there in Brooklyn at one time. It’s a crazy, crazy place; you’ve gotta be a crazy person to live there. It’s exuberant.

Photo Credit: Glenn Gottlieb