Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Steve Howe

Steve Howe @ Northern Lights, Clifton Park, NY

Andrew, Alex and I traveled to Northern Lights after the Maunday Thursday service. We got there in the middle of his first set. Northern Lights is a large bar with a corner stage, a few tables scattered around the front. We stood at the back of the crowd for the first set, the clatter of pool tables behind us, the bar to our right. After intermission, we wandered to the fringe of the tables and had a clear view of the stage for the second set.

Howe is 59, rather scrawny and gaunt with brownish blonde hair that is seriously thinning and pushed back over his balding pate. His glasses and thin face make him look rather professorial. When he sits, he leans over his instrument as if trying to see its bottom half, and his right foot taps alternately between his heel and toes to keep a pulse. He chatted frequently between songs, although the sound system unfortunately blurred his words. He succumbed to techno backup only once, using a recorded acoustic strumming to back his singing and steel guitar on “Soon.” It didn’t seem intrusive.

He is still a nimble player. Most of his purely acoustic numbers could be combined into one long song and most people wouldn’t know the difference. The tone, cadence, and use of alternating strumming and glissandos sound much the same on songs like “Clap,” “Mood for a Day”, and “Masquerade”. This is not to take away from his technique; both Andrew and Alex said that Howe was a great technician and player, and I’ll take their word for it, since Andrew has played a little and Alex is a trained musician. Howe has always been considered one of the best guitarists in progressive music circles…

The highlights of the show were many. Some of them were in smaller moments, like his explanation of the nuances of a new electric guitar; it made sounds Howe had never heard before, just because he turned a dial the wrong way. He did an abridged rendering of “To Be Over” on a 12-string acoustic guitar that was both subtle and powerful. His steel guitar filled the venue with incredible piercing sounds, which segued into a wonderful version of “Soon.”

The crowd brought him back for an encore, and he invited us to sing along to a song he was sure we knew. Usually, I cringe when Yes uses “Your Move” as an encore, because they can do it in their sleep and it can lack energy after so many years. But Steve broke the song into its simplest components – a strumming guitar and melodic words, even throwing in the counterpart “All we are saying is give peace a chance” to go along with the audience’s chorus.

And of course, he ended with “Clap.” Nearly all the audience did just that.

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