MONTREAL – Jon Anderson can never not create.
The former frontman for archetypal 1970s progressive rock band Yes, prolific solo artist and collaborator, survivor of a near-fatal illness, painter, spiritualist, and Lancashire working-class boy-turned-California dreamer, he’s currently out with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman on a tour that brings the pair to Théâtre St. Denis on Saturday.
Yes songs will be played. Enduring Yes fans in this most resilient of prog-rock cities will be transported Close to the Edge, or thereabouts.
Despite having performed in Albany, N.Y., the night before, Anderson is on the phone at 10 a.m., bright-eyed and eager to talk about what’s on his plate right now. In the earliest going of the conversation, one enduring mystery is cleared up. Anderson’s singing voice is high enough to flush bats from a cave. His speaking voice is high. The two are a natural fit. Well, that’s one vexing question forever laid to rest.
Another is his most recent creation, the 21-minute musical work called Open, released as a digital download in late October. Legions of Yes men and several women will recall in its complex melodic and harmonic themes, classical framework and fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden lyrics, the halcyon days of Yes. In those golden times there were the hits like Owner of a Lonely Heart, and an astonishing 18 album catalogue, beginning with the self-titled 1970 debut and including Close to the Edge in 1972, and Tales from Topographic Oceans one year later.
Despite band squabbles, defections, unfortunate lawyers’ fees and assorted creative differences, Yes albums continued until 2001 and may yet appear again. Unlike some people, and most rock critics, Anderson loves the old tunes and believes the 1970s were a wonderful time, allowing Yes and others like them to create music that would never find a home on mainstream radio today.
“Music is about magic. It’s not about money, it’s about creation.” says the affable lad from Northern England who now calls California home, and America his adopted country, citizenship and all.
“But when it’s all boiled down, (the music industry) has become such a factory, and that takes away from the potential for creation. TV shows like American Idol are dispiriting. There’s some real talent on display, but the format and the material discourage any originality. But it makes for good TV, I suppose. That’s life.”
Anderson in his more recent incarnations will never be accused of chasing the almighty dollar. He has embraced the Internet where so many of his analog-age cohorts fought it. Indeed, work like Open – begun when strumming his 19th-century guitar one day last year led to “songs pouring out of me for a week” – involved collaborations with musicians from the far-flung corners of the globe, all interacting over a digital platform.
It follows Survival & Other Stories, a solo album featuring similar Internet collaborations released in 2010, on the very day the germ of an idea for Open sprouted.
“I nearly died in 2008, twice,” he says by way of explaining the inspiration for Survival, Open and the drive to continue playing live. “It began as an asthma attack (the diminutive Anderson has always had a frail constitution) that led to respiratory failure and six operations. It was pretty bad. Hospitals are tough to hang around in. But the body is an engine – a soft machine to use the old term. When it breaks down it needs to be fixed. My amazing wife, Jane, kept me going. I survived and came out the other end twice as strong.”
One end result is Open, “a song about compassion. Your spirit has to hang tough in those situations, and let the divine guide you.”
Anderson has been on something of a tear ever since his close brush with the man who always knows the time. He toured Europe in 2009 as a solo act, and did the same in Canada and the U.S. the next year. He and Wakeman returned to the U.K. as a duo in 2010, and he sang Owner of a Lonely Heart with the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio Philharmonic in Texas.
“We’re out now, but will take a break for the holidays. There’s some talk about a peace concert on Christmas Day in Israel. Then there’s Mexico and South America in the new year. I’m enjoying playing concerts more than ever. I’m very interested in working with orchestras, especially youth orchestras. Their energy, enthusiasm and curiosity is inspiring.
“And there’s working with Rick, from all those years ago. He’s such a joy, and recreating those large-scale pieces from the ’70s remains a fascination. We got hammered by critics for them, but audiences stuck with us.
“Now I look out at the crowd and I see old fans, but I also see young faces. They must have been brainwashed with the music by their parents! And they’re all inspired by what we created. For some reason, I’m very creative. I’m dedicated to creating long-form pieces. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.”
Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman play at Théâtre St. Denis Saturday night. Tickets are $53.50 to $72 and are available via Ticketpro at (514) 790-1111 or http://www.ticketpro.ca