Yes' Alan White on the Early Days: "People Thought We Were Crazy"

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If there exists one genre of popular music with the most cantankerous and anal fans and critics, progressive rock would take the prize. Some of rock's most talented musicians work in the genre. They often bring experience from classical music and a working knowledge of music theory. Some of the bravest musical experiments were pioneered within the genre, yet rule-breaking is received with much doubt. One long-suffering band of this aspect of prog rock is the U.K. act Yes, which made its recorded debut in 1969.

As much of a devoted following as Yes has, it has often been haunted by criticisms of its ever-shifting lineup. Then there's the arty ponderousness and its sellout for new-wave pop appeal in the early '80s. When Alan White first joined the band in 1972, replacing Bill Bruford, the first album he participated in was Tales From Topographic Oceans, a double LP of four songs that averaged 20 minutes. "A huge, long project," he recalls of the album, speaking over the phone during a tour stop in Aspen, Colorado. "It was about six to eight months until we finished the album, so we spent a long time doing that."
To top it off, White says, the band would perform the album in its entirety during a subsequent tour. "In fact, we were one of the first bands that did that concept of doing one whole album onstage," he says. "People thought we were crazy, but a lot of people came to those concerts." 

When the group comes to the Hard Rock Live on March 24, it will perform only three albums, all from the early part of its existence, including 1971's The Yes Album, 1972's Close to the Edge, and 1977's Going for the One. This show will also mark the first time the band has played an album onstage in its entirety since the Topographic tour. As complex as the music of Yes is, White says the band, now a five-piece, "never recorded anything that was kinda impossible to do live." He adds that fans should expect the albums to sound familiar, but Yes will not check its ponderousness at the door. "We're kinda concentrating on making them sound as much like the album as possible with a few extensions here and there," he adds.

Though White admits modern technology will help make things easier for the band to re-create some key moments of the albums, like the bombastic organ at the center of "Close to the Edge," the band will bring its usual talent to its instruments. "Truly, yes, [technology] does make it a whole lot easier than it was back then, but at the same time [the songs are] pretty organic. The way we play them is pretty organic, and we're enjoying it," notes White. 

Besides White, founding bassist Chris Squire, along with longtime guitarist Steve Howe, will be onstage. Geoff Downes, who also formed Asia with Howe in the early '80s, will provide keyboards. Jon Davison will handle the distinct, falsetto vocals made famous by founding member Jon Anderson, who left the band in 2008. Davison is a generation or two younger than the other members and was once a member of the Seattle band Sky Cries Mary in the '90s and later a member of the underground prog band Glass Hammer. White says he came to the band through a mutual friend, and he defends him as an excellent fit. "Funnily enough, Jon's voice is very close to Jon Anderson's voice," he notes. "He can handle the high stuff that we do. A lot of the songs have very high vocals. He seems to be handling it real well." 

Still, as many Yes members as have come and gone over the years (even Bruford came back for a while), White will not rule out a return by Anderson. "I haven't put it out of my mind that it's a probability," he says. "We'll see down the line. I don't think it will be for a whole period. I think it will be for some specialized gig like New York, L.A., or London, that kind of a thing." 

Despite Anderson seeming a bit bitter about the band recording its first album in ten years without him, 2011's Fly From Here, criticizing it as "a bit dated" in a Rolling Stone interview, White says there is no bad blood between them. "I spoke to Jon a few weeks ago," White shares. "He's a 49ers fan, and I'm a Seahawks fan, and we were having a conversation totally about football." 

For now, White is most looking forward to heading down to South Florida, where he says his wife will meet him as the tour winds down and the band takes to the sea on what he calls "the prog cruise." The MSC Poesia will actually take travelers on what has been labeled the "Cruise to the Edge," with such other prominent prog acts like UK, Carl Palmer of ELP, and Steve Hackett of Genesis. Despite the aura of one of the haughtiest of genres of rock, White remains as grounded and human as any longtime musician. "I'm just looking forward to being in Florida again," he says. "We've been in so many cold places for quite a while now," he adds with a laugh.

Yes. 7 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Call 954-797-5531, or visit hardrocklivehollywoodflcom. Tickets cost $44 to $74 plus fees.

Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter at indieethos.




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