It’s a fresh spring evening in Manchester and the sky is wide open above us when Prog ducks into the railway-arch that houses Gorilla – an opportune moment, then, to sample the sunnier solo acoustic works of Yes’ venerable guitarist.
Gorilla is, obviously, achingly hip. Chalkboards, gourmet junk food and colourful craft beers abound, while somewhat unnerved Yes fans collectively reassure each other that this is indeed the place. Prog is with you brothers and sisters… But we’re also hungry, so we cross the battle lines and order posh chips with truffle oil, hoping the betrayal will go unnoticed.
Anticipation hangs in the air and from the moment Howe takes to stage to loud applause and opens with pensive fingerpicker In The Course Of The Day, it becomes clear that the Yes man would have to drop boulders on their kids before this crowd would turn against him.
The sound of his abrasive electro-acoustic initially grates, particularly in this hushed setting, but when Howe changes to a softer-sounding nylon-strung guitar for a hypnotic run that includes The Little Galliard, Classical Gas and Mood For A Day, the audience collectively goosebumps.
“This is a song about having too much fun,” he reveals before Over Your Shoulder, one of the night’s sung numbers. “You’re meant to throw TVs out the window, but I didn’t want to hurt anybody on the street!”
Frankly, he’s no great shakes in the vocal stakes, but in a set with more jaunty rags than a vintage clothes shop, the variety is appreciated. Sojourns into electric and – that Yes staple – 12-string Portuguese guitar territory have a similar effect.
“These are four Yes songs,” Howe states, heading into his closing medley. “Abbreviated. We’d be here an hour, otherwise…”
The full treatment would certainly be welcome here, but instead we get an energetic melding of Hour Of Need, Wonderous Stories, Nine Voices (Long Walker) and Your Move. It’s received gladly, despite the sparse delivery, and the more dedicated audience members bow in the aisles as Howe walks off.
Encore enforced, Howe returns promptly and, like many 70s rock gods before him, leaves a dose of The Clap as a parting gift. He’s a whirl of elbows and angles throughout this signature tune; spider fingers fly and he shoots endearing looks of surprise at moments of particular derring-do. His capacity for remembering – let alone executing – these lofty compositions is phenomenal, and especially bold in this solo environment.
It is, of course, hugely self-indulgent, but Howe leaves an audience of believers in no doubt that he’s still devoted to his muse. And besides, we reflect, heading out, Prog can’t talk – we can still taste the truffle oil.