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Cruise to the Edge 2017: Yes Revamp ‘Drama,’ Honor John Wetton

Glenn Gottlieb
Photo credit: Glenn Gottlieb

A sobering truth: The version of Yes aboard this year’s Cruise to the Edge looked more like Steve Howe‘s Archival All-Stars than the revered band that redefined prog-rock in the ’70s. During their first headlining set of the floating fest, three songs into their full-album rundown of 1980’s Drama, Alan White was replaced onstage by understudy Jay Schellen, who is on-hand as the drummer recovers from back surgery. Already without founding bassist Chris Squire (who died from leukemia in 2015) and founding frontman Jon Anderson (who exited the band in 2008), the line-up teetered even closer to tribute band territory.

But here’s a more shocking truth: The version of Yes aboard this year’s Cruise to the Edge sounded sharper and more engaged than they have in a decade. Opening their first theater set with the eerie, metallic strains of “Machine Messiah,” the band appeared reinvigorated in every sense: Howe, never exactly known for his stage sweetness, laughed with delight at Billy Sherwood’s intricate bass work and exchanged warm smiles with vocalist Jon Davison. After hurtling through the propulsive New Wave atmosphere of Drama, they simmered into the abstract soundscapes of their most divisive LP, 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans – and both of these disparate halves felt fresh.

During their second set, the band deviated from their own catalog for an especially poignant moment – paying tribute to late John Wetton, the prog icon and bass guitar master who spent many years alongside Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes in Asia. In the encore, the quintet performed that band’s signature 1982 hit “Heat of the Moment” – honoring the iconic frontman, who died from colon cancer in January. (The former King Crimson member was previously scheduled to perform on the cruise before his health declined.)

Like Squire’s did in 2015, Wetton’s spirit seemed to hover throughout the cruise. During Yes’ intimate Q&A session, Howe reflected on their “very special” performance of “Heat of the Moment”; earlier in the week. Stick Men – featuring King Crimson bassist Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto – kicked off their blaring, jaw-dropping poolside set with Crim classic “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two” in memory of Wetton, and Levin followed by praising his “unique and powerful bass parts.” An emotional Steve Hackett closed the first of his two eclectic shows with the Genesis classic “Afterglow.” (Just before, he spoke directly to his late collaborator: “I’ll always love you, man.”)

Like the previous cruises, this year’s blended vintage prog (Kansas, Curved Air) with a diverse crop of newer talent (Sweden’s symphonic-styled Änglagård, metal-leaning show-stealers Haken). Unsurprisingly, the headliners consistently brought the thunder: Hackett, once again veering between solo material and ’70s Genesis cuts, dug out the deepest of cuts – from the underrated Spot the Pigeon rarity “Inside and Out” to jazz-fusion Wind & Wuthering instrumental “In That Quiet Earth.” And Kansas brought boisterous energy with their career-spanning set, which ran the gamut from prog epics (“Miracles Out of Nowhere”) to pummeling, heavy cuts from last year’s The Prelude Implicit.

The sleeper? Dutch quartet Focus, still led by singer/flautist/keyboardist/court jester Thijs van Leer. Throughout their thrilling sets, highlighted by classics like “Eruption” and “Sylvia,” van Leer seamlessly segued from jazzy flute solos to funky Hammond organ riffs to the iconic yodeling on “Hocus Pocus.”

As usual, Cruise to the Edge was euphorically absurd: One minute, you’re in a bar, guzzling cocktails and watching bearded dudes unleash ass-blistering, finger-tapped riffs; the next, you’re unsuccessfully trying to yodel in a hot tub. Where else on the planet does this happen? With Yes firing at such a high level, it’s easy to imagine such a wild high-seas voyage in 2025.

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Next: Top 10 Yes Songs of the '70s

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