Yestival at Microsoft Theater, Los Angeles - live review

Steve Howe et al revisit Yes' early years at 2017's Yestival with special guests Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy and Todd Rundgren

Steve Howe and Jon Davison from Yes mid song at Yestival in LA
(Image: © Stephanie Cabral)

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A seated venue with air conditioning is a welcome treat after a long, hot summer’s day. This is Yestival, and we’re all here to see Steve Howe et al revisit the early, incredibly prolific period in the band’s history by chronologically playing one track from each studio album from 1969’s Yes through to 1980’s Drama.

Before that, however, are two more staunch heavyweights of that era: Carl Palmer, helping to pay homage to his lost bandmates’ history, and Todd Rundgren, who is ostensibly promoting his 27th studio album White Night, but in reality offers much, much more than that.

Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy are up first. Resplendent in a pink floral shirt, Palmer takes his seat behind his drum kit. Flanked by Paul Bielatowicz on guitar and Simon Fitzpatrick on bass, the trio play a power half hour of ELP’s classic compositions in front of a psychedelic display on the screens behind them. As soon as they start with Hoedown and Karn Evil 9, bottoms rise from seats to dance along.

They’re joined onstage by a special guest for Lucky Man, as Todd Rundgren, wearing a technicolour blazer, steps up and stomps around to sing on ELP’s first US hit. Palmer takes a moment to descend from behind his kit before Fanfare For The Common Man to thank the audience and tease future tours. He takes another few moments during that final song to fit in a drum solo, of course, but that just ensures he keeps the ELP legacy intact.

Rundgren returns after a 30-minute break for his own set in much more restrained attire. His band walk out before him, setting the tone in black suits and sunglasses, but it’s the only thing about this set that’s monochrome.

Starting with the rousing, synth-laden Come, Rundgren demands the crowd follow him and the strobe spotlight that steps as he steps, and they duly obey. Then the 80s Europop vibes of Truth flow through the air with strobe lights and power, making the venue feel like a Russian nightclub, with us commoners taking the place of the mob in the VIP section.

Rundgren is a captivating presence as he dances along with the backing singers, feeling, directing and pushing the music forward. He even has a costume change mid-set, sporting a bronze paisley vest for the second half. The quality of White Knight when it was released earlier this year made many realise how relevant Todd Rundgren still is, but it’s performances like tonight that will make sure you’ll never doubt it.

This tour seems a slightly odd retrospective, as no members of the current incarnation of Yes were involved in the creation of tonight’s opening track. But as ever on a Yes tour, with players like this, it’s no problem. Once they walk on to the customary fanfare and light show, they kick the evening off wonderfully with Survival. Billy Sherwood, having moved over to bass, buzzes right through Geoff Downes’ majestic organ keys while Steve Howe quickly pivots between guitars.

They appear practised and together. Howe, in particular, is absolutely tuned in: he even ushers roadies off the stage as they attempt to help perfect the setup around him. There are to be no distractions tonight.

Jon Davison, a relative local having grown up a bit south of LA in Laguna Beach, also dials it in firmly tonight, delivering his lines with calm passion. As you hear him uncannily near‑mimic Jon Anderson’s distinctive voice, Davison is probably the best vocalist that Yes could have right now.

Along with Howe’s son Dylan, who’s joined the band as second drummer on this tour, Davison adds some (relatively) youthful exuberance to proceedings. With his leather trousers and enthusiastic Californian drawl emerging between songs, he’s a keen and necessary focal point for the band. Machine Messiah is testament to this, as Howe Jnr adds vibrancy to Alan White’s drums, while Davison locks in to Sherwood’s vocals to give the song the sheen it deserves.

Emerging for an encore with a second acoustic showcase for Steve Howe on Madrigal, with Davison accompanying him, and then finishing proceedings with the classic Roundabout for folk to sing and dance along with, is a nice touch. But the final word from the guitarist comes as the screens either side of the stage display graphics for ‘Yes 50’.

If you weren’t looking forward to 2018 already, that’s your ticket. Who knows who they’ll be bringing with them next time.