Yes & Toto at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center

Yes & Toto
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Newark, N.J.

By Howard Whitman

Set lists:

Running Out of Time | I’ll Supply the Love | Hydra | Never Enough | Hold the Line | Georgy Peorgy | David Paich Keyboard Solo | Great Expectations | Pamela | Without Your Love |Steve Lukather Guitar Solo—Little Wing/|On the Run/Goodbye Elenore/Orphan | Rosanna | Africa

Onward (Chris Squire Tribute) | Firebird Suite (Intro) | Don’t Kill the Whale |Tempus Fugit | America |Going for the One | Time and a Word | Clap | I’ve Seen All Good People | Siberian Khatru | Owner of a Lonely Heart |Roundabout

Encore: Starship Trooper

It was hardly earthshaking news when the Yes/Toto Summer 2015 tour was announced in April of this year.

Sure, it was a cool (and a little surprising) amalgamation of two classic rock institutions, both operating with stable lineups and an arsenal of familiar tunes.

But ultimately, it was another double-bill tour. A great show for one ticket, but historic? Nah.

That is, until Yes founding bassist announced that he was ill and for the first time ever, he would be sitting out a Yes tour. This tour. In his place—filling in until he recovered—would be longtime Yes/Squire associate (and onetime band member) Billy Sherwood.

Sadly, we all know what happened next. Chris Squire died of acute erythroid leukemia on June 27, 2015, and any hopes that he would return to Yes died with him.

The impending tour with Toto suddenly took on huge proportions. Questions were raised: Would Yes carry on? Would this be the final Yes tour? Was Sherwood now a permanent member of the band?

We soon got our answers: Yes. No. Yes.

To coin a phrase, the show must go on, and it would. Drummer Alan White did an interview stating that Yes would continue—that Squire wanted the band to continue. Certainly remarks Squire made in a recent interview about him wanting Yes to still be going for many decades to come—sort of like an orchestra with a changing roster of musicians playing a set repertoire—backed up what White was saying.

But questions remained: A Yes without Chris Squire? Could that fly? What would it be like?

We got some answers to those questions in August when the Yes/Toto tour kicked off as planned.

I had the good fortune to be there for the second show of the tour on Aug. 8—the second-ever Yes show without Chris Squire. And while he wasn't there, his spirit certainly was, and his presence was felt throughout.

We'll get to that, but of course, we have to discuss the first half of the show, which featured Toto.

As this was a co-headlining show, each band was given equal time for their set—in this case, 90 minutes each for Yes and Toto.

And while this is an equal-billing tour, Toto is opening each concert.

That’s one hell of an opening act. Toto has long held the reputation as a world-class live band, and deservedly so. Composed of the cream of the crop of 1970s L.A. studio musicians, Toto (reportedly named not for Dorothy's dog in The Wizard of Oz, but rather after the term “in toto,” Latin for “all-encompassing”) is a band of stellar, immaculate players, and they live up to their reputation.

This was my first time seeing Toto live, but I've reviewed their concert Blu-rays in the past, and the band certainly didn't disappoint in person.

Toto—featuring original members Steve Lukather (guitar/vocals), David Paich (keyboards/vocals), Steve Porcaro (keyboards), David Hungate (bass), along with lead singer Joseph Williams, who was in the band from 1986 to 1988 and rejoined in 2010—was in exceptionally fine form. There was great musicianship all around, and the players augmenting the band on this tour, including Shannon Forrest (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion) and backup vocalists Mabvuto Carpenter and Jenny Douglas-Foote, were also top-notch. Forrest was especially tight and polished; in a role previously held by Simon Phillips and the late Jeff Porcaro, he more than held his own.

Toto’s set was a well-crafted mix of recognizable hits with some deeper tracks. Bravely, the band played three songs (including the set’s lead-off track, “Running Out of Time”) from their new CD, XIV, and it speaks to the quality of the songs that they held up extremely well alongside the older, better-known tunes.

Toto truly was exceptional this night, starting off at a high level and keeping the energy up throughout their 90 minutes onstage. If I had one (small) gripe, it was that Lukather’s guitar soloing got to be too much of a good thing by the end of their set. He is an incredible player—world-class, a shredder on the level of Dream Theater’s John Petrucci. But set within Toto’s catchy melodic rock, the guitar solos seemed like overkill at times. By the final song, an encore of “Africa,” I was relieved to realize the song had no guitar solo—that was, until “Luke” wailed away with a “bonus solo” as the song ended.

I certainly get that when you have a virtuoso in your band, you want to let him play, but sometimes too much of a good thing can just be too much.

Overall, Toto delivered an excellent set. But of course, the big news of the night was Yes, performing for only the second time in their new configuration.

There were indications from White and Howe in recent interviews that the band would pay tribute to their fallen comrade Squire on this tour, and as the Yes portion of the evening began following a half-hour intermission, Yes made good on this promise—in a very tasteful and moving way.

As the lights went down, “Onward”—a Squire-composed track from the 1978 Yes LP Tormato—was played through the PA, and as a photo retrospective of the career of Chris Squire played on the video screen above the stage, a spotlight shone on a lone bass guitar on the stage. It was the legendary instrument of a legendary player—the famed Rickenbacker that Squire played on many classic albums and tours. And there it stood, like a pet paying homage to a departed master, waiting to be played although it will never be played again.

I certainly got choked up, and I wasn't alone. Hardcore fans and first-timers alike could not help but be touched by this fitting, elegant tribute. The ghost of Chris Squire hung heavy over these proceedings, and Yes was on target in acknowledging this and paying this fitting tribute to their lost brother before moving on, literally and figuratively, to the next phase—their set.

Following their traditional entrance music (Stravinsky's “Firebird Suite”) the new Yes took the stage: Howe, White, keyboardist Geoff Downes, vocalist Jon Davison and the main focus for many in attendance, Billy Sherwood.

Of course many eyes were on Sherwood that night, if, for nothing else, to answer the big question: Could Billy Sherwood—could anyone besides Chris Squire—cut it as the bass player in Yes?

Based on what I saw that night, I can answer with a definitive YES.

Kicking off their varied, hits-laden set with another Tormato song, “Don't Kill the Whale,” Yes was back in fine form from the word go. This was certainly an indication that it wouldn't be an easy set list for Sherwood—but he was great on the song, dialing in not only the tone and timbre of Squire's effects-laden bass sound from records of this period, but also nailing the intricate bass runs that are a crucial part of the song's momentum, as so many of Squire's parts were.

Onstage, Sherwood appeared tentative, a bit passive. Second-night jitters? Focused on remembering all of the parts? Thinking of his lost friend (whom he replaced in his favorite band)? Perhaps some of each. “Don't Kill the Whale” also has a substantial Squire vocal harmony throughout, which Sherwood delivered with accuracy, even if his vocals were a little low in the mix (that improved as the night went on).

Yes certainly didn't make this show a cakewalk for Sherwood, as it was filled with challenging pieces (although there aren't many that could be called “easy” in their catalog). “Tempus Fugit,” the classic track from the band's 1980 Drama album (which featured Downes and vocalist Trevor Horn in place of Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson) was second, and again, it was very challenging from both bass and vocal perspectives, and again, Sherwood came through with flying colors.

And so it went. Along with longtime Yes concert staples such as “I've Seen All Good People” and “Going for the One,” the set included some rarely played pieces such as the band's classic cover/re-imagining of Paul Simon's “America,” as well as the sweet title track from Time and a Word. Both were like the return of welcome friends.

Was it a perfect show? To be honest, no. Sherwood, the man with many eyes upon him, hit a few bum notes and had a couple of technical glitches—such as on the opening of “Siberian Khatru” when he switched basses but realized the bass he just put on wasn't plugged in and missed the crucial opening notes.

I am NOT knocking him. Billy Sherwood did an amazing job in a very tough gig. And I have 100-percent certainty that his performances will be flawless once he gets a few more shows under his belt.

Squire—and Yes—could not have picked a better person for the job. Sherwood's a fantastic musician (check out his new solo CD, Archived, which I picked up at the show. He plays everything on it, and it's terrific), a super-nice guy, and, with his tall stature and lightened hair, he even looks a bit like Squire onstage. He can hit the Squire vocal parts (he used to double Squire's vocals when he was in the band in the mid-1990s). There is no better choice. Billy Sherwood was born for this job.

I wasn't alone in rooting for Sherwood that night. The audience members congregating by his side of the stage were a clear indication of the support he can expect from Yes fans throughout this tour. They want the band to go on, and are thankful that Squire's chosen successor is so devoted and respectful of his predecessor's legacy.

As for the rest of Yes … Howe was his usual masterful self, delivering his one-of-a-kind playing and doing some of the talking between songs. His acoustic solo piece “Clap” (not “The Clap,” that was a record label typo) was as delightful as it's always been.

Downes continues to be an able keyboardist for this band. While he may not have the charisma of Rick Wakeman, he's a master of the multiple keyboards he had on stage. He had a few “off” moments himself—the solo on “Don't Kill the Whale” was a little rough, and his keytar solo on the encore song that closed the night (the epic “Starship Trooper”) seemed out-of-tune to these ears. Again, it was the second night of what's obviously a very emotionally charged tour for the band. And with music as technically challenging as that of Yes, it's understandable if a few glitches occur as the band settles into a new set list and new dynamic.

Singer Jon Davison continues to be a revelation. I saw the band twice doing their three-album tour a few years back; he was incredibly impressive then and continues to be, hitting Jon Anderson's notes with ease, not exactly duplicating the band's founding vocalist but evoking his voice and style. Davison also captures the vibe of prime Anderson—I've interviewed him and he's a true believer in the mystical and spiritual nature of this music, folks.

I've heard some Yes fans say they'll never see the band without Jon Anderson. Their loss. Davison's terrific, and comes off as kind and sincere. When he led the crowd in chants of “We miss you Chris Squire!” and, later, “Welcome Billy Sherwood!,” it didn't seemed planned or rehearsed, but genuine and from the heart. And again, his singing is great, and he is one of the main reasons this band can deliver an authentic Yes performance in 2015, even without Chris Squire.

Alan White—who has been the focus of some criticism for slowed-down tempos from online haters—was in great form at this show. Wearing a black hat (presumably in tribute to his longtime rhythm-section partner), White attacked the skins with feisty energy throughout the show. Tempos were perky, cues were spot-on, and he truly drove the band as any good drummer should do. This was a fine showing for White in what surely was a difficult night.

The band is playing on, for the fans, for the legacy, and for Chris Squire. And they're doing it with great style, and a lot of love.  I can think of no greater tribute to their friend and bandmate.

This Yes is, for obvious reasons, a different one than the version that's become a seasoned touring unit in recent years. But on Aug. 8 at the NJPAC in Newark, N.J. (which, by the way, is a spectacular venue with great acoustics, comfortable seating and perfect sight-lines) Yes gave every indication that it will carry on ably into the future.

The pairing of Yes and Toto was certainly a musical delight, as the evening was filled with superb players. I'd strongly recommend you check out this show if it comes to your town, not just to see some amazing musicians practicing their trade, but also to catch a classic band at a pivotal, historic moment as they move onward.