Fragile & Steve Howe
28 June 2006
The Point, Cardiff, UK
Hot on the heels on Geoff Downes playing a low key Welsh date with John Wetton for their Icon project, another Yes alumni rolls into town for a very special evening. Having seen Bill Bruford's Earthworks in a tiny Swansea club only a few months back and looking forward to the Anderson/Wakeman duo dates later in the year, it was only the cancellation of The Syn's tour (which was also to have featured Alan White) due to the departure of Chris Squire that robbed us of seeing all current Yes members plus a couple of others on our doorsteps in very quick succession.
I have seen Steve Howe many times over the last 20 years but this was a real treat for me to see him playing electric Yes music in a small venue. And, boy, did we get something special. The venue itself is in a converted church in the redeveloped Bay area of Cardiff just around the corner from the larger Coal Exchange. It is a very pleasant space and I've seen some great gigs there. It still has the stained glass windows and it's white interior gives it a lovely feeling of space. There is a balcony area where the lucky few can get an unsurpassed view of proceedings and sound is usually pretty good wherever you are. My guess tonight is that there were 300 or so in. Certainly not full but a good crowd none the less and very enthusiastic.
We got there just as the queue waiting outside had finished entering the building so walked straight in at about 7.45. Grabbing some spare chairs for ourselves we found an empty corner to sit next to the merchandise stand. Having got a drink in - ace Guinness by the way - the familiar strains of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite started to fill the air and I headed into the throng to get a good vantage point. This piece always makes me smile due to the wonders of Yes music that generally follow it. There was a real sense of anticipation in the air as the 6 members of Fragile came on stage as the Firebird built to it's finale.
Fragile hit the ground running with a ripping version of Cinema from the 90125 album - good way to start. This moved straight into an unexpected version of Astral Traveller and then on again into a great Perpetual Change. I haven't seen Fragile before but have been keen to hear them for quite a while and as tribute bands go they were really good. Their sound was a very good representation of the Yes but without being an exact copy. I particularly found interesting the way that vocalist Steve Carney's voice is in a slightly lower register to Jon Anderson's - but then whose isn't - but this didn't detract from the overall effect. Backing vocals from drummer Mitch Harwood and guitar men Robert Illes and Tom Dawe filled the sound out really well with Illes taking the highest parts in the harmonies. Jon Bastable's cream Chris Squire Rickenbacker bass certainly added to the Yes flavour and Max Hunt of Tantalus on keyboards not only had the requisite Wakeman stack of instruments but also looked a bit like Patrick Moraz. If you squint a bit. The bass was a good representation of the Squire sound and Max also had the right feel with his keyboards. From the off I thought Robert Illes did very well as it must be a pressure on your playing if you're lead guitarist in a tribute band knowing that the original member is listening and about to join you on stage. His lead lines were excellent and throughout held their own. The guitar sound was filled out with rhythm man Tom Dawe. This band is really talented in it's own right and definitely worth a listen and not just for the Yes material.
After the opening 3 numbers a breather for a welcome and a couple of introductions then Steve C introduced a breathtaking version of the complete Close To The Edge. This was handled incredibly well in all departments and was very well received and hugely enjoyable. Next up, a lovely version of Yours Is No Disgrace as "a taster of what's to come". A short break for a bit of a change over and we're back at the bar. In fact we're still there when Steve Howe is being introduced.
Steve appeared on stage looking very well, in good humour and chatting with the audience. The feeling is that he must be really enjoying this short tour with Fragile. He took his position on a chair with his acoustic and then found that he had to retune it, laughing it off with the comment that he's spent hours tuning it for us but now has to do it again. During the couple of minutes of tuning Steve is at ease and ready to banter with the crowd. Soon he's ready to go and takes us on a bit of a journey through some rarely charted Yes waters for the next 50 minutes. Starting with a great Mood for a Day, next is a piece from what Steve described as his favourite part of Topographic Oceans, The Ancient. Highlight for me in his set was a beautiful version of To Be Over. I've seen him play this before but tonight was superb. This is definitely a piece that Yes need to bring back into their repertoire and I'd love to see a full band version. Huge applause for this and then probably the most unexpected song of the night - Nine Voices from The Ladder. Beautifully played on Portuguese guitar with Steve singing it as well. Last but not least the audience got what many had been calling out for since he hit the stage, the ubiquitous Clap. I still like this after all these years and it certainly gets everyone going. Then he takes the applause for a thoroughly entertaining and appreciated set. Sparkling finger work from the maestro and I felt a real sense of privilege from having seen a great artist at close quarters.
Steve thanks everyone and then re-introduces Fragile for the culmination of the evenings proceedings. The scene is quite surreal at first - tribute band performing with tributee! Can't happen often but shows just how high the regard in which Howe holds the band is. I wonder what the reaction was like last year when it was made known to the band that Mr. Howe would like to join them on stage? Bet they thought it was a wind up!! At this point Steve swaps his acoustic for - his legendary Gibson ES175D!
First up, Siberian Khatru and the difference to the band sound with Steve on board is massive. As I said, Robert Illes did a great job all evening, including the slide parts in Khatru, but there is really no way he could compete with the legendary work of Steve Howe who sounded superb. Considering the lack of time Fragile must have had to plan things out with Steve everything sounded rehearsed and tight. Throughout the set the band take their lead from Steve but back him up superbly all round - more power to you guys! They certainly seem to be enjoying it, but then they're old hands now, this being their third gig with Steve!
Next a fabulous South Side Of The Sky with Steve really ripping it up in the final section with Max joining in trading licks and then Steve sat again to play the lilting slide for Soon, a track noted by Steve Carney as being from one of Steve Howe's favourite Yes albums, Relayer. As they started I was worried that the vocals would be lacking on this one but it was a thoroughly enjoyable working of one of the most emotional songs in the Yes cannon.
Back to the Gibson for a great rendition of Starship Trooper, again with some wonderful soloing, before the obvious but always marvellous encore that is Roundabout. All participants took the bow at the end of a show that all present are sure to remember and one that may well be repeated if the enjoyment that seemed to be with Steve Howe this evening is anything to go by. Without any Yes activity at the moment and a probable long wait until they think of getting together again this was a worthy substitute. This music needs to live and needs to be heard so all credit to Fragile for doing such a good job with it. Steve played better than I think I've ever seen him before and the constant relaxed smiles showed his visible enjoyment.
Once the band had left the stage a moment to consider what had gone on. I was hugely impressed with Fragile and look forward to seeing them again soon. Mel spoke to a guy who had seen them a lot and he reckoned that tonight they were the best that he had seen them. I think that the biggest difference between Fragile and the real Yes is the fact that Yes make it look so easy while there was many a furrowed brow to be had in the Fragile ranks. This is not a criticism in the slightest and, after all, Yes have been doing it a bit longer! Mitch Harwood played the Alan White role really well in that I sometimes had to remind myself to check out what he was doing - unassuming but the framework upon which everything else is hung. Often undervalued but at the heart of the sound and energy of the band. I feel that "tribute band" is the phrase that works best in this context. They aren't copyists as such and don't simply play covers. They have a good feel and understanding for what it is in Yes' music that makes us, the audience, want to listen to it, and work hard to ensure that they play their part in this, not simply getting the notes in the right order. Thankfully they don't do the dressing up thing - I saw this with a Doors cover band and found it laughable! I've never fancied the idea of the "cover band" but when I saw Re-Genesis a couple of years back it really changed my thinking. Their singer did a little costume thing but that only added to the essence of what they were trying to do while the band just got on with the job in hand. Fragile are very different to Re-Genesis but do a fine job giving fans music that is in very limited supply from the original source and, in many cases, not touched at all in their set lists.
I decided to check out Fragile's Live At The Half Moon CD as they certainly warranted a listen in their own right. I forked out my money, but somehow during the course of the next 15 minutes it went missing never to be seen (by me) again. Never mind but I would still like to hear it! Better luck for me in that respect next time I hope, but I'm certainly looking forward to seeing Steve Howe play this music again, no matter who is playing the other parts. Can't see him getting so much out of the Asia material somehow...
Final thought - another BIG "Well Done" to Robert Illes. He really does deserve recognition. Don't suppose many of us would fancy being under the pressure he must have felt.
Close To the Edge
Yours Is No Disgrace
Mood For A Day
To Be Over
Fragile & Steve Howe:
South Side Of the Sky
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