Is “Topographic Drama” Yes’ Best Ever Live Recording?

Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood and Geoff Downes of Yes during the 2016 American tour that became the new live album, Topographic Drama: Yes Across America
Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood and Geoff Downes of Yes during the 2016 American tour that became the new live album, Topographic Drama: Live Across America. Photo (c) Gottlieb Bros. 2016-2017

The Topographic Drama tour across America in 2016 could have been a disaster, but instead, it was a revelation — a springboard into the next decade of Yes. But for a moment, things looked pretty iffy.

Here was a new Yes, finally ready to shake off the shock and grief of tours immediately following the passing of larger than life co-founder, Chris Squire, and ready to soar again. Billy Sherwood and Alan White were already bonded as a potent rhythm section. Jon Davison‘s powerful and crystal clear vocals had more than convinced die-hard Yes believers that he is the real deal — the new voice of Yes. Geoff Downes‘ shone on a batch of “Album Series” tours of Yes’ most challenging material and had delivered extraordinary performances across the span of the catalog. And of course, Steve Howe‘s virtuoso guitar work continued to be the beating heart of the trademarked “Classic Yes” sound, ready to propel the band into the next decade.

Oh No!

And then, another set back.

Alan White, whose unswerving presence, thunderous, stadium filling precession drumming and good nature have helped guide Yes across styles and countless lineup changes for more than forty years, was forced to sit out the tour owing to back surgery that could no longer wait.

Jay Schellen performing with Yes on the Topographic Drama Tour. Photo (c) Gottlieb Bros.
Jay Schellen performing with Yes on the Topographic Drama tour. Photo (c) Gottlieb Bros.

Enter longtime Billy Sherwood compatriot Jay Schellen.

Much as Alan himself had done in 1972, Jay needed to learn some of Yes’ most ambitious material in short order. What Jay Schellen pulled off was nothing short of astounding. Blending the power and precision of classic Alan White with the quirky jazz swing and dance of Bill Bruford’s early work with Yes, Jay Schellen helped Yes take full flight.

Billy Sherwood, flush with the confidence of recent success in filling the big man’s shoes, and bonded with and backed by Schellen on drums, bloomed into a bonafide superstar on this tour. Years of meticulous study and apprenticeship made Billy’s performance seem like second nature. Handed the torch by Yes’ “Keeper of the Flame,” Sherwood took it and ran, doing Chris proud. Everything from his stellar playing, perfectly crafted sounds and beaming stage presence continually reminded us of the best Yesshows.

Jon Davison grabbed hold of the Drama album material and made it his own, then tackled  Tales From Topographic Oceans with equal aplomb. With each passing tour, Davison’s voice and stage presence seem to grow more self assured, and again and again, he demonstrates that there is no challenge he’s not up to. His vocals shimmer with life, particularly on Drama, where the performances in 2016 eclipsed those of 1980. The 2016 tour left no doubt that Drama stands comfortably amongst Yes’ finest work.

Rick Wakeman has made no secret of his not being the world’s biggest fan of Tales From Topographic Oceans, but had he seen Geoff Downes‘ passionate renditions of these tunes across America in 2016, even Uncle Rick could not have walked away without becoming a believer. They were terrific. Downes too, has continued to impress, tour after tour. Yes fans had gotten a too-short glimpse of his abilities in the original Drama band, but he’s proven himself to be one of the great prog and prog pop rock players of all time, with tasteful sound choices, the highest caliber musicianship, and a readiness to tackle the most challenging of music from the entire Yes catalog.

And while Rick may have stepped back a bit through the recording and performances of Tales (or, famously, across to the pub), Steve Howe‘s sweeping guitars carried us across full album-side long journeys as if on wings. Guitars soared through Tales in 1973, and those same guitars brought audiences on board and into flight once again with dynamic presentations of  sides one and four: “The Revealing” and “Ritual” on tour in 2016.

To say this was Yes’ most electrifying tour in years would be an understatement (see our We’re Back post for more on that!).

But great live shows don’t always equate to great live albums.

So how does Topographic Drama: Yes Live Across America fare? First, full disclosure: we pushed very hard for a deluxe treatment for this album and we designed both the LP and CD packages. Why? Because while we’ve remained passionate Yes fans for more than 40 years, the 2016 tour stoked our fandom like nothing has since the return of ABWH and the fleeting Keys To Ascension reunion.

How Many Familiar Yes Super Fans Can You Spot in the Crowd in This Clip from the Heady KTA Days in 1996:

https://youtu.be/JCgEi0pZjjc

Yes, Yes! Alan Returns!

The tour even had the perfect happy ending, with Alan White returning to the stage for a number of shows as we took the Cruise to the Edge (highly recommended, btw).

Alan White returns to the Topographic Drama tour. Photo (c) Gottlieb Bros. 2017
Alan White returns to the Topographic Drama tour. Photo (c) Gottlieb Bros. 2017

We’ve been listening to pre-mastered tracks for some weeks now and the prognosis is very good indeed! Billy Sherwood’s mix seems just about perfect: it is crisp, with all of the great “separation” we look for in Yes recordings. The performances are top notch. Roger Dean delivered our favorite of his cover paintings in years.

Despite the very different styles of Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973) and Drama (1980), they somehow compliment one another nicely in this setting, as they did on the tour.

Yes Magazine, volume 5, number 2, featuring Jon Anderson's solo album
Yes Magazine, volume 5, number 2, featuring Jon Anderson’s solo album “Change We Must” and a very controversial editorial, entitled “Change They Must,” lamenting the departures of Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford following the Yes Union tour

Historically, we’ve not been ones to always embrace “Changes” in Yes (see Yes Magazine, “Change They Must” for but one example). So we have to admit, it is a bit confounding to be sitting here, writing about an extra stoked enthusiasm for a new Yes without either founding member, with younger American musicians filling their spots! But man do they sound good! This is real Yes, performed with a passion, an energy, and all of positivity that brought us to Yes in the first place.

So is this the “best Yes live recording ever?” Time will tell. We’ll see how it holds up against gems like Yessongs and Yesshows. But right now, a live Yes album, 50 years into the band’s career, is on constant repeat in our homes. And that’s saying something.

Topographic Drama: Yes Across America Was Released Today!

What do you think of the recording? The performances? That tour? Let us know in the comments below. We feel so lucky to have this band out there, playing the music we love.

Please share this with the Yes fans in your life!

Best,

Doug  & Glenn

PS: For more talk about this great new release, we recommend checking out the always excellent Yes Music Podcast, particularly this episode:

https://yesmusicpodcast.com/geoff-downes-on-yes50-and-topographic-drama-305/

And join the conversation at Yesfans.com

http://www.yesfans.com/showthread.php?84864-Topographic-Drama&p=2783053#post2783053

And Don’t Miss the Steve Howe Interviews on YouTube and Yesworld:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAAexuaXdwGc2BLPHn9I3veBKhQoYf_vd

Yes Topographic Drama: Live Across America, with cover art and logos by Roger Dean and package design and photography by Gottlieb Bros.A mockup of the 3 LP set and accompanying 8 page booklet for YES: Topographic Drama

6 thoughts on “Is “Topographic Drama” Yes’ Best Ever Live Recording?

  1. The new album does sound fantastic, much better than the 2 “Like It Is” live albums. And major kudos to you, Glenn & Doug, for the design & photography of the cd and vinyl sets. They both look great, especially the book design layout of the vinyl, which I know is Roger’s preference for multi-disc sets.

  2. I’ve enjoyed In The Present and Like It Is very much, especially the video versions, and saw Yes for the third time (after QPR and ABWH) on the Fragile Drama tour, and I hope there will be more DVDs in future. It’s definitely my preferred way to experience a live album. Having said that, the clips I’ve heard from Topographic Drama are superbly mixed, I think Billy’s best ever production. A huge sigh of relief that Yes, as you say, sound crisp and separate, as far as possible from the wall of pudding of “Open Your Eyes”. Congratulations Billy – and Jay, whose ability to channel Alan is spooky.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thought Steve! We share your wish that a DVD had accompanied this tour — the production was beautiful and would have looked great on video. We are looking forward to Yes50 shows and beyond!

  3. Guys it’s good to see so much of you the’s days, from being very much in the background all these years. I’m guessing, quite rightly so, both of you have been invigorated by this tour?

    Well done on a terrific package, you know what fans want and deliver it so professionally, as always.

    Dave

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