Talking with guitar legend Steve Howe: Just say Yes

Legendary British prog band Yes performs at the Mahaffey Theater Saturday, Feb. 11

Like lots of Yes fans around the world, Steve Howe thinks of the 1973 double album Tales From Topographic Oceans as the progressive rock band’s magnum opus.

“We only did something that big once,” explains the affable Yes guitarist, on the phone from his home in the British countryside. “Although Close to the Edge and Fragile and all these records are great, I think Tales is the biggest document – the biggest opus – that we did. I’ve always loved it, and I’ve always loved playing it onstage as well.”

Tales From Topographic Oceans – or a very large chunk of it – forms the centerpiece of the show Yes will bring to The Duke Energy Center for the Arts – Mahaffey Theater Saturday, Feb. 11. The Album Series, as the tour is called, also features the Drama album performed in its entirety. Along with a set of “greatest hits” – beloved songs like “Roundabout,” “Starship Trooper,” “Close to the Edge” and “Siberian Khatru.”

Although Yes had a series of hit songs in the Top 40, which are still played regularly on Classic Rock stations, hardcore fans have always been drawn to the lengthy, complex albums as complete musical entities. Previously Album Series tours have focused on The Yes Album, Fragile, Going For the One and Close to the Edge.

Howe, who was named Best Overall Guitarist for five consecutive years in Guitar Player, says he’s amazed and thrilled that the band’s “old” music – material he and his bandmates wrote in their 20s – still resonates.

“Some of these records we’re doing – they weren’t just hits then, and then they went away and we revived them 30 years later,” he says. “They continued to be of interest to developing progressive rock fans, and some of them had kids and they got into it. So in a way, it’s all coming from the same source.

“I like playing new music. I’ve done 12 solo records over the years – I’ve been delighted to not have to only play old music. But my favorite stuff is definitely looking at Yes.

“It doesn’t have to be that old – we might come onto the ‘90s at some point and start looking at Keys to Ascension or something. There’s a lot of music that we’d like to look at. But we do get a lot from the ‘70s, and we don’t have a problem.”

Yes, which has had more personnel changes over the years than the cast of Law & Order, has rarely gone from one record to the next with exactly the same players. The current lineup includes Howe (who joined in 1970 and has himself quit and re-joined numerous times), drummer Alan White, Geoff Downes on keyboards, singer Jon Davison and bassist Billy Sherwood.

Sherwood replaced founding member Chris Squire, who died in 2015.

“When Chris got particularly ill, at the beginning of ’15, we basically knew we had to put some brakes on,” Howe explains. “But we had some dates to fulfill. Billy filled in while Chris was getting better. But then Chris, bless him, after some hesitation saw it as the ‘perpetuation’ of Yes.”

The band, he believes, is stronger than the sum of its parts, and will always survive the loss of key players. “Chris knew that it’s a healthy concept, a means to keep the ball rolling,” Howe says. “And it proved once again that Yes does have a sort of unstoppable approach.

“I’ve got used to that turning around, and the reasons sometimes behind it. There’s no one similar case, where members left Yes, that’s the same as another. It’s all about circumstances, personality, musical choice, availability, success in their solo world. There’s so many ingredients. You’ve gotta like the people, you’ve gotta change the management and the agent … “

Longtime singer and songwriter Jon Anderson is not part of Yes these days; he recently toured  with keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman (another on-again, off-again member of Yes) and guitarist Trevor Rabin (ditto).

Yes will –finally – be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April. Howe says he’s “hopeful” that he and Anderson can put their longtime differences aside and celebrate the legacy they created together.

Because it’s been such a revolving door, which of the ex-band members will perform as part of Yes at the ceremony? Howe says they haven’t discussed it “in great detail yet,” but fans can expect drummer Bill Bruford to attend (probably) but not play.

“I don’t think Bill minds me reminding people that he has retired,” Howe explains. “He hasn’t played for nine years, and he won’t be playing. And I don’t want to pre-empt any announcement, but I don’t think (pianist) Tony Kaye can fly right now due to his health.

“We’ll hope that there’ll be a logical conclusion to what it is we should do. And I presume everybody will be in good spirits to do that. But it will take some achieving and reaching.”

Yes will be the first progressive band inducted into the Hall – and hopefully not the last.

Howe, for his part, is circumspect. “The main accolade for a musician is to walk onstage and play, and people enjoy it,” he says. “You can’t do much better than that. The great thing about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I guess, is that you don’t get another one – it’s a one-off thing. That’s kind of nice.”

  • By Bill DeYoung

 

Yes: The Album Series

Saturday, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. at the Duke Energy Center for the Arts – Mahaffey Theater, 400 1st Street S., St. Petersburg

Tickets and parking here