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

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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.