On new tour, Jon Anderson celebrates Yes music, with a teenage vibe in tow
At 77, the singer and songwriter maintains a youthful spirit and continues to keep the flame for Yes music alive while creating new work of his own.
The heady progressive rock sound of Yes has challenged the status quo of popular music and fascinated generations of fans since the arrival of debut album “Yes” in 1969.
The English band’s fifth album, 1972’s “Close to the Edge,” is a particular highlight featuring classically inspired, virtuosic playing coupled with irresistible melodies and Jon Anderson’s mystical lyricism.
Yes has seen a shifting lineup over its 54 years, but its best known material including “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” has been sung by Anderson. At 77, the singer and songwriter maintains a youthful spirit and continues to keep the flame for Yes music alive while creating new work of his own.
This summer, Anderson underscores the multigenerational appeal of Yes by touring with a 25-piece band of gifted players aged 14 to 18 from School of Rock developer Paul Green’s Rock Academy. Anderson first encountered School of Rock participants in 2005, after meeting Green at a Yes concert in Philadelphia. Anderson declined Green’s initial invitation to work with the students.
“He sent me a cassette two weeks later of the kids playing ‘Heart of the Sunrise,’ which is not an easy piece of music,” says Anderson. “I called Paul and said, ‘I didn’t realize how amazing these kids are.’ We got together and started rehearsing with them, talking about stage presence and things like that. Then we did some shows that year.”
The group will visit the Des Plaines Theatre and the Arcada Theatre this month to perform “Close to the Edge” in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary. Although perpetually focused on future projects, Anderson relishes the chance to honor such a milestone.
“It’s just something you can’t believe when you look back and think it’s 50 years ago that we actually did ‘Close to the Edge,’” says Anderson. “It still sounds great to me. The audiences love it, and the kids love it, which is fantastic.”
Anderson is energized by his touring ensemble.
“People are really going to be blown away,” says the singer. “When I’m with them, I feel like I’m a young kid as well — until we take a selfie and I say, ‘Who’s that old guy?’ And it’s me!” [Laughs]
The upcoming performances include material from the Yes catalog, Anderson’s solo work, and clever mashups.
“I said to the kids, let’s do Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir,’ and then we can go into something like ‘Long Distance Runaround,’” he says. “We’ll do a Lenny Kravitz song that I love, ‘Fly Away,’ then go into another Yes song. We have a guy who does a great version of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” I feel like I’m in the band for that one; I play guitar and just watch this guy sing it. That goes straight into [the 1981 Jon and Vangelis song] ‘State of Independence.’”
Themes on “Close to the Edge” continue to resonate, five decades later.
“The lyrics sort of ring out better for now, 50 years later,” says Anderson.
The title track, with its repeated lyric “I get up, I get down” and fan favorite “And You and I,” were influenced by Herman Hesse’s Hindu/Buddhist novel “Siddhartha.”
“It’s definitely about finding harmony within yourself,” says Anderson of the track. “It was always about being close to the edge of realization, but I never wanted to use that word. In my mind, it was the realization of why you’re here, why you live. Sometimes I’m very up and sometimes I’m very down about life. ‘And You and I’ is more to do with that fact that you and I are all the same.”
Yes’ 2015 “Progeny” collection captured concert audio from the original “Close to the Edge” tour. During one performance, Anderson reveals that Yes originally referred to the title track as “The Protest Song.” He talks about the difficulty in reaching those in charge with messages from everyday people. Anderson suggests dreaming a better future into existence for the children of 1972, who turn 50 this year.
“The more I let go of the frustration of the world that we see on CNN every five minutes, the better,” says Anderson. “The nature of the world is more important to me. Our collective mission in life is to be the gardeners of the earth, to be the true coordination of life and love and peace — everything the Beatles said. I was just listening to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’ What an incredible lyric. It works now more than ever.”