YEStival: Yes, Todd Rundgren, and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy Grand Theater at Foxwoods, Mashantucket, CT August 10, 2017
Story and photos by Kelly D
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The term “progressive rock” is rather nebulous when you stop and think about it. Are there certain criteria, put out by Rolling Stone or some other revered organization, a band or artist must meet in order to be considered prog? Is there a secret club, complete with handshake, only a few groups know about to truly be able to stand alongside bands like Rush, King Crimson, and Genesis? This was the head-scratcher I pondered the evening I saw the Foxwoods stop of the YEStival. Certainly Yes and Carl Palmer, drummer for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, qualified. Using the famous Supreme Court judge ruling on pornography, “I know it when I see it,” I’m still quite a bit unsure about the inclusion of ’70s crooner Rundgren for reasons I’ll soon explain. . . cuz uh, I saw nothing proggy about Rundgren’s performance.
Indeed, the whole concept of YEStival is odd- it’s a “festival” taking place over the course of three and a half hours and somehow cramming in three acts. This seems to defy the very nature of progressive rock: to transcend the standard 4/4 time signatures, to eschew the banal lyrics of partying and romance so common in other genres, and to go beyond the radio-friendly three-minute song length. Nevertheless, I never pass up a chance to see Carl Palmer and Steve Howe, particularly after the recent deaths of their respective bandmates in Asia, ELP, and Yes (Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Chris Squire, and John Wetton all shuffled off their mortal coils within the last two years and the heartache this prog fan feels is ineffable).
I’ll just come right out and say it: Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy‘s set was way too short. It didn’t help that we missed most of his performance! First of all, my companion and I got lost within Foxwoods due to the casino’s lack of signage, complete with a trip to the wrong theater in an entirely different building. It was difficult not to break into a full-on sprint in the right direction once we realized our error. We finally arrived and got settled in our seats, only to see the end of Palmer’s bombastic drum solo and the trio’s finale of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” an Aaron Copland composition given new life by ELP on their Works Volume I album.
I could barely take solace in the fact that I had seen them back in May in Shirley, MA. I checked my phone’s clock- it was only 7:30 PM at this point! They were only given a pithy 30-minute set? This just seemed wrong, as the ELP catalog is not particularly known for its concision. I was intrigued to see Todd Rundgren come next.
I’m familiar with a handful of his songs and know him to be somewhat of an iconoclast within the pantheon of 1970s singer-songwriter types. I will say that I was in no way prepared for his performance. Decked out in a suit and sunglasses, dyed black hair showing rakish gray roots (unintentional or not? Who knows), and flanked by two backup singer-dancers in matching costumes, Rundgren’s set was a mind-fuck of the first degree. He came out first, bathed in a spotlight. He was joined by his backup singers- I grimaced when I noticed they were dressed identically in a weird Orientalist motif: shiny black bobs, winged eyeliner, and skintight latex dresses. As they gyrated in unison to the songs “Come,” “Truth,” and “Rise,” I looked around the audience to see if there was an inside joke between the band and crowd that my friend and I didn’t understand. It seemed as if the spectacle onstage played without a hint of irony. It was in fact Todd Rundgren throwing his arms in the air, synchronizing his dance moves with his backup dancers, and singing while pulsing synthesizers bumped behind him.
The rest of the set continued as such, with Rundgren occasionally slinging on a guitar and wailing out a solo or two, but the cognitive dissonance of his music vs. that of Yes’ and ELP’s was so disturbing that I couldn’t settle into enjoying myself. I realize this recording chameleon recently came out with a genre-defying album (White Knight, released back in May) and was touring to promote it but I cannot for the life of me figure out why being sandwiched between prog legends in a concert lineup was anyone’s bright idea. After two costume changes by Rundgren’s ladies, some more guitar noodling, a couple of Utopia covers, and crowd singalong to “Hello, It’s Me”- arguably Rundgren’s most famous song- the band exited the stage. (My companion rightfully griped that “Hello, It’s Me” is the tune most people knew of his and that’s the time he chose to take a break from singing.) I was bummed. No “I Saw the Light”? No “Can We Still Be Friends”? Not even “Bang on the Drum All Day”?! I must admit I felt cheated.
After a lengthy stage breakdown and setup, Yes came on. Their last tour, which I saw twice in summer 2016, enticed audiences with the gimmick of performing 1980’s Drama and sides 1 and 4 of 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans in their entirety. This time around, each album of their discography from their 1969 self-titled debut up to Drama, would be represented by a single track save for the encore. Fascinating concept, and it worked well. I was pleased to realize by the end of the night I heard a bunch of Yes songs for the first time, as well as some old favorites.
The massive screens behind the band displayed the album art corresponding with each song, including the bizarre image of a headless, armless naked woman wearing high heels on a checkerboard floor during “Time and a Word.” Iconic images from revered artists Roger Dean and dearly departed Hipgnosis founder Storm Thorgerson graced the screens- the mystical underwater ziggurat of Tales from Topographic Oceans, the geometric building designs of 1976’s Going for the One (not to mention the bare man-tush), the ice caves and giant serpents of 1974’s Relayer.
The band itself was in fine form, minus a few forgivable wrong notes here and there. Honestly, this version of Yes should really be called Steve Howe & Friends ever since bassist Chris Squire died in 2015, leaving Howe the only original member of the band to still play consistently. Jon Anderson, the band’s former singer, has since formed another version of Yes (formerly called Anderson Rabin Wakeman, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) with fellow ex-members Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman. They all joined forces to accept their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in April, standing onstage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn united, but it seems the animosity between the two factions still simmered underneath the smiles seeing as the “new” version of Yes announced its name change literally the day after the induction ceremony. However, Jon Davison, the current singer of Yes, does an excellent job hitting the high notes that Anderson once sang. His youth and hippie-ish demeanor (not to mention good looks) make for a pleasant viewing experience for this totally biased journalist. . . But I digress.
The other members of the band include Geoff Downes, who joined the band in the 1980s and plays within a fortress of keyboards often with his back to the audience, Billy Sherwood, Squire’s personal pick to replace him on bass, and to my surprise, Alan White at the skins for part of the show- and Howe’s son Dylan there to pick up the slack. (White had been out of commission for most of last summer’s tour so I wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to perform this go-around.) Every man on the stage brought something crucial to the table and it was a treat to see them all enjoying each other’s company. I thought the selection of songs was refreshing; it was pretty kickass to hear the thundering wailing malaise of “South Side of the Sky” from Fragile followed by the emotive “Soon” within the epic “The Gates of Delirium” off of Relayer, and then the disco funk of “Don’t Kill the Whale” from Tormato shortly thereafter, all in one evening! Finally came time for the encore where I decided to run up and down the empty row in which my companion and I had been sitting, dancing to fan favorite “Roundabout” and then swaying to “Starship Trooper,” snapping photos all the while. By then, most everyone was on their feet and rocking out properly. Too bad it was the end of the night. . . All in all, my YEStival experience was disjointed but a lovely one nonetheless. I’ve been comparing notes with others since the tour has headed west, and I’m curious to see what others think of Todd Rundgren’s inclusion into the mix. . . have your own opinion?
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