YES ARW: Greek Theatre 8.29.18

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Yes ARW: August 29th, 2018—

After a two hour set, which started at 7:45 PM, Jon Anderson—who looked as great as he sounded—closed the show with his message, to “give love each day.” It won’t sound romanticized to longtime Yes fans to consider that this is what he has been doing for over 40 years, through the gift of his voice and lyrics, which seem to be divinely channeled for the purpose of transporting us to higher realms.

Yes splintered— 

Tension had been increasing since the death of founding member and bassist, Chris Squire, in 2015. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Yes splintered into two versions of itself, after their Hall of Fame induction, just last year. This lineup, with Jon Anderson on vocals; Trevor Rabin on guitar and Rick Wakeman on keys; Lee Pomeroy on bass and Louis Molino on drums, goes by the name, Yes, featuring ARW, with the acronym standing for the three original members.

An Assessment: Jon Anderson & Jon Davison—

As exuberantly noted in our review of the other Yes faction, who we had just seen with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Jon Davison, at LA’s Ford Theatre, we were more than accepting of Davison on vocals, despite the resistance of many other Yes fans, and still believe he is the one to carry on Yes’ mission and sound for the next generation. For now, the world is better for having both.

This is a story of the teacher and the apprentice. It is the story of a fine craftsman at work. It is a tribute and a salute to Jon Anderson, whose craft is his song. It is a lesson in mastery. It is a tale of The Grand Duke and The Count, where Anderson is Duke and Davison is Count… Or, the Shogun and the Samurai, though the teaching is indirect. And if they were to spar, we can well imagine them humbly bowing in deep respect to one another.

Those in audience on this night, under the faintly illuminated stars at LA’s Greek Theatre, were watching a consummate performer at his craft. Although it may seem trite to point to the most commercialized of offerings, it was “Roundabout” that made this most evident.

The Assessment Continues: Roundabout—

Roundabout was one of only a few songs that both lineups played…and it was the one they both saved for last. As if by some unseen, but divinely ordained appraisal by the high court in the sky…it became the ultimate test. The final battle. The concluding duel.

It was the only song our little angel, Davison faltered on, but by official cosmic decree, it had to be played. The people want to hear it. Well…Anderson soared, as he did on every song. He freewheeled through the air. He performed elegant pirouettes and light-footed chassés, with his seemingly ageless, crystalline voice. And so, at the final moment, we see the color of the mantle and cross…the master is revealed.

The Assessment Continues: Howe & Rabin—

As it happens, “Roundabout” would confirm another impression…one which, like a whispered confession, we divulged with some hesitation to one another, after only a few songs in: Rabin was the true weak link in this lineup. Despite the years he has been with Yes, it became painfully clear that without Howe holding the reins, his one man guitar show was lacking in shimmer and shine. On song after song, we continued to notice that all the special little twinkling accents went missing…all the perfectly placed twangs and impeccable little plucks, like exquisite seasonings dashed in just the right amount in just the right places…all the extras that give Yes their virtuosity, simply went missing. The fairy dust had been swept away.

In place of the majestic white horse that could whinny proudly, while up on its two hind legs, we had a little pony. Where Howe went from lap-steel to Fender to Gibson, in a heartbeat, or sometimes two at a time…depending on the texture he needed at the moment, Rabin never once switched out his one trusted guitar, “old faithful.” A one trick pony. If you think this is unfair, or if you have any doubts…watch Steve Howe play this song on the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with Geddy Lee on bass, and Rabin on second guitar.

On the way home, with iphone recordings in tow, we scrolled through video clips from last month’s show at The Ford, with Howe & Davison. There it was! “Roundabout” in full. Howe’s attention to detail was so fresh and so immediately apparent. All the enchanting acoustic strums were as they should be. All the little particulars that Rabin left behind, sparkled forth with precision in Howe’s dexterous hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYA97-csEfI
(Yes ARW: “Roundabout” Live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUJz5SlVWaY
(Yes with Davison & Howe: “Roundabout” Live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1-NsnlPc54
(Yes with Geddy Lee on bass: “Roundabout” Live at Hall of Fame Induction)

Awaken—

Running over 15 minutes long, and described by Anderson himself, as an epic piece of music, “Awaken” is, like so many Yes songs, about nothing less than human transcendence. It began with Anderson on his harp…soon joined by Wakeman’s unmistakeable toy piano-like riff in minor chords, which together, create a feeling of suspense, like the gap inbetween incarnations…the bardo…while waiting in the wings to meet God.

As Anderson himself, has explained, the lyrics were inspired by the book, The Singer: A Classic Retelling of Cosmic Conflict by Calvin Miller.

All of this suspense, while drummer, Molino, adds drama, by hitting his tom-toms with cannon-fire thuds, done with super-padded drumsticks. Wakeman begins to add embellishments, and the chords lighten; the somber, almost ominous minor key gives way to major…like the curtains opening. The air becomes thinner. And Anderson’s voice sails above the pressure line in the atmosphere…soaring now, effortlessly, up to the angels’ gate…as if to say, “I’ve triumphed over the trials and tribulations of this lifetime… I’ve passed the test.” And as he sings:

High vibration go on
to the sun, oh let my heart dreaming
past a mortal as me.
Where can I be?
…he takes us into the mystical realm, into ecstacy…into timelessness.

And you and I—

Anderson clinked his tingshas—Tibetan ritual chimes, and thus began “And You and I.” This magnum opus of a song is a dedication to our collective reunion with the divine. The first thing any longtime Yes fan (what other kind is there?) would notice is, again…Howe’s missing acoustic accents. But nonetheless, he sang:

And you and I climb over the sea to the valley
And you and I reached out for reasons to call

The music then changes. The story changes…for that’s what Yes songs offer…a story. Not just a story, but an allegory, one which offers its willing listener a glimpse of truth…a glimmer of meaning…a glistening forth of the essence of life, itself.

The climb that Anderson sings about, evokes the sense of the grand ascent toward reunion with God…or liberation of spirit, if the “G” word doesn’t suit. But, the cosmic dance is a snaky one, fraught with twists and turns and constant set backs. As Anderson puts it, it is a spiral aim. The Buddhists call it samsara…the constant struggle that is part and parcel of human existence. Life and death, itself. Thank God! Infinite chances to try…try again. Life and death…found in every single breath we take, in this demented world of illusion.

Illusion…because “it” was right there within us, all along. Like the scarecrow and his heart. And hence, Anderson sings:

All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you…
And the You and I is…all of us.

But, as long as we are caught in the world of illusion…maya…we don’t see the splendor that was here, all along. Anderson calls this “the eclipse.” The chords then darken…imparting the continuance of our personal struggle. And he sings:

reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you

A moment of Self realization. Enlightenment. God is within, was within, all along. What a futile search!

The music then soars, and we climb… up, up into ecstasy, into the beyond. Anderson again clings the tingshas—two miniature cymbals held by a string—waking us up from the dream. Just as Zen Master hits the bell with the padded stick…and boom…instant enlightenment…satori!

But, we are held in the whirl of the cosmic dance, in the ongoing karmic waves of life and death. This movement is conveyed through the stillness that swells up in the form of an acoustic major chord. It is a new turn in the journey of life. In this way, it is a suite, rather than merely a song. This moment suggests the feeling of finally reaching altitude…steady…like flying on a giant wave in the cosmos. And he sings:

Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time
Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme
There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify
Political ends as sad remains will die
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you
Oooh, ooh

reach over the sun for the river
And you and I climb, clearer towards the movement

Wakeman’s ascending triads and triplet rhythms express the jagged spiritual journey, alluded to in this opus…impelling a magnificent triumph over each downfall and over time itself, as the echoing chords skip and soar and swirl around one another, creating energy and motion and mimicking the continual drive toward ecstasy and rapturous joy.

SET LIST—

  1. Cinema
  2. Hold On
  3. I’ve Seen all Good People
  4. Changes
  5. And You and I
  6. Rhythm of Love
  7. Perpetual Change
  8. Lift Me Up
  9. I Am Waiting
  10. Heart of the Sunrise
  11. Awaken
  12. Owner of a Lonely Heart
  13. Roundabout (Encore)
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Woodstock: The First Postmodern Event?

 

What is Modernism?—
The epoch called “modernism” was driven forward by a fantasy of a perfectly ordered world…a vision of utopia…a grandiose scheme of order. It donned the crest of Truth…with a capital “T”—the very same one that formed the blue print of some master plan of the world…the prototype structure, based on “universal law,” that which would fix us and fix our world…that which would make everything new and improved…as if we could somehow replace our collective DNA, as earthlings.

And if we could…and if we could achieve this utopia… What would it look like?

Homogeneity—
It would look like uniformity. Its code and credo was form follows function. According to the utopian language of the modern movement, which dominated the first half of the 20th century, the function of anything dictated its form, which is to say…there shall be nothing extra added, beyond that which is needed. So, for example, in the case of a machine, the body would be stripped down to the basics…a motor…a casing…little more…nothing more, if possible. Nothing overtly decorative. Nothing fluffy. Nothing cute. Architecture, the most visual of the art forms, would display this doctrine of simplicity through what became known as the Universal Style, arising out of the Bauhaus school, in Germany, in 1919. And buildings would all look the same. They would be homogenous.

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[Bauhaus Architecture]
The modern style championed simplicity of ornamentation.

This function and vision of simplicity was thought to be known through human reason. Reason was the height of human capacity…nay, the very purpose of what is means to be a human. This was an echo of Platonism, to be sure (recall the prisoners in the cave, reaching for their potential—analogized by their ascent to the top, where they finally see the sun…symbolizing the triumph of reason over senses and certainly…over emotion).

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[Piet Mondrian]
An artistic representation of how “reason & order” trumps emotion.

The Dark Underbelly—
Though the mission of modernity was progress, the result was great upheaval and destruction. It is the dark underbelly of the modern ideology; in its angst to universalize, to streamline, and to remove all un-needed parts, it would take bold action toward the unequivocal end of washing society clean of its impurities. This scrub down was reflected in all realms of society…from art to economics to the streamlining of culture, itself. Communism and the holocaust are the most dramatic examples—both were moves toward the homogenization of culture…toward sameness, toward cohesion and especially, toward order.

It was a wholesale laundering…a disinfection. The idea was to purify all of society by removing anything extraneous and subversive.

The Upheaval Continues—
In its love of progress and order, modernity was characterized by a general shift away from anything traditional and magical. The new technological approach to nature exacerbated the domination and degradation of our environment through the cultivation of high output production forces. Machinery was the game.

The environment was just one more vague and nameless category of “other.” In the collective mind, man stood apart from nature and could use it up according to its needs.

We were ruining our world in our quest for the perfect world.

What is POSTmodernism?—
The 1960s were upon us. As every tide eventually turns, postmodernism would engender a backlash on such glaring pomposity…the very assumption of what the academics called, “a grand narrative.” After all, who defines the Truth? What is right and what is wrong? Who gets to be the judge? And what about those whose story was conveniently unheard?

In plain language, postmodernism rebuffs the very possibility of universal truth…the very idea that there could be merely one view, one voice, or one standard. Of anything. This reaction permeated academia, the art world and the political realm, in the form of a “fragmented style,” underscored by “deconstruction” techniques…which is to say, a general breakdown of the tyranny of the “universal style”…and its assortment of faceless bureaucracies. It was a needed correction.

The postmodern movement was born, with its desire for plurality, a multiplicity of voices, and inclusion. The philosophy that underpinned the movement embraces the idea of identity through difference. Politically, this meant there was a general effort to restore racial and gender identity to those who were subverted and oppressed by the hands of modernist housecleaning.

Artistically, a stylistic heterogeneity was emphasized, which is to say, a potpourri of styles and elements are included. We were now seeing playful, overtly decorated façades, in architecture and an abundance of styles, all patched and fused together, in all art forms. Anything in Las Vegas is the perfect example in architecture, as is the corner strip mall, with its ironic clocktowers, propped up by enormous, tongue-in-cheek, Greek columns. And the collage is the quintessence of the postmodern style, in art.

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[Collage 1: Steve Kaufman]
[Collage 2: Greg Gossel]  
“Collage represents the melange and coexistence of many styles at once”

Deconstruction—
Deviance was also part of the postmodern agenda.

Serving as the bedrock of postmodern concerns, deconstruction questions our ingrained tendency to look at the world through the framework of a hierarchy, in which all categories of reality are divided in two, such as in the division between black and whiteman and womanright and wrong, and man and nature. These false divisions prioritize one part of the equation, leaving the other to the status of supplement.

By “deconstructing,” or uncovering this offense, and exposing the false division, the postmodernists hoped to restore justice to the subverted half. “Let all the voices be heard!” And let’s refrain from judgment because judgment assumes “a judge.” It serves as the natural correction to the multitude of prejudices resulting from a divided world.

Enter Woodstock—
Child of Modernity, albeit the tail end, it would inevitably carry strands of Modernist ideals, such as the wish for utopia. But, as if predestined to herald in POSTmodernity, in its welcome embrace of all things different…it was a hodgepodge of art forms, people, music, cultures, and in sum, a toast to the multifarious voices insisting on being heard. It was a peaceful and colorful demonstration of deviance.   

Woodstock was originally titled “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” Although it wasn’t the first open air music festival of its kind—that distinction would go to The Monterey Pop Festival, of 1967— the idea behind Woodstock, was, from the get-go, to present the countercultural philosophy, driven by the growing anti-war sentiment, through the medium of music. In a notably different spirit, The Monterey Pop Festival was created with the intention of validating rock music in a location known for its long running Jazz festival. Each had its own agenda. And that is what makes the difference.

Postmodern philosophy provided the seeds of thought that inspired the countercultural movement, of which Woodstock was the crowning glory. And even the modern dream of utopia was carried out in the postmodern way…through deviance and through the celebration of difference.

Therefore, I suggest Woodstock as the first major postmodern event.

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[Warhol’s Brillo Boxes]
What makes Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different than the market boxes? Theory

It wasn’t just a multi-name concert. The “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” was an expression of widespread dissatisfaction. It was a statement. It was social activism, in a way that had never been seen before. It was a critique of the status quo. Although the impetus was Vietnam, it was a call for the wholesale readjustment of all social and political elements that were seen as oppressive.

It was postmodern in that it presented an example of the “other” voices being heard, or rather, 500,000 voices…many of whom were attracted to the event, not solely for the show, but to be a part of what was essentially an anti-establishment agenda. The mostly young, left-ish, white, middle class group, craved freedom of expression and wanted to be a part of something that would provide a sense of freedom from traditional cultural norms. Their non-conformist stance was reflected though their appearance, adopting a new clothing style and hairdos that expressed their liberated mindset…handmade and natural, being key. And colorful.

The unorthodox outlook would extend to all aspects of lifestyle, leading to an increase in communal living settlements, an openness toward sexual exploration, and drug use. They became known as “hippies.” They had a goal, which included the promotion of social awareness toward all subverted “others,” most notably, minorities and the environment, in the wake of not only industrial devastation, but also, by the war, itself. “The other” also included those who were portrayed by the mainstream media, as “the enemy.” They advocated for changes in attitudes toward women and their role in society. They had the grit to challenge authority. And music was the ultimate medium.

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[Vintage Woodstock Poster]
“Aquarian Exposition”

Drugs—
By way of Timothy Leary, (who I wrote about, below), LSD came to be associated with the countercultural movement and aesthetic, with the hallucinogenic trip manifesting itself through sound. It may even be said that it served as a bridge that would unite the performers with their audience, through a shared sensorial experience, thereby further breaking down barriers of segregation, in the postmodern vein.

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[Timothy Leary]
“Turn on, tune in, drop out”.

Eastern Thought—
Part of this all-encompassing desire for social change included the openness to new ideas in spirituality. The interest in Zen Buddhism, Yoga and other religions of the East, arose with postmodernist thought and what came to be known as the “Bohemian lifestyle.” Eastern spirituality was seen as less rigid than the authoritarian western counterpart. The pervasive ideals of peace, acceptance, and nonviolence were seen as welcome alternatives to the atrophied moralistic religious dogmas of the west, which seemed to consider everything a sin. Eastern thought provided the ideals that the countercultural movement espoused….oneness.

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[MLK]
Martin Luther King, Jr. modeled his program of nonviolent resistance on Gandhi’s methods, which led to the liberation of India from the grips of British rule.

YOGA—
The eastern methods of attaining enlightenment were embraced as ways of attaining higher states of consciousness. Accordingly, meditation and Yoga were now being used as means toward personal transformation. This was seen openly, at a major event, for the first time, at Woodstock.

It is often forgotten that Woodstock opened with a Kundalini Yoga set, taught byTom Law, a student of Yogi Bhajan, who also led classes on stage, in between acts and during technical difficulties.

Also, commonly left out of accounts of Woodstock, is the fact that another Yogi, Swami Satchidananda, not only appeared at Woodstock, but formally opened the event with this speech:

So, let all our actions, and all our arts, express Yoga. Through that sacred art of music, let us find peace that will pervade all over the globe. Often we hear groups of people shouting, “Fight for Peace.” I still don’t understand how they are going to fight and then find peace. Therefore, let us not fight for peace, but let us find peace within ourselves first…the East has come into the West…But the entire success is in your hands, not in the hands of a few organizers. Naturally, they have come forward to do some job. I have met them. I admire them. But still, in your hands, the success lies. 

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[Pic 1: Swami Satchidananda & lion]
[Pic 2: Swami Satchidananda at Woodstock, 1969]
Yogic philosophy…All creatures have value

SUMMARY POINT—
The need for expression is what defined Woodstock as a postmodern event and historical marking point. Yes, there were other concerts before and after Woodstock, for example, The Atlanta International Pop Festival, and The Isle of Wight, both in 1970, but none that carried the weight of meaning and message that Woodstock did. As quoted in the NY Times:

An estimated 600,000 people showed up at both the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and at the one-day Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1973. But those were merely concerts, not cultural symbols.

Woodstock was different. Woodstock would prove something to the world. What it proved — that for at least one weekend, hippies meant what they said about peace and love

 

Yes with Jon Davison. We say…Yes! (And the deeper question of replacing a lead singer)

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The Heroic Frontman—
The group called Yes, has split into two factions, Yes ARW, with Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman; and Yes, with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Geoff Downes. There are original and senior members in both lineups. Here, we will focus on Yes, with new vocalist, Jon Davison, who serves as the focal point of this article.

Let us start with the naysayers, who proclaim that if you remove the front man, you’ve killed the band. We used to be part of the dissent. After all, the history here is not on Yes’ side. All one has to do is point to Van Halen, Queen, or The Doors. The frontman seems to be irreplaceable. It’s just not the same band, anymore, as the frontman embodies the band’s persona. But, hang on… exceptions do exist, as when Genesis took in Collins. A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering followed. Enough said.

In the case of Yes, some say that Davison is only there because he’s a Jon Anderson sound-alike, and more…that it’s demeaning to him, and insulting to the fans. Well, we’re not insulted. Our first and purest response was… Why not enjoy both? Without any pain of argumentation or justification, or analysis or elaboration… Why can’t they both exist in this universe as enjoyable entities?

But, for the sake of good sport and hopefully, fun and fruitful banter among music fans, we will elaborate.

We will continue by addressing Paul Rigby, who feels that “often in a band there is an irreplaceable link, without whom the band loses its identity…sometimes that band member is a vocalist. Sometimes it’s not.” And he continues, “I think my romanticization, as you call it (of Jon Anderson), stems from what Anderson does to a Yes song when he sings it and how the magic drains away when Anderson-imitators have a go.”

While we appreciate his point of view, we respectfully disagree. Firstly, his position carries a presupposition, from the get-go. How about if we don’t come into it thinking of him as an “imitator?” Perhaps, like a cherished classical concerto, we may look upon music of this caliber as timeless, to the point of overshadowing its original members altogether, in the sense that, no matter who delivers it, it has the capacity to continue on and shine. Granted, it may be a rare moon when the stars can align in such a way, but we think they have, in this case.

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Ship of Theseus; What Makes a band…a band?—
There is a thought experiment that we find relevant here, which explores the idea of identity. What makes you, you? Or, in this case, what makes a band, a band?

This question comes by way of the famous ship sailed by the hero, Theseus, which has been kept on display in a harbor. As the years go by, all the planks begin to rot and are replaced, one by one, by new ones. After a century or so, all the parts have been replaced.

Is the “restored” ship still the same object as the original?

As an additional curiosity, suppose that each of the rotted pieces were stored away, and after many years, were restored and reassembled into a new ship. Is this “reconstructed” ship the original ship? And if so, is the restored ship in the harbor still the original ship, as well?

The analogy reflects back on our two versions of the group called Yes, both with claims of genuine identity.

The Ship of Theseus serves as a reminder to think of ourselves as works in progress, rather than as finished projects. Perhaps a band is also a work in progress. But it also asks us to reconsider the importance we place on continuity…where is the continuity? There are original members in each lineup, but even there, they are not the same people anymore, themselves. If identity change is slow and gradual, at what point can we all agree that enough parts have been changed so as to warrant the announcement of a changed identity?

Enough Mind Games; Listen with your Heart—
The point is, we can’t and won’t agree. So, after the mental experiments are exhausted, we’re left with the heart…and the only question that matters to the heart, is…Do you like it? Do you feel transported, while listening? The answer to that, for us, is…Yes.

But even with that said, a bit of magic happens in any art form, when something sincere and authentic is being expressed. And this something comes through, even in cases where some form of “duplication” is at work. Consider Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes…they worked because there is something new to say…and it is beyond what the eye can see. In the case of music…it is heard, or better, felt. And it comes through the delivery, when that delivery is heartfelt by the performers, themselves…and then met by the receivers in similar heartfelt openness. It’s a synergetic union.

All artists borrow. They’re all influenced by what came before. But in a new amalgamation, in space and time, newly embodied, freshly inspired and in complementary interaction with others, something fresh is born. But that offspring itself, is ever-changing and evolving. In this case, it’s the body of work, called the Yes catalogue, which will see many incarnations that may likely outlive its original creators.

It’s constantly being newly created, anyway, even if only played by original members.

It Becomes his, upon Delivery—
Because Davison feels what he is singing—and this was apparent to these viewers—it becomes his at that moment of delivery. During delivery, he wholly embodies the material and is wholly in that point in time, wholly present, in heart and mind, and therefore, the material is, at that instant, his. And when we join in as viewers, it is ours.

After all, even an original lineup can end up being a parody of itself, if uninspired and burned out. Meaning…”real” has to come from someplace else…some other ingredients than sameness of physical bodies.

Inside out…outside in…he sang, in “Perpetual Change,” and as his smooth falsetto soared into the ethers, the layers of musical patterns then ballooned into a multi-textured phenomenon of rhythms and harmony, underscored by Howe’s steel guitar. And together, they ascended, in playful dance, like a regal spacecraft lifting off and gliding up toward the celestial spheres, with fluid and effortless lift toward transcendence.

Bottom Line; Authenticity—
So, in answer to the notion that Jon Davison is merely “copying Jon Anderson,” there is so much more at work. Our experience was not one that was reduced to “copying.” He happens to be a right fit. Like when two lovers find each other. The chemistry is right…the conversation is right…the personalities are right…and a host of other things, that we will never even fully understand, are right. He was born and gifted with that angelic voice…or, deeper than the voice…it’s the spirit that comes through the voice. He seems to channel the very essence of Yes. He’s not just singing the words. His soul and his voice find themselves at home here.

And so, a new rendering is born.

And, like Thesius’ ship…why pick one: each ship, at this time, is a unique “event.” Nothing stays the same, ever; everything is in perpetual change.

The bottom line is, authenticity. To the naysayers, we’re here to be the other voice. And it was a sight to behold. He gets it. He really gets it. He understands he is standing with legends. He is authentic in his feelings and that comes through his delivery. And he will die with the distinction of having stood next to them…masters at their craft.

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Yes’ Set List—
Songs played at the Ford Theater June 19th, 2018 (7:30PM-10:30PM)

Lineup: Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison (Guest: Tony Kaye)

1.Close to the Edge
2.Nine Voices
3.Parallels
4.Mood for a Day
5.Madrigal
6.Fly from Here
7.Sweet Dreams
8.Heart of the Sunrise
(Intermission)
9.Perpetual Change
10.Does it Really Happen
11.Soon
12.Awaken
(Encore)
13.Yours is no Disgrace
14.Roundabout
15.Starship Trouper

The Space where Ram Dass and Timothy Leary Diverge

 

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LSD & the 1960s—
It is hard to chronicle the era of the late 60s without reference to drugs—or to the Woodstock festival, itself, which was complete with “acid tents.” It was Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who pioneered their use in therapeutic settings….although it cost them their professorships at Harvard. Although Alpert would take a different path into Hindu spirituality, Leary continued to publicly promote the use of LSD and became a prominent player in the 60s counterculture.

Their work is chronicled in the documentary from 2014, Dying to Know. Narrated by Robert Redford, it patches together conversations between the two iconic figures throughout their friendship, which spanned five-decades. This analysis is more a close up of the most philosophically interesting part, than it is a review of the documentary, itself. It is one of their last conversations, erupting at the very end of the movie, in which, spawned by a discussion of what happens after death, they wrangle over the existence of the soul, which in Hinduism, is called the atman:

Ram Dass: I’m interested in awareness AFTER the brain gets eaten. I think about the dissolution of conceptual structures.

Timothy Leary: There are neurological and anatomical explanations for hallucinations.

RD: (I’m interested in how death) catapults us into non-conceptual space…my sense of continuity of awareness beyond the brain…is it just my wanting to keep something going?

TL: I don’t have that.

RD: You used the word, “soul”…what do you mean by it?

TL: “Superconsciousness.” And it…she…hangs around the brain.

RD: Well, Ramana Maharshi says, it’s right here (touches heart).

TL: (Rolls eyes)…A wonderful organ to pump blood. These Indian gurus…they’re using the heart as a metaphor? A bad metaphor.

RD: It’s in the lower, right hand corner…the size of your thumb…the atman

TL: (Aghast) Are you kidding me!?

RD: It’s in subtle form…not manifestation.

TL: (Un-camouflaged sarcasm) How do you contact it?

RD: You gotta get a better technology.

TL: Atman…better than LSD?

RD: In LSD, you saw all that, but it went by so fast, and you didn’t have a model to save it…it just went through…so much went through…but what we have conceptualized, is just a tiny edge…a trivia of the whole model.

These kinds of disputes, not unfamiliar to them, serve as a demonstration of opposites in harmony. It’s science and religion cutting the rug. It’s the Yin and the Yang in play, where Leary acts as Yang to Dass’ Yin…with his hard-edged, masculine demand for certainty, alongside Dass’ softer way, and willingness to surrender into the realm of the intangible.

As a relevant aside, what is often forgotten, is that science and religion started out asking the same questions… What is reality?… What am I?… Is there a God?… Is there an afterlife? It was all housed under the umbrella term philosophy. Even the category of “scientist” didn’t exist until the 19th century…1833, to be exact, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Guys like Newton were called Natural Philosophers. The different arenas just embraced different methods of ascertaining Truth.

Psychedelic—
These two scientists of the mind have been inextricably bound together, since their meeting in 1961. As if hand chosen by cosmic destiny, both lived at a time, a uniquely situated precipice within the timeline of the 20th century – when it was possible to explore these age-old questions in ways that were as yet, unprecedented in the western world.

Impelled, by both deep curiosity and mutual admiration, these academic big wigs journeyed through the inner landscapes of human consciousness. They went from theory and books to personal experimentation. First hand empirical investigation into uncharted territory, aided by psilocybin and eventually, LSD.

Each had just the right amount of ingredients to get the mixture right…just enough personal trauma and general suffering, together with the right amount of natural disobedience and rebelliousness. For Leary, it was profound grief after his first wife’s suicide. Ram Dass (then, Dr. Richard Alpert) was homosexual at a time when it far from acceptable.

Coming to Different Conclusions—
Something deeper was revealed through this exchange in the documentary. Like two trees growing in different environments, in different soil and all around conditions, not knowing the long term results until the trees reach maturity… But eventually, one tree bears fruit that tastes like love and feels like an open heart, and the other bears fruit that tastes like sarcasm and feels like vexation.

Ram Dass had found something that Leary hadn’t, and it has the aroma of divinity….while Leary’s projection carried the unmistakeable flavor of anguish. One of Leary’s five wives offers us some insight, when she explains the disconnect Leary has always had between his mind and his heart… ”the mind was always in charge and the heart got left behind,” she explained.

Roads Diverge—
It was 1967. Ram Dass wasn’t Ram Dass yet. After traveling the Himalayas, with fellow westerner, Bhagawan Dass, he stumbled into his first meeting with a little saintly looking man, wrapped in a blanket …the man who would become his teacher…Neem Karoli Baba (Babaji). Here he describes their first encounter:

The first time I looked at him, I said to myself, “I don’t want to be hustled.” The second time I looked at him, all I wanted to do was touch his feet…I looked up and he was looking at me with unconditional love and I had never been looked at with unconditional love by anybody…I felt loved…I felt loved…and I felt something happening in my heart.

He was forever changed.

Ram Dass would subsequently explore the same philosophical questions through different means…spiritual means. Under the guidance of his Guru, he would eventually discover the biggest Truth of all: I am a soul….that which would forever separate him from Leary.

“You have to be somebody before you’re nobody.” The idea, in eastern teachings, is that the realization of our truest essence—that we are spirit—engenders a natural breakdown of the ego, with all its attachments to identity and roles, in tow. There is a kind of death that occurs through the realization of what we really are.

Ram Dass sat in wonderment at how his friend, given his taste of expanded states of consciousness, could have remained a philosophical materialist…that is, one who holds that all things, including consciousness, are merely material. For Leary, there is a neurological answer for everything…including altered states of consciousness.

Ram Dass wanted more than a taste…he wanted to discover the means of how to integrate and maintain expanded states of consciousness. It was this desire that led Roshi Joan Halifax—featured in the documentary—to dig deeper, as well, as she embarked on her journey through Zen…searching for a means to really train the mind to be stable…in lieu of what she referred to as merely temporary, “decorative states.”

An Interesting Paradox—
They started together… but ended up continuing their lifelong journeys, exploring the inner dimensions of who we are, but on two very different different paths. Leary, exploring the mind with psychedelics, and Dass, with Bhakti Yoga…a devotional path, aimed at union with God through love.

Leary was at once a rebel against everything, but at the same time, not willing to waver from this very milieu….one that wouldn’t support anything less than empirically tested results. It was almost as if he were saying, “here you go…by your very standards, I’ll reveal your fallacies and limitations!” …As if he wanted to stick it to the world, using its own measurement scales.

Meanwhile, Dass traipsed barefoot into a far away, exotic land, steeped in God…and smothered in divinity…showered with deities, goddesses and myriad celestial beings with their fantastic myths and folklore…unconcerned with scientific methodology and framework.

The Final Transition—
Ram Dass counseled Leary’s family, after his friend’s death from prostate cancer in 1996. He reminded them to let their minds soar with his love, as he passed into the beyond, and to regard death just as highly as life…to let the mysteries of the universe, as they unfold, be beautiful. His last words were, “why?…why not?”

Leon Russell and “A Song for You”

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I stumbled into a casual conversation the other day, about who would top off the list of greatest rock vocalists. One of those impossible questions, with no single answer, but nonetheless, fun to play with.

I immediately thought of Leon Russell, who in many ways, seems to be undervalued, as one of blues’ and rock’s greatest legends. Having faded into relative obscurity, it was Elton John, who brought his self proclaimed mentor back into the recording studio and back into prominence in 2010. Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame the following year.

Originally from Oklahoma, his trajectory from session player to solo artist can be found elsewhere. So, suffice it to say here, that his start in L.A. found him working as a session pianist for everyone from The Wrecking Crew to The Byrds to Herb Alpert to Dave Mason; as collaborator with artists from Joe Cocker to Delaney and Bonnie to George Harrison. Here, we are limiting our commentary to one song and how this song showcases his incomparable gifts, both as a vocalist and as a songwriter.

“A Song for You,” is a song that’s not just a song. It leaves you in an altered state and utterly rearranged emotionally. It’s the kind of song that can’t be followed with any other song. It needs a moment of silence afterward. It’s intimate. It gets down deep into your soul, uproots it and then leaves you unable to carry on.

It’s not the kind of song you listen to while doing other things. You don’t do your laundry while this song is playing. It’s not a background song. It’s not an office song. You don’t play it at a potluck. You cannot continue what you’re doing after having heard it. Your day will feel different, your life will feel different…you will be thinking different thoughts and feeling different things. It’s not a song you forget.

Russell’s voice isn’t the kind of voice that’s polished and perfect, but that’s what makes it intoxicatingly delicious. You know you’re hearing something real. Something you can’t train your voice to do…no matter how many singing lessons you take. It either comes out that way, or it doesn’t. Just as a twisted, gnarly tree trunk just grows that way… you can’t till it to grow that way and it’s the most spectacular, special tree you ever saw. There’s no other tree like it.

Carried within the crackling, the slow vibrato, the soul-bearing pauses and the audible breaths he takes between words, in his sleepy, drunken, growl of a voice, is a a certain well worn weariness and at the same time, everything that’s sexy. It’s honest. It’s the embodiment of his soul’s yearnings. He sings at his edge and takes his listeners to places they hadn’t planned on going to.

In this one song, he touches on the feelings of everything that’s true about life and captures those feelings in the form of a melody…the sadness, the closeness, the beauty, the fleeting nature of it all. And the depth of longing that is always there, down deep in the soul.

*Below is Russell performing “A Song for You,” live, in 1971. Note how the voice and the delivery are one happening…they go together, precisely because of the honest quality and lack of anything contrived.

Side-note: “Superstar,” made famous by The Carpenters, and “Masquerade,” made famous by George Benson, were also written by Russell.

Steely Dan—L.A. Forum 2018

Steely Dan took the stage at 9:25 PM, with their multimember band, including a four-piece horn section and backup singers, “The Danettes,” clad in matching little black dresses. Fagan followed. From the first verse of the uptempo, swing-infused “Bodhisattva,” it was clear he was going to be a wild card, with The Danettes taking what seemed to be an ever-growing piece of the vocal pie.

Nonetheless, this fast-paced, super caffeinated jump-blues piece mobilized everyone. Bebop scales, but cloaked in a pop overcoat. The slightly fuzzed out rockabilly rhythm guitar is layered over by the persistence of the keys, which together build into a lush frenzied fervor as the trombone and reverberating lead guitar trade solos; Jon Herington doing justice to the original solo, famously laid down by Denny Dias, in the studio cut, while Keith Carlock held the whole thing together on drums with a shuffle-style groove…culminating into an ecstatic crescendo.

As long-time Steely Dan fans, we are reticent to confess our shared glances and raised eyebrows of uncertainty as to whether Fagan’s vocal chops could hold the act together, as a lonestar bandleader—although it is no secret that this has always been the band’s weak spot. But, what may have been the necessary salt in the stew, in earlier times, seemed more like faltering now.

This started to become evident in the lyrically seductive, “Aja,” which found him frequently coasting under the notes. Nonetheless, this lush masterpiece of a song—either an ode to LSD or to the beauty of life with a woman you love—was carried by the band, as a whole. Soaked in Jazz chords and peppered with Chinese accents, but bound together with eastern tinged ligatures…it’s a serpentine meandering from soft and wavy to frisky and playful. It’s an adventure in some far-away land, taking you through multicolored, imaginary landscapes where you’re first lost in reflective, rainy day musings, before finding yourself suddenly whirling through an Asian marketplace.

“FM,” “Time Out of Mind” and “Kid Charlemagne” were standouts, as was the lesser known “Green Earrings,” which walks the edge between prog-tinged rock and jazz funk. Delivered impeccably, and supporting its narrative of stealing, it captures both the deviousness and the thrill of the act, with its driving, supercharged rhythm. Punctuated with Thelonious-like, off-time beats, then caressed by a creamy guitar solo. Together, suggesting the twisted satisfaction of a deed accomplished…as the lyrics say: “Sorry, angel I must take what I see.”

A fair lot of Fagan’s and Becker’s lyrics capture the tales of eccentrics and misfits—this has been duly noted elsewhere. But an equally interesting study is the mood that Steely Dan creates, through their varied and complex, but polished compositions …a conflictive kind of liberation, in spite of their characters’ woes, losses and lack of resolution; a delicious surrender, alongside the weariness. Melodies that are at once wistful and swollen with nostalgia, but warm and sensual, as their wu major chord effortlessly glides into that magical, and oh, so recognizable, Steely Dan dreamland.

Fagan and Co. rolled through a handful of radio favorites, like the playful pop riff of Peg, played mighty nicely, albeit sans Michael McDonald, whose warm backup vocals give the song its characteristic feel and depth of color, in the studio version. The paradoxically bright toned Black Cow—considering the subject matter of a dissolving relationship—was a highlight. Its layers of glossy textures and flirtatious saxophone, intermingling with Fagan’s keys, like glazing tones in a watercolor, seamlessly blending and playing with one another.

Finishing the night was an encore that included “Reeling in the Years” and an instrumental.

Ten Years After

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Alvin Lee—

It was 1969. The new GTO, the Chevelle SS and the Camaro had all arrived. They could shoot to 60 mph in seconds. It was also the year of Woodstock…where Alvin Lee did just that—he thrust into full power, the minute he took the stage, with his eminent rendering of “I’m Going Home.” It wasn’t just a performance…it was an event, an experience. Perhaps unbeknownst to all who were there, it was the making of rock history.

Lee’s performance has been called “an intense nod to vintage blues.” That it was. But that’s like calling the GTO just “a cool car.” It’s been said “he tore it up.” He did tear it up. But that would be like saying the Chevelle SS was “cute” and “speedy.” An understatement, to be sure. This was a drag-strip, turbo-charged, never-to-be-forgotten, monster of a performance.

Alvin Lee took the stage and shredded everything that came before him…all the while, maintaining a keen attention to detail with an impeccable elegance. Lee’s performance that night was tasty to the point of decadence. It was dirty, it was mean, it was fast, it was sexy. It was euphoric.

So, yeah, “he tore it up.” He flogged his Gibson into submission, along with the peace sign decal, and the pretty little flower sticker. And in this virtuoso of a performance—all in an homage to American blues rock—he included a rocket launch of a guitar solo, executed with unshakeable, bad ass attitude.

Paul Evens, of Rolling Stone, saw it then, when he said this about Lee’s performance: “Charisma and blind speed made guitarist Alvin Lee a standout at Woodstock”

 

Hall of Fame—

It has been duly noted that “their performance quadrupled their fan base.” So, How can it be that Ten Years After have not been inducted into the Hall of Fame? The Jets made the Hall of Fame. Joe Namath, one icon, made it to the Hall of Fame from one performance. Alvin Lee arguably had a better performance. And yet, he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Who’s asleep at the wheel? Come on, Hall of Fame induction committee…wake up!

1969

1969—

It was 1969. Woodstock revolutionized the way we experience music. Against a backdrop of unrest and widespread disillusionment with the government and its war that frivolously took so many young lives, it was yet a year that nonetheless gave back. Consider some of the other boons and bonanza events that would change our culture in unexpected ways, from the world of sports to spirituality…all in one magical year.

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Joe Namath won the first Super Bowl for the Jets, as a mighty underdog…The Mets, the Jets, and the Knickerbockers. New york hit a trifecta. All of them earned winning titles. In New York, it changed football forever. It was a defining moment, just like Woodstock.

Opening the Woodstock festival itself, Sri Swami Satchidananda—fresh from Indian soil—addressed a crowd of about half a million people…extolling the virtues and power of music to bring peace to a war-torn world:

through the music, we can work wonders. Music is a celestial sound and it is the sound that controls the whole universe, not atomic vibrations. Sound energy, sound power, is much, much greater than any other power in this world. Even in the war-field, to make the tender heart an animal, sound is used. 

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Artist Peter Max invited the Yogi over, feeling that America was ready for a new way of thinking. And on the the west coast, Yogi Bhajan—himself, newly arrived from India, gave his first talk on American soil. Indeed, America was ready for Indian mysticism.

It was a pivotal and historic year. The country was changing.