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Yes is not a band that says no to challenges

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 7:51 p.m.
Rob Shanahan

The first time Yes drummer Alan White had to play songs from the 1973 album “Close to the Edge,” it was under less-than-ideal circumstances.

He was replacing Bill Bruford, who had recorded the album, and he had all of three days to learn the songs from that album, as well as other material Yes planned for its tour behind “Close to the Edge,.”

“It was pure insanity,” White recalled in a recent phone interview. “You wake up quite a lot, all day eating and sleeping Yes music. And I didn't really have any hands-on rehearsal with the band. I think we did play together for an hour once, and then the equipment had to leave or something. So, for me, it was like jumping into the deep end. All of a sudden I was in front of 10,000 people in Dallas all screaming their heads off and I had to play everything right.

“The first show, actually, I got pretty much everything right, and the band was kind of relieved because everybody was kind of worried about it,” he said. “And then the second, third and fourth shows, I made a few more mistakes, but, by about the fourth or fifth show, I was kind of getting everything down.”

White has played the songs from “Close to the Edge,” countless times since then, as he has remained the drummer in Yes for vast majority of the past 40 years.

This year, he'll again play that entire concept album — plus two other key albums from the Yes catalog, “The Yes Album” and “Going for the One” — as the current edition of the band plays all three in their entirety on a summer tour. The band plays shows Aug. 4 and 5 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall.

The band, which also includes guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Geoff Downes and singer Jon Davison, arrived at playing the trio of albums with little debate, White said.

“These seem to be pretty easy choices for everybody in the band,” he said. “These are the three that would go together best. So, let's go with this.”

Although Yes enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 1980s with the multi-platinum albums “90125” and “Big Generator,” the string of six albums that began with “The Yes Album” in 1971 and culminated with “Going for the One” in 1976 is considered the band's artistic peak as the group established its adventurous, yet accessible, brand of progressive rock.

One thing that helped White in joining a band on the level of Yes was he was already used to being on the big stage.

Over the three preceding years he had played and recorded with John Lennon (he was part of the Plastic Ono Band when it recorded the concert album “Live Peace in Toronto”) George Harrison (he appears on the classic “All Things Must Pass” album), and recorded and toured with Ginger Baker's Air Force, the band led by the former drummer of Cream.

“Working with John, he was like, he was older than me, obviously, and he kind of took me under his wing,” White said of his time with Lennon. “I was like his ‘Little Drummer Boy' kind of thing. He always was just saying ‘Alan, whatever you're doing, keep doing it' and never really told me what to play. He said ‘That's great. Just keep it like that.' And the same with George. George was a little bit more (about) making sure everything was in the right place, but in general very easy to get along with and play with and work with.”

The band, with numerous personnel changes, has kept recording and touring on a regular basis since the 1970s. The most recent album was 2011's “Fly From Here.”

Although today's Yes includes two members — Davison and Downes — who weren't in the band when “The Yes Album,” “Closer To The Edge” and “Going for the One” were recorded, White said this edition of the band does a solid job of playing those albums.

“Because Jon has been an avid fan of the band for years, even before he was involved, he pretty much had a great idea of how everything should sound in the era it was in,” White said. “And he's got a great ear for that kind of stuff and makes sure he does exactly the right thing. He doesn't try to change things too much. And of course, there's Geoff Downes. It's safe to say there are a few keyboard sounds there that are actually more modern-sounding, but at the same time, the sound of the band remains pretty much the same, but obviously a modern version of it.”

Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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