Ambrosia Isn’t Who You Think They Are (with Commentary on Prog Rock)

Ambrosia — current lineup
(L-R: Joe Puerta; Mary Harris; Burleigh Drummond; Christopher North; Doug Jackson; Ken Stacey)

This is Fifty Years After… after 1969. In that year, an unsigned southern California band went to a show at the Whiskey. Onstage, was none other than British prog group, King Crimson. The musical impact that those luminaries of progressive rock, headed by Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, had on those So-Cal boys, now known as Ambrosia, would be immeasurable.

Who They Were (Are)

Despite their finely textured, symphonic beginnings, which were nourished on the lushness and succulence of prog rock, Ambrosia would come to be known for their softer hits, like “How Much I Feel.” This, and other ballads, that still remain staples of mainstream radio, have undoubtedly been their daily bread, but at the cost of stigmatizing them by their pop rock balladry. Even the band members themselves, seem to want to absolve themselves somehow, by offering up various lighthearted puns before playing these pop hits live, which they know are de rigueur.

What I would have said to Joe Puerta, of Ambrosia, last December, when he signed my T-shirt (and what the music world should know)… is that they are so much more. My mission here is to proclaim what other real music people already know, that pigeonholing them by way of their pop ballads would be like branding Thai food by the popular, but unexceptional, Pad Thai, alone.

Late 70’s On

The groups that started prog all seemed to find themselves at the same juncture and impending doom. Prog, with its poetry; its multilayered harmonies; its extended passages; its stylistic experimentation, its vision, and its delight and hunger for cosmic questions, was in a class of its own. In its quest for transcendence and expansion, it took inspiration from other genres, such as classical and jazz.

Prog, with its many moods and texture changes, takes its listeners on a journey, where you’re meandering across sunbaked sand dunes, which seamlessly give way to dew-covered grassy hills. Its keyboard adagios and intricate drumming patterns feel, at times, scarcely contained… as if they were bulging-at-the-seams, yearning for freedom from accompaniment altogether. Well, let’s just say, prog was fighting an uphill battle, in an era suddenly focused on commercial success through catchy, compact, foot-tapping beats.

Enter the quicksand of 80’s pop… what some may call “the sell out.” The streamlining of manifestos into radio-friendly, 3-4 minute, feel good, singalong pop. The trading in of dark-chocolate, richly layered Opera Cake, for a bowl of Sugar Pops.

Chicago did it with “If You Leave Me Now.” Earth Wind and Fire ate well with “After the Love Has Gone.” These songs made it big, but arguably do not reflect the best work of either group (For examples of these bands at their best, listen to Chicago’s “Call on Me,” and EW & F’s “Devotion”). In the bright and bold 80’s cultural climate, all products had a ready-to-wear, disposable quality, and had to provide a quick bang for your buck… even a song. It was an era of big hair; even bigger shoulder pads… to the point of being cartoonish; primary colors, and slick, but formulaic, top 10 tracks.

Enter Punk & Disco

At the same time, British punk and American disco were entering the scene, each making things even more challenging for prog to stay relevant. The three minute message of anger and rage on one side of the pond, and the dance-beat-driven invitation to coke and sex, on the other. Prog was none of those things and was now seen as too serious and self indulgent. 70’s prog was 86’d.

The Industry

How much of this phenomenon was forced by the producers and money makers? How much of the shift in music quality came at the hands of big business wanting to supply only what they supposed the mainstream listeners were demanding… or programmed the listeners to demand? The long and short of it is that Progressive Rock groups either fell apart, reconfigured, or completely changed their style, in order to stay current.

Ambrosia’s Struggle

This was the commercialized atmosphere in which Ambrosia’s rising star began to smoke. They would have wanted, on one hand, to maintain the sonic textures and lushness they were capable of, but they also needed commercial success. To have both at the same time, was mathematically impossible. But, they didn’t fall apart, they didn’t undergo a total reconfiguration, and they didn’t change their style. It has been said that they simply spread themselves too far, but this should not be considered a mark against them, as this constitutes diversity and is generally a quality we appreciate in a group or artist. Led Zeppelin demonstrated this. The Beatles surely demonstrated this. Maybe they were too talented for their own good.

So, then, why is this first-rate band now playing for only a few hundred people? Because they spilled over into multiple genres, the record companies probably didn’t know what to do with them, nor how to categorize them and thus, how to market them properly. One possibility is that, to get away with that kind of diversity, you have to be better established first, like the aforementioned big two… Zeppelin and The Beatles, the latter of which were already colossal, by the time they released the experimental Sgt. Pepper, giving them the foundation necessary to support their growth as a band, without alienating their fans.

Waxing Metaphysical

Or, maybe, it’s not even an answerable question. It’s just an armchair musing… like, what is the meaning of existence? In this case, to take it even further, just for extra fun; Why are there so many talented people that are completely unknown… playing on Promenades around the world, and peddling their self-produced CDs from their guitar cases?

With regard to Ambrosia, Paste magazine once said it bluntly; the critics would never really understand the band and therefore never rallied behind their music. And yet, Ambrosia has demonstrated real staying power. Maybe the number of people you play for doesn’t matter. And it’s not a case of talent, at all. Since the most famous and commercially successful are often complete shiite… just turn on the radio.

Breakdown (So, what was Ambrosia’s best?)

Even the soft, radio friendly hits demonstrate the soulful, R&B soaked vocals and rich harmonies, by both David Pack and now Ken Stacey, as well as bassist, Joe Puerta.

For a taste of Ambrosia’s mastery, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” and “And…Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled” both stand as consummate examples. The latter is a lushly woven piece that begins with Drummond on vocals, leading in, over soft percussion, and dream-like chimes. If sounds could twinkle, they would. Layered keys & vocal harmonies glide effortlessly, in heartfelt motion, and in unspoken urgency to soar above it all, as if ready to break through the cloud layer in flight. The multi-layered interplay is propelled by Puerta’s emphatic, but free-spirited, fluttering bass line.

This melody… this masterpiece of a song, makes you feel the tenderness and passionate quality of existence, within seconds of its first note. You feel all of life’s joys and loves, as it continues its ascent. You feel its moments of intensity and unexplainable magic, as well as its fragility. By way of the graceful, but powerful movement and changes in tempo, you feel the emotion of being fully alive in a fleeting world. As the song progresses, you feel yourself lifting off into the afternoon sun… with light beams in your eyes and wind in your hair. And as a vague, but deeply felt, mood of nostalgia rises up, you feel that you could fly, like a bird. As the keyboard sings in joyful rapture, the vocals join in again… ahh ahh…

Put on earphones and listen… really listen… to Joe’s bass on this one. Listen to how it catapults this ecstatic, cosmic flight. It defines the drive and the feel of the song… listen to how it pushes the mood up… and how it leads to a most powerful lift off… Yes, this is Prog… and at the level of their inspirational band, King Crimson… but even better.

Yes ARW: August 29th, 2018

After a two hour set, which started at 7:45 PM, Jon Anderson, who looked as great as he sounded, closed the show with his message, to give love each day. It won’t sound romanticized to longtime Yes fans to consider that this is what he has been doing for over 40 years, through the gift of his voice and lyrics, which seem to be divinely channeled for the purpose of transporting us to higher realms.


Yes splintered

Tension had been increasing since the death of founding member and bassist, Chris Squire, in 2015. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Yes splintered into two versions of itself, after their Hall of Fame induction, just last year. This lineup, with Jon Anderson on vocals; Trevor Rabin on guitar; Rick Wakeman on keys; Lee Pomeroy on bass, and Louis Molino on drums, goes by the name, Yes, featuring ARW, with the acronym standing for the three original members.

An Assessment: Jon Anderson & Jon Davison

As exuberantly noted in my review (above) of the other Yes faction, who I had just seen with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Jon Davison, at LA’s Ford Theatre, I was more than accepting of Davison on vocals, despite the resistance of many other Yes fans, and still believe he is the one to carry on Yes’ mission and sound for the next generation. For now, the world is better for having both.

This is a story of the teacher and the apprentice. It is the story of a fine craftsman at work. It is a tribute and a salute to Jon Anderson, whose craft is his song. It is a lesson in mastery. It is a tale of The Grand Duke and The Count, where Anderson is Duke and Davison is Count… Or, the Shogun and the Samurai, though the teaching is indirect. And if they were to spar, we can well imagine them humbly bowing in deep respect to one another.

Those in audience on this night, under the faintly illuminated stars at LA’s Greek Theatre, were watching a consummate performer at his craft. Although it may seem trite to point to the most commercialized of offerings, it was “Roundabout” that made this most evident.

Roundabout; The Ultimate Test

Roundabout was one of the few that both lineups played… and it was the one they both saved for last. As if by some unseen, but divinely ordained, appraisal by the high court in the sky… it became the ultimate test. The final battle. The concluding duel.

It was the only song Davison faltered on, but by official cosmic decree, it had to be played. The people want to hear it. Well… Anderson soared, as he did on every song. He freewheeled through the air. He performed elegant pirouettes and light-footed chassés, with his seemingly ageless, crystalline voice. And so, at the final moment, we see the color of the mantle and cross… the master is revealed.

The Assessment Continues: Howe & Rabin

As it happens, “Roundabout” would confirm another impression… one which, like a whispered confession, my partner and I divulged with some hesitation to one another, after only a few songs in: Rabin was the true weak link in this lineup. Despite the years he has been with Yes, it became painfully clear that without Howe holding the reins, his one man guitar show was lacking in shimmer and shine. On song after song, we continued to notice that all the special little twinkling accents went missing… all the perfectly placed twangs and impeccable little plucks, like exquisite seasonings dashed in just the right amount in just the right places… all the extras that give Yes their virtuosity, simply went missing. The fairy dust had been swept away.

In place of the majestic white horse that could whinny proudly, while up on its two hind legs, we had a pony. Where Howe went from lap-steel to Fender to Gibson, in a heartbeat, or sometimes two at a time… depending on the texture he needed at the moment, Rabin never once switched out his one trusted guitar, old faithful. A one trick pony. If you think this is unfair, or if you have any doubts… watch Steve Howe play this song on the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with Geddy Lee on bass, and Rabin on second guitar.

On the way home, with iphone recordings in tow, we scrolled through video clips from last month’s show at The Ford, with Howe & Davison. There it was! “Roundabout” in full. Howe’s attention to detail was so fresh and so immediately apparent. All the enchanting acoustic strums were as they should be. All the little particulars that Rabin left behind, sparkled forth with precision in Howe’s dexterous hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYA97-csEfI

(Yes ARW: “Roundabout” Live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUJz5SlVWaY

(Yes with Davison & Howe: “Roundabout” Live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1-NsnlPc54

(Yes with Geddy Lee on bass: “Roundabout” Live at Hall of Fame Induction)

“Awaken”

Running over 15 minutes long, and described by Anderson himself, as an epic piece of music, “Awaken” is, like so many Yes songs, about nothing less than human transcendence. It began with Anderson on his harp… soon joined by Wakeman’s unmistakeable toy piano-like riff in minor chords, which together, create a feeling of suspense, like the gap in between incarnations… the bardo… while waiting in the wings to meet God.

As Anderson himself, has explained, the lyrics were inspired by the book, The Singer: A Classic Retelling of Cosmic Conflict by Calvin Miller. All of this suspense, while drummer, Molino, adds drama, by hitting his tom-toms with cannon-fire thuds, done with super-padded drumsticks. Wakeman begins to add embellishments, and the chords lighten; the somber, almost ominous minor key gives way to major… like the curtains opening. The air becomes thinner. And Anderson’s voice sails above the pressure line in the atmosphere… soaring now, effortlessly, up to the angels’ gate… as if to say, I’ve triumphed over the trials and tribulations of this lifetime… I’ve passed the test. And he sings:

High vibration go onto the sun, oh let my heart dreaming past a mortal as me. Where can I be?…

And as he sings, he takes us into the mystical realm, into ecstacy… into timelessness.

And you and I

Anderson clinked his tingshas (Tibetan ritual chimes), and thus began “And You and I.” This magnum opus of a song is a dedication to our collective reunion with the divine. The first thing any longtime Yes fan (what other kind is there?) would notice is, again… Howe’s missing acoustic accents. But nonetheless, he sang:

And you and I climb over the sea to the valleyAnd you and I reached out for reasons to call...

The music then changes. The story changes… for that’s what Yes songs offer… a story. Not just a story, but an allegory, one which offers its willing listener a glimpse of truth… a glimmer of meaning… a glistening forth of the essence of life, itself.

The climb that Anderson sings about, evokes the sense of the grand ascent toward reunion with God… or liberation of spirit, if the “G” word doesn’t suit. But, the cosmic dance is a snaky one, fraught with twists and turns and constant set backs. As Anderson puts it, it is a spiral aim. The Buddhists call it samsara… the constant struggle that is part and parcel of human existence. Life and death, itself. Thank God! Infinite chances to try… try again. Life and death… found in every single breath we take, in this demented world of illusion.

Illusion… because it was right there within us, all along. Like the scarecrow and his heart. And hence, Anderson sings:

All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you… And the You and I is… all of us.

But, as long as we are caught in the world of illusion… maya… we don’t see the splendor that was here, all along. Anderson calls this the eclipse. The chords then darken… imparting the continuance of our personal struggle. And he sings:

… reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you…

A moment of Self realization. Enlightenment. God is within, was within, all along. What a futile search!

The music then soars, and we climb… up, up into ecstasy, into the beyond. Anderson again clings the tingshas—two miniature cymbals held by a string, waking us up from the dream. Just as the Zen Master hits the bell with the padded stick… and boom… instant enlightenment… satori!

But, we are held in the whirl of the cosmic dance, in the ongoing karmic waves of life and death. This movement is conveyed through the stillness that swells up in the form of an acoustic major chord. It is a new turn in the journey of life. In this way, it is a suite, rather than merely a song. This moment suggests the feeling of finally reaching altitude… steady… like flying on a giant wave in the cosmos. And he sings:

Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time. Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme. There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify. Political ends as sad remains will die. Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you. Oooh, ooh…reach over the sun for the river. And you and I climb, clearer towards the movement…

Wakeman’s ascending triads and triplet rhythms express the jagged spiritual journey, alluded to in this opus… impelling a magnificent triumph over each downfall and over time itself, as the echoing chords skip and soar and swirl around one another, creating energy and motion and mimicking the continual drive toward ecstasy and rapturous joy.

SET LIST
1. Cinema
2. Hold On
3. I’ve Seen all Good People
4. Changes
5. And You and I
6. Rhythm of Love
7. Perpetual Change
8. Lift Me Up
9. I Am Waiting
10. Heart of the Sunrise
11. Awaken
12. Owner of a Lonely Heart
13. Roundabout (Encore)

Yes with Jon Davison (and the deeper question of replacing the lead singer)

Image result for yes jon davison ford theatre

The Heroic Frontman
The group called Yes, has split into two factions, Yes ARW, with Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman; and Yes, with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Geoff Downes. There are original and senior members in both lineups. Here, my focus is on Yes, with new vocalist, Jon Davison, who serves as the focal point of this article.

Let’s start with the naysayers, who proclaim that if you remove the front man, you’ve killed the band. I used to be part of that group. After all, the history here is not on Yes’ side. All one has to do is point to Van Halen, Queen, or The Doors. The frontman seems to be irreplaceable. It’s just not the same band anymore, as the frontman embodies the band’s persona. But, hang on… exceptions do exist, such as when Genesis sent their drummer up to the mic. The iconic A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering followed, with Collins’ seemingly tailor-made voice carrying each unforgettable track.

In the case of Yes, some say that Davison is only there because he’s a Jon Anderson sound-alike, and moreover…that it’s demeaning to him, and insulting to the fans. Well, I’m not insulted. My first and purest response was… Why not enjoy both? Why can’t they both exist in this universe as enjoyable entities?

But, for the sake of good sport and hopefully, fun and fruitful banter among music fans, let me go on.

A Common Argument

Many feel that in a band, there is an irreplaceable link, without whom the band loses its identity… sometimes that band member is a vocalist and sometimes it’s not. One blogger applied this point of view to the Yes situation:
I think my romanticization, as you call it (of Jon Anderson), stems from what Anderson does to a Yes song when he sings it and how the magic drains away when Anderson-imitators have a go.
While I appreciate this point of view, and would agree that it sometimes applies in some situations, in some groups. I don’t think it always applies. And I don’t think it applies here.

Firstly, his position carries a presupposition, from the get-go. How about if we don’t come into it thinking of Davison as an “imitator?” Perhaps, like a cherished classical concerto, we may look upon music of this caliber as timeless, to the point of overshadowing its original members altogether, in the sense that, no matter who delivers it, it has the capacity to continue on and shine. Granted, it may be a rare moon when the stars can align in such a way, but I think they have, in this case

An Analogy to Make my Point

Ship of Theseus; What Makes a band…a band?

There is a thought experiment in philosophy, which explores the idea of identity. What makes you, you? Or, in this case, what makes a band, a band?
This question comes by way of the famous ship sailed by the hero, Theseus, which has been kept on display in a harbor. As the years go by, all the planks begin to rot and are replaced, one by one, by new ones. After a century or so, all the parts have been replaced.

Is the “restored” ship still the same object as the original?

As an additional curiosity, suppose that each of the rotted pieces were stored away, and after many years, were restored and reassembled into a new ship. Is this “reconstructed” ship the original ship? And if so, is the restored ship in the harbor still the original ship, as well?

The analogy reflects back on the two versions of the group called Yes, both with claims of genuine identity.

The Ship of Theseus serves as a reminder to think of ourselves as works in progress, rather than as finished projects. Perhaps a band is also a work in progress. But it also asks us to reconsider the importance we place on continuity… where is the continuity? There are original members in each lineup, but even there, they are not the same people anymore, themselves. If identity change is slow and gradual, at what point can we all agree that enough parts have been changed so as to warrant the announcement of a changed identity?

Enough Mind Games; Listen with your Heart


The point is, we can’t and won’t agree. So, after the mental experiments are exhausted, we’re left with the heart… and the only question that matters to the heart, is… Do you like it? Do you feel transported, while listening? The answer to that, for me, is… Yes.

But even with that said, a bit of magic happens in any art form, when something sincere and authentic is being expressed. And this something comes through, even in cases where some form of duplication is at work. Consider Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes… they worked because there is something new to say… and it is beyond what the eye can see. In the case of music… it is heard, or better, felt. And it comes through the delivery, when that delivery is heartfelt by the performers, themselves… and then met by the receivers in similar heartfelt openness. It’s a synergistic union.

All artists borrow. They’re all influenced by what came before. But in a new amalgamation, in space and time, newly embodied, freshly inspired and in complementary interaction with others, something fresh is born. But that offspring itself, is ever-changing and evolving. In this case, it’s the body of work, called the Yes catalogue, which will see many incarnations that may likely outlive its original creators.

It’s constantly being newly created, anyway, even if only played by original members!

What is Real

It Becomes his, upon Delivery. Because Davison feels what he is singing and this was apparent to these viewers, it then becomes his at that moment of delivery. During delivery, he wholly embodies the material and is wholly in that point in time, wholly present, in heart and mind, and therefore, the material is, at that instant, his. And when we join in as viewers, it is ours.

After all, even an original lineup can end up being a parody of itself, if uninspired and burned out. Meaning…

“Real” has to come from someplace else… some other ingredients than sameness of physical bodies.

The Delivery

Inside out… outside in… he sang, in “Perpetual Change,” and as his smooth falsetto soared into the ethers, the layers of musical patterns then ballooned into a multi-textured phenomenon of rhythms and harmony, underscored by Howe’s steel guitar. And together, they ascended, in playful dance, like a regal spacecraft lifting off and gliding up toward the celestial spheres, with fluid and effortless lift toward transcendence.

Bottom Line; Authenticity

So, in answer to the notion that Jon Davison is merely “copying” Jon Anderson, there is so much more at work. He happens to be a right fit. Like when two lovers find each other. The chemistry is right… the conversation is right… the personalities are right… and a host of other things, that we will never even fully understand, are right. He was born and gifted with that angelic voice… or, even deeper than the voice… it’s the spirit that comes through the voice. He seems to channel the very essence of Yes. He’s not just singing the words. His soul and his voice find themselves at home here.

And so, a new rendering is born.

And, like Thesius’ ship… why pick one: each ship, at this time, is a unique “event.” Nothing stays the same, ever…

Everything is in perpetual change.

The bottom line is, authenticity. To the naysayers, I’m here to be the other voice. And it was a sight to behold. He gets it. He really gets it. He understands he is standing with legends. He is authentic in his feelings and that comes through his delivery. And he will die with the distinction of having stood next to them… masters at their craft.

Yes’ Set List

Songs played at the Ford Theater June 19th, 2018 (7:30PM-10:30PM)
Lineup: Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison (Guest: Tony Kaye)
1. Close to the Edge
2. Nine Voices
3. Parallels
4. Mood for a Day
5. Madrigal
6. Fly from Here
7. Sweet Dreams
8. Heart of the Sunrise (Intermission)
9. Perpetual Change
10. Does it Really Happen
11. Soon
12. Awaken (Encore)
13. Yours is no Disgrace
14. Roundabout
15. Starship Trouper