The vocal harmonies from Jon Anderson and the Paul Green Rock Academy were so rich and thick Friday night at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock that, at times during their concert, I felt like someone was pouring a big bucket of sweet, warm molasses over my head.
I’d close my eyes for a moment and imagine myself tasting the molasses. But this sense of warmth was more about the texture than the sweetness, more about touch than taste.
The former front man for the rock band Yes returned to the Bearsville Friday night to perform with emerging musicians who have been studying under Paul Green. The man who founded the School of Rock instructional program was also the inspiration for the Jack Black character in the film of the same name, and he must have been very proud of his proteges Friday night because they delivered and they delivered big.
No, the evening was not perfect. But it came pretty close. And Anderson’s obvious delight on stage seemed to put his young backing musicians at ease, who played their instruments and sang their lyrics like it was the last night of this tour, not the first. Anderson let the Rock Academy musicians share the spotlight, he encouraged them, he pushed them, he led them and he followed them.
The Rock Academy musicians formed various musical conglomerations throughout the evening, with Anderson at times surrounded by five vocalists and/or three guitarists, two keyboard players, bass and drums and a horn, sax and flute player joining in.
To say this band roared, swayed and teetered like a freight train navigating a canyon pass really wouldn’t do it justice. Let’s call Jon Anderson and the Paul Green Rock Academy the uncoupled box car that veered off in the wrong direction at the fork in the tracks but nevertheless stayed on the rails as it picked up speed, gave us all a big thrill and somehow returned safely to the station, allowing everyone to walk off the adrenaline rush.
At the center of it all was Anderson, the man who fronted one of rock’s biggest acts, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member whose iconic voice sang iconic songs. He sang many of them Friday night, including “America” by Simon and Garfunkel and “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the 1983 song which was a big hit for Yes.
Complementing the rip-roaring performance that unleashed the momentum of a popped champagne cork on just about every song was the renovated Bearsville Theater. Decorative touches like chandeliers hanging in the theater, trim on the curtains that framed the stage and artwork that celebrates Woodstock musical legends gave a rustic feel to the new design for this historic theater. I’ve seen a lot of epic performances at the Bearsville Theater, including Mike Gordon of Phish, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, so I know that room well. But new owner Lizzie Vann’s multi-million dollar upgrades, to a theater many of us thought could be lost for good, were completed with such nuance and consideration that I left the venue feeling like she had decorated the entire joint strictly for me.
But back to Jon Anderson and the Paul Green Rock Academy.
If you’re planning on catching this show on another tour stop, don’t worry, you’ll hear plenty of Yes. But one audience member Friday night was less than thrilled when Anderson and the PGRA played a song off his 2019 solo album, “1000 Hands: Chapter One.”
“Come on Jon, play some Yes,” he bellowed from the dark abyss of the hall.
Anderson, like the guy in the audience, also seems less than thrilled, at the comment. He took his hand and placed it on his chest and said, “Yes is here, this is Yes, Yes is here.”
P.S. Bravo to Ulster County’s Rock Academy, which Green founded years ago while a Woodstock resident. The evening’s opening act was nothing short of spectacular and did a fine job of warming up the room. In fact, they could have been the headliner.