It's fair to say Yes is a band that doesn't mind playing it, well, close to the edge.
This year alone, the veteran British progressive rock band -- years on from starting in London -- is embracing some new challenges that would lead other groups to pack it in. Or at least cool its heels for a minute.
After the death of bassist Chris Squire, Yes' sole remaining founding member, last year, Alan White, drummer since 1972, is on the sidelines this year because of back and spinal issues. That comes alongside a summer repertoire that finds the group, which has been playing entire albums in its shows for the past three years, taking on two of the most polarizing releases of its career -- half of 1973's "Tales From Topographic Oceans" and 1980's "Drama."
But the group is soldiering on, which guitarist Steve Howe says is part of Yes' tradition.
"It's never a cushy ride," Howe, 69, says with a laugh by phone. He likes to point out that he's "the first new guy in Yes," having joined in 1970 to replace original guitarist Peter Banks. And he explains that personnel changes over the years -- 19 members in all -- have given Yes and its fans a different perspective about the nature of the band, whose lineup includes Geoff Downes, on his second stint with the group, on keyboards, singer Jon Davison, bassist Billy Sherwood and Jay Schellen on drums as White's temporary replacement.
"Yes used to kid ourselves that we were like an orchestra, that we were based on orchestral thinking -- but that's in fact what it is," Howe says. "Yes music is bigger than the people who are in Yes, plain and simple. It's not unscrupulous or vicious. It's just that we're determined to be on the leading edge, and there's a demand of excellence all the time.
"And I guess that's what Yes is still like. We're carrying on for Alan. We're carrying on for Chris. We're carrying on for Peter Banks. We're not totally selfish people who are doing this for ourselves. There is a sort of given mission, if you like. This is no ordinary band. It's not Mott The Hoople."
Howe acknowledges that "there's nothing bigger than losing Chris" last year, while White's physical deterioration has been taking place for some time until it needed to be addressed significantly.
"He's been waxing and waning," Howe says of the drummer's status. "He's been improving, but he's got to take it a bit more easy. We're keeping it pretty much under the lid but hoping he can be back in good shape as soon as possible. But it's going to take awhile."
Meanwhile, the current Yes is taking on those controversial totems from the group's canon. "Tales From Topographic Oceans" was a double-disc set featuring one song per side (Yes is playing "The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of the Dawn)" and "Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)" plus a bit of "Leaves Of Green"), a leap from the previous years landmark "Close To The Edge" album with some of the most ambitious and symphonic arrangements the group has ever attempted. "Drama," meanwhile, came after the departure of original singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, replaced by Downes and Trevor Horne, his partner in the new wave group the Buggles -- a definite shock to any Yes fan's system.
But Howe is pleased to report that three decades or so later, there's more love than rancor over the titles.
"Y'know, if you're going to be a musician you better be ready for some criticism. You better be able to face the music, so to speak," Howe notes. "I've always believed in Yes music and I've always believed the things we did have value. There's some spottier moments, but the records we put our heads down onto we got the results, and that's what Yes is all about.
"And what we're seeing is a real love people have for 'Tales' and for 'Drama,' so the combination of doing probably the two most controversial albums together has been a roaring success."
Yes, whose last set of new material, "Heaven & Earth," came out in 2014, is not yet planning new material, preferring instead to wait for White to heal and to make sure "we've got the right kind of music and mindset to do something," according to Howe. Meanwhile, the guitarist is also well aware that Yes isn't the only band on the road playing Yes music. Former members Anderson, Wakeman and Trevor Rabin, guitarist from 1982-94, are taking their own group out during the fall; He's disappointed over some disparaging remarks they've made about the current Yes, but Howe prefers to express camaraderie rather than conflict.
"I would say good luck to them, you know?" he says. "Anybody can play Yes music, and hopefully the bar is set very high. The standards of quality and perfectionism are set pretty high for Yes already, before you stop out there, and I think it's good to have demanding environments for it.
"We're just going to carry on, irrespective. There's been cover bands out playing Yes, and we're delighted, really, that there's more Yes music being out there, getting played."
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19.
Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway, Sterling Heights.
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