In Advance of Their Show at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, Todd Rundgren and Yes Drummer Alan White Talk About Their Prog Rock Pasts

For this summer's YESTIVAL tour, recent Rock Hall inductees YES [pictured above] have teamed up with special guest Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy to present a special night of prog rock.

The bands take the stage at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautical where YES will perform a set featuring music from all of the band's studio albums up to 1980. One of two versions of the band that's on the road, YES includes guitarist SteveHowe, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geoff Downes, singer Jon Davison and bassist Billy Sherwood.

In separate phone interviews, White and Rundgren spoke about the tour.

click to enlarge Todd Rundgren - Tom Callan
Tom Callan
Todd Rundgren
After several years of being ignored, YES was finally inducted into the Rock Hall. Is that a sign that the Rock Hall is beginning to get things right?
Yeah, it’s great to be inducted. People have anticipated it for a long time and been rooting for us to get into the Rock Hall. It feels great for us. We had a great ceremony, and the band played well, and it was a great event. I don’t really know what the hang-up was really. It has just taken took a long time to start recognizing progressive music. The Moody Blues [who are still not inducted] were a big part of that movement along with the Who and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. They were all from the same era, along with Genesis, which is one of the first prog-ish bands. I just think it’s good they realized progressive bands deserve to be inducted.
Rundgren: To be honest, I don’t ponder what’s going on at the Rock Hall. I have no idea how they think and make their decisions. It’s like some weird secret society. Who can figure out why Madonna is in the fricking Rock Hall. What is the rational? The problem is that I care so little about it. I thought the concept is flimsy in the first place, and they would run out of legitimate artists pretty soon, which they did about 15 years ago. I don’t consider myself a “rock” artist although I occasionally do songs in that genre.

Do you think you’re keeping the prog rock torch lit in some capacity?
Yeah. Of course. It’s always good to get on the road and see how many people come to the show and enjoy a prog rock experience.
Rundgren: Philosophically, I consider myself a prog rock because I haven’t spent my life looking for a formual or a so-called sound I can milk for the rest of my career. I’ve tried to absorb new influences and make it fun for me and sometimes for the listeners as well by exploring different avenues. In that sense, it’s progressive. The stricter definition is what Utopia did. You essentially write grand epics and then lyrically figure them out. There’s a lot of playing. We were formed in the early ’70s in that nascent era when prog rock was becoming a recognized genre. We were happy to be part of that and be doing things that were more challenging than playing a song from top to bottom.

Talk about this tour. What’s it like to be on the road with the other guys?
Very good. It’s a good show, and we’re getting along fine together. It’s a moving caravan. We played last night in Philly and we have a day off today and we’re heading on tomorrow. It's great.
Rundgren: We kind of pass each other. Everybody in the show is touring in a different way. It’s kind of unusual. I travel with my band and crew on a tour bus. We all go in the same bus. We’re not the headliner. If we were the headliner, I’d have to have the crew in a separate bus. We travel all together. With YES, their crew comes in very early. We see the crew a lot but we don’t see the band until right before their sound check. I think the crew checks for them. The band members come in different ways. I don’t know how they’re traveling but it’s not by bus. Some of them fly and some drive. Then, there’s Carl Palmer, and he and his crew all travel in a van with a trailer.

Given that your catalog runs so deep, how do you pick and choose the songs to play?
The theme for this tour is that we’re playing something from every album until 1980. It seems to be working really well. The public loves it. It wasn’t difficult to decide which songs to play. [Guitarist] Steve Howe had the idea of what to do, and we followed his lead.
Rundgren: Well, I did put an ear to doing stuff that was more apropos to this concert. We had a set list we were doing in the spring promoting the White Knight album. We took stuff out of that and added one song that is the most overtly prog rock thing we do. The more poppy song didn’t seem appropriate. It didn’t seem appropriate to play “I Saw the Light” at a prog rock concert. At the same time, I realize that some of the audience is there to see me. I have to do something to satisfy that. At the end of the set, I do “Hello It’s Me” and “Just One Victory.”

Growing up, who were some of the musical acts that inspired you?
Originally, I was influenced by Buddy Rich and the Beatles and the Beach Boys who are all around that era. Then, I got into Frank Zappa and fusion type stuff in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. I was inspired by my uncle, who was a big band drummer. And my father was a pianist so I came from a musical family.
Rundgren: There was a combination of things. The music that I heard in my household was a lot of contemporary classics and show music. I almost never heard contemporary rock music. My dad didn’t like that played in his house. I wasn’t allowed to touch his hi-fi. When I made the decision to become a record producer, that changed my perspective and how I made my living. That’s how I got my income, and it liberated me from worrying about the success of making my own records. Most artists have to factor that in. They need to have those records sell. I didn’t need to have them sell to survive. It gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted.

There is another band calling itself YES that’s currently on tour. What do you think of those guys?
Yeah, I don’t pay that much attention to the other band. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been in the band for 45 years. A lot other people in the band have done other things and other projects. I’ve never done that. I’m the only one who has been there the only time. Until a couple of years ago, [the late bassist] Chris Squire kept everything going, so it’s unfortunate he’s no longer with us, but the band still moves on.
Rundgren: I do know Jon Anderson and we’ve done a couple of things together. The irony is that I’m out on tour with the other YES. It was something of a conundrum especially when the request came for me to write a testimonial congratulating Jon Anderson that YES had gotten into the Hall of Fame. I realized I couldn’t do that without pissing off the guys in this version. I do congratulate all of them. For a while, I think Jon and Rick Wakeman had to tour under a different name. The fact that both bands are going out as YES is even confusing to me.

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About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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