Yes: The 2024 line-up do their 70s material justice

Yes live
Yes live - Mike Ainscoe

For decades now, prog pioneers Yes have really needed a question mark to dampen their affirmative name. Having gone through so many members, incarnations, reunions, splits, mergers and eben pacts with the Buggles in their 56 years, it has often been difficult to judge how authentic a Yes experience you’re getting at any given time. For several years in the 2010s, for instance, two rival line-ups of this 30-million-selling ’70s behemoth were touring under the Yes name, until the more definitive of the pair – featuring original singer Jon Anderson and caped keyboard warlock Rick Wakeman – disbanded in 2018.

The five-piece 2024 Yes that paraded onto the Cliffs Pavilion stage on Wednesday night to classical fanfares and struck up the austere opening march of 1980’s Machine Messiah were instead something of a one-man band. For all that Jon Davison, official Yes singer since 2012, emulated Anderson’s impish falsetto (if not quite his charisma and commitment; there has surely never been a weaker tambourine-waggler in all of prog) and appeared to be able to summon an entire heavenly host from his gullet at will, all eyes were on the grey-haired guitarist prowling around stage right like a startled headmaster. This was 77-year-old Steve Howe, the only survivor from the prime 70s period being celebrated on their current Classic Tales of Yes tour – right down to an exhibition of sleeve artist Roger Dean’s fantasy worlds in the foyer – and arguably the keeper of their legacy’s brightest-burning flame.

In the post-punk years, Yes, considered the epitome of prog pretension, were roundly mocked for their medieval interludes, indulgent keyboard workouts and song cycles so sprawling that Wakeman could literally order and eat a curry between parts. But in Howe’s intricate virtuoso guitar work could be heard the roots of today’s many and varied explorations in prog metal and math rock. South London acts as cool as Black Midi owe him a stylistic debt.

He’s still nimble and precise after all these years. During Machine Messiah’s 10-minute tumble through Valhalla, he veered easily between courtly frippery, woodland folk rock and imposing semi-metal solos. He’d add slick slide guitar to the acid honky-tonk bits of Going For the One, switch between jazz guitar and lyre for pastoral stomper I’ve Seen All Good People and take to a second guitar on a stand for the more Arthurian segments of Turn of the Century. Best of all were his classical flamenco pieces, teasing Andalusian magic and dust from his acoustic and angrily flapping his arpeggio hand at any fans filming him without missing a pluck.

Inevitably, given the shortage of peak-era members, the sense of a regional covers band hung over proceedings, but the band did the material justice, neatly excavating the euphoric melodies buried along these tangled journeys. Don’t Kill the Whale – one of the earliest environmentalist songs, from 1978 – was suitably stormy; fan favourite Roundabout a glam stampede; Starship Trooper a cloud-busting finale. They even managed to edit 1973’s 80-minute prog monolith Tales from Topographic Oceans into a 20-minute medley that you could almost call punchy, ricocheting from mystical folk ballad to prog conga party. Yes? Close enough.

Touring until June 4;