By Michael Lello
The family tree of progressive rock band Yes has more branches than a gnarled old redwood, with members joining, leaving, and in several cases, rejoining the band, throughout its storied history, which spans more than 45 years.
Keyboardist Geoff Downes has a particularly interesting role in Yes lore. When singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman departed, Downes and singer Trevor Horn – who together were The Buggles, of “Video Killed The Radio Star” fame – were invited to join the group in 1980. Yes released “Drama,” divisive at the time as it was the first Yes release without Anderson’s voice, before the group dissolved for a time, with Downes and guitarist Steve Howe going on to form the supergroup Asia.
Downes, who rejoined Yes to record the 2011 album “Fly From Here,” is now among the ranks of Yes men who have done more than one stint with the British band, and taking a phone call in his hotel room in New York state preparing for a tour that hits the Tower Theater Saturday, July 19, he speaks glowingly about his second go-around.
“It’s really, really good. It’s a terrific band to play with, and they’re all great musicians in their own right, so it’s something I really embrace and I enjoy doing it a lot,” says Downes, who with his bandmates will release a new album, “Heaven and Earth,” on July 22. “I’m quite happy being a part of the Yes history.”
Yes is currently made up of founding member Chris Squire (bass, vocals), longtime members Steve Howe (guitar, vocals) and Alan White (drums), Downes and new singer Jon Davison. On “Heaven and Earth,” the band offers much of what made it famous – complex playing, some lengthy compositions and high-minded ideas – but there is also a freshness to the material. Part of that might be due to the addition of Davison, who has been touring with the group for several years. He has writing credits on all but one track. (You can hear one song, “Living In A World Of Our Own,” as well as previews of two others, below.)
“Well, I think it’s important for him to put his stamp on it,” Downes said of the new singer. “I think a vocalist is an integral part of a band, and I think it’s quite important that what they’re singing about they believe in, so I think that aspect was quite important. I think also we’ve been together as a unit now for a couple of years with the same lineup and I think we really wanted to try to consolidate that on a recording as well.”
Davison’s voice seems to fit squarely between Anderson’s classic high tenor and the slightly lower range of Horn, making for what should be a palatable change for longtime fans.
Another new contributor was producer Roy Thomas Baker, known primarily for his work with Queen – and on sessions with Yes in 1979 that were aborted.
“He brought quite an interesting mix into the equation in terms of his approach, which is kind of old-school on the one side and kind of a high-tech level going on the other side,” Downes said of Baker, who produced rock staples like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and chart-topping records by Journey, Foreigner and The Cars. “So in terms of my own standpoint, it was very interesting working with someone who really used the old vintage technology and embracing the new stuff that I was getting involved with. It’s quite a bit of old and new, and working with someone like Roy really helped the band. It really showed that we could do something different.”
“Old and new” is a good way to describe Yes’ summer tour, as well, as they are playing the classic “Fragile” (1971) and “Close To The Edge” (1972) albums in their entirety as well as some tracks from the new record. Like several bands from their era, Yes have taken to playing complete albums on tour; last spring, they played all of “The Yes Album” (1971), “Close To The Edge” and “Going For The One” (1977) each night.
“I think the interesting factor was that when these albums were originally recorded they were recorded as entire pieces, even though the tracks were divided. They were assembled to be listened in sequence, as it were. . . . I think (playing full albums live) was very popular with the fans, because they kind of got it, they got the point of it,” said Downes. “So we’re continuing to do that. I’m not certain that will be the case at the end of the year when we’ve probably exhausted doing those vintage albums in their entirety, but it’s certainly a lot of fun for me to be able to play that stuff that I grew up listening to.”
Indeed, Downes, who says that on stage he tries “to pay respect” to the original parts recorded by Wakeman and original keyboardist Tony Kaye, was a fan of the band he would later join.
“Yeah, very much so,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily follow them through the late ’70s, apart from the album I did with them in 1980. I was not that familiar with quite a lot of the stuff they put out in the ’90s and things like that, but having said that I think that those early albums like ‘Time And A Word’ and ‘The Yes Album’ and ‘Fragile’ were a staple diet for me when I was a student.”
Nineteen-eighty’s “Drama,” the only record Yes recorded with Horn on vocals (although he later produced their 1983 comeback “90125”), was not held in quite as high esteem by Yes fanatics when it came out, as some felt blindsided by the departure of Anderson’s iconic vocals.
“I think a lot of the fans that were around at the time that didn’t really give it much credence have come around and really started to appreciate what we were doing with the album,” Downes surmised. “If you look at it historically for Yes, it was a transitional album, moving from one period of the ’70s into the ’80s. I’m really proud of the album, I think it stands up. I think the songwriting is very, very strong and in parts it’s pretty radical, and I think it stood the test of time.”
Saturday’s show in Upper Darby, just outside of Philadelphia, will find Yes in familiar territory, a market which has been particularly viable for the band throughout its recording and touring career; it even held its first-ever Yestival in nearby Camden, N.J., last year.
“It’s been a big city for Yes,” said Downes. “There’s a big stronghold of Yes fans in that area, and not just Yes, progressive rock in general, for whatever reason. So it’s always been something that’s been very close to me and I’m very much looking forward to playing the Tower.”
While Yes is Downes’ current priority, he’s still active with Asia, who last year released a new album, “Gravitas.” While Howe recently left the group, it still features fellow original members John Wetton and Carl Palmer. Asia will play at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs on Sept. 28.
“It’s going to be a busy year,” the keyboardist said. “I think both bands have got their place, and Yes and Asia are quite different bands, and I’m fortunate in the fact that I can make a contribution to both of them.”