Shepherds Bush Empire, London
22 July 2023
I'm here to see Jon Anderson, of course, but technically the show is billed as "Jon Anderson with the Paul Green Rock Academy". His touring band is a bunch of teenagers (some as young as 15) from an American music school, and I'm really not sure how it's going to work. I've heard enough student performances to know what incredible musicans they can be, and he's not going to pick a band who can't play the material, but still... how is this actually going to work? Am I just going to spend two hours realising that I'm not watching Yes?
The concert starts with Academy students playing the support set. There are about 20 students in all (it's actually hard to count because they're never all on the stage together), and each song of the set is played by a different combination of musicians and singers, and every single one of them is amazing. I've seen "professional" support bands do a far worse job. They kick off with a pair of Boston covers, and run through 45-minutes of songs in this vein, classic rock covers that are perfectly judged for tonight's audience.
After a short intermission, it's Jon Anderson's turn. So, about eight instrumentailsts and four singers come on stage with him. Four people are playing guitars, two people are sharing the keyboards, there are two drummers... this is kind of mind-boggling.
And they open with Yours is No Disgrace, and these "kids" absolutely nail it. It's completely flawless, and it's perfectly arranged: each solo is taken by a different guitarist, playing all the styles and moods the song needs, and the backing singers are perfectly complementing Jon, and... I am literally overwhelmed.
Jon's voice: my first impression is that his voice sounds a little tired, and the four girls backing him are helping to beef up his delivery. But an old, tired Jon Anderson voice is still the most beautiful sound god ever put on this Earth. And my first impression very quickly changes, as his voice warms up as the night goes on and he just sounds better and better, and by Owner of a Lonely Heart he's at full glass-shattering strength.
As the set goes on, different combinations of students play and sing on each song: usually multiple keyboard players, always three of four guitar players, sometimes two drummers plus other percussionists. Oddly, only ever one bass player (though there are at least three differet ones who rotate between songs). Sometimes three saxophonists. And anything up to 12 singers, male and female. Jon plays guitar too, and, remakably, sometimes he even steps back and lets one of the students take a lead vocal, weaving segments of songs by people like Led Zeppelin, Bowie, and, er, Eminem, into the set. And reading this, you're all horrified at the thought, but trust me, it works, it works beautifully, and you just love Jon even more for being humble enough to let these people get a moment in the spotlight.
The first half of his set is all the classics you would expect, with the only real surprise in the set being a powerful version of Don't Kill the Whale. Oh, and an even more unexpected State of Independence, with the rock band taking Vangelis's part. Highlights are ... literally every second of it. Amazing vocal harmonies on All Good People. Fantastic piano solo on South Side of the Sky. The stage empties for two acoustic guitarists to play Mood for a Day as a duet, heartbreakingly beautiful. Honestly, literally every moment is perfect.
Then, after a very short break, he returns to play Close to the Edge. Not just the song, the whole album, beginning to end. And again, I am in awe of how effortlessly these kids play this music. Not just by copying the album note-for-note, but by doing what a live band should: understanding the music and making it sound fresh and new. Playing new solos. Adding new harmonies. Keeping Jon straight when he forgets something (Jon Anderson always forgets words, it's just what he does, and the backing singers are professional enough, musically smart enough, to just go with it without making it look like a mistake).
This band is amazing. Not just "good, considering they are kids", but seriously amazing on any terms.
As this segment ends, I don't think it can get any better. I can't really think anything at the moment. I can't even think what they haven't done that could possibly come next.
There's a band touring at the moment that are legally entitled to call themselves Yes. I know they are top musicians, and I'm sure they put on a flawless show. I'm sure their young singer is technically superior to 79-year-old Jon Anderson.
I'm not interested in seeing them. This is Jon Anderson, and this is Yes. I've just spent two and a half hours literally crying through every song.
And I know I said I wasn't going to say this any more, but it's Jon Anderson and: best concert I've ever seen.