There's probably no band which better exemplifies 1970s progressive rock than Yes. Sure, you can make arguments for, and you may personally prefer, such outfits as Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Pink Floyd, but the fact is Yes took hold of the public's imagination as no other concurrent band did, and regularly stretched the boundaries of what people, and even ardent fans, thought a rock band could achieve. While the band has gone through many iterations with various personnel and seen its chart fortunes ebb and flow, its contribution to rock and pop music in inestimable, an incredible kaleidoscope of instrumental virtuosity heretofore unknown in the rock world matched with gorgeous pop hooks, psychedelic lyrics and the resplendent tenor of lead vocalist Jon Anderson.
Yesspeak Live: The Director's Cut is an extended mélange, spread over two discs, of concert footage blended with band reminiscences. Most of the concert footage comes from a 2003 Birmingham concert, which is augmented on the second disc by an outdoor performance at Glastonbury, where a lot of the same setlist from the first concert is repeated. The concerts are notable because they reunite several members of the best remembered "classic" lineup of Yes: Anderson on vocals, percussion and occasional guitar, Chris Squire on bass and vocals, Steve Howe on guitar and vocals, Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Alan White on drums and percussion. The guys are obviously having a lot of fun playing together, though one is immediately kind of taken aback to see 70s rock heroes looking so, well, old.
The good news is the band plays as well as it ever did, with thundering dynamism and the finesse in time signature changes, tempi and dynamics that have always been Yes' hallmark. If there isn't quite the multitracked wonder, making such stalwarts as "Roundabout" sound a little light on the bottom end, there is such assured mastery on display that you probably won't care very much. While virtually all of the concert is live, without prerecorded augmentation, I'm virtually certain that prerecorded backups were used on the two different performances of "And You and I," unless Jon Anderson has mastered the art of Tibetan voice splitting, able to sing several notes at once (I wouldn't put it past him, frankly).
Sadly, much like the Jethro Tull at Montreux Blu-Ray I recently reviewed, where this DVD falls short is in the vocal department. While Anderson certainly sounds more in control than a tired Ian Anderson does on the Tull disc, the fact is he's not quite up (literally) to those sonic high notes for which he is so well known. He also has a bad habit of bobbing around the microphone, making balance an issue. But the really bad news, unfortunately, is the pretty ragged backups by Squire and Howe, which are cringe worthy at times. Now, it's no secret that a lot of the magic of Yes' choral brilliance was achieved through overdubbing in the studio, but it's still kind of shocking to hear some of the weak entrances and shoddy timbres on display here.
Musically, that's about the only thing to complain about on this DVD. Your tolerance for breaking away from the music to hear the guys wax nostalgic on how they met, and how, for example, Patrick Moraz is very nice but no Rick Wakeman, may depend more on your love for this particular lineup of Yes than anything else. The guys are obviously very happy to be playing together, and their trips down memory lane are certainly historically important, I'm just not sure how well it works for those who are going to come to this DVD for the music. And though the band does some of its more current tunes, like "Magnification," I couldn't help but wish they had revisited some of their mid-80s hits like "Owner of a Lonely Heart." Yes, that was a different Yes, but it would have been great to have seen this lineup go into the material that frankly gave the band a second lease on life and paved the way, quite frankly, for these guys to be able to play together again and actually have an audience. There is a kind of funny irony on display at the Glastonbury concert--one of the audience members is holding a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon flag-pennant so high that it blocks the main camera view of the stage. "Heathens," I imagine Jon Anderson muttering under his breath.
If you can look (and listen) past these relatively minor qualms, there's some fantastic music here, as might be expected, and it is truly wonderful to see this iconic lineup performing together. It's also fun to see the many instruments they bring to bear to their music, from Squire's three-necked combo bass/guitar, to some of Wakeman's vintage synths, like a Minimoog. While it may be a bit retro for some, it's a fitting display that the timelessness of a lot of Yes' music isn't just an aural hallucination from the 1970s. A lot of it sounds as vital and exciting today as it did 30 years ago.