Asia

May 4, 2008
The Coach House
San Juan Capistrano, CA

Concert Review by Shawn Perry

I remember first hearing about Asia and thinking they were on their way to becoming the greatest band in the world. To my way of thinking, having Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, John Wetton and Geoff Downes all in one band had to be some sort of music industry coup plotted out by a roomful of smarmy suits. And it worked for me. How could you miss with members from Yes, King Crimson and ELP? They set out to distill the pretentiousness of prog by making the music more accessible, catchy and less than four minutes a song. In the naivety of the early 80s, it was a sure best.

Caught up in the mania of my own personal prog resurgence (Yes and ELP were, at this point, history; Genesis had gone pop; King Crimson was something else altogether), I spun Asia’s first album incessantly and gazed at cover artwork by Roger Dean by a dazed and confused teenager. One night, left out in cold for tickets to Asia’s sold-out concert at the Santa Monica Civic, my girlfriend and I felt the heat of the moment and ventured over to Licorice Pizza, a record store where Asia was scheduled to do an in-store signing after the concert. We stood there with others who couldn’t get tickets. One guy had a Roger Dean coffee table book he wanted Steve Howe to sign. I had the Asia album and the “Heat Of The Moment” single. All four members signed both items, and I still have them to this day. Days after the album was signed, I stopped listening to it.

In the midst of Alpha, the second album, John Wetton left, was replaced by Greg Lake for a single monumental show in Tokyo, and then came back. But the writing was already on the wall. Others in the Asia camp were becoming disenchanted with the commercial path the group was following. To be in a band like Yes, King Crimson or ELP, you were held to extremely high standards. Playing in a band like Asia was, in a way, compromising those standards. From an artistic point of view, churning out user-friendly pop apparently didn’t sit well with everyone, even as the money came in and the albums went platinum.

Steve Howe was the first to exit, just before the third album Astra landed with a big thud. The guitarist and Palmer eventually found their way back to Yes and ELP, while Wetton struggled with his own demons. During the 90s, Wetton, Palmer and Howe came and went, while Downes held down the fort, recruiting others members and becoming the only guy to ever play on every Asia album. Then in 2006, the original lineup reunited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut album. I caught one of the shows at The Vault in Long Beach, and was pleasantly blown away by the musicianship and execution. Vocally, Wetton was revitalized and dead-on. Howe and Palmer were, as could be expected, in top from. And Downes was still holding down the fort with a fleet of keyboards to keep the music bright and beaming.

The Asia reunion didn’t end with the 2006 tour. They went over to Tokyo in 2007 — the original four members for the very first time — and made a live video and companion CD. Then, as promised, they went into the studio to record a new studio album. Another tour of the states was scheduled, but Wetton went under the knife for heart surgery and everything was put on hold. The singer recovered quickly, and the band returned to the studio to finish Phoenix, the first Asia album with all the original members in 25 years. Yet another tour was scheduled. Only this time it would include new material.

Much to my chagrin, Asia was not playing the palatial Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts, as they were supposed to before Wetton’s surgery. Instead, they played the Coach House, a funky, oblong-shaped club in San Juan Capistrano — hardly suitable for an arena-sized act like Asia. If I nabbed a decent seat, however, this might prove to be one helluva an intimate performance. Arriving at six, the place was packed, mostly with dinner guests, but I lucked into a perfect spot with an ideal view of the stage. The stage was overflowing with gear. A band called Union Of Saints was were the openers, and they had set up around Downes' skyscrapers of keys and Palmer’s Ludwig double-bass with two Paiste gongs. Union Of Saints hit the stage at 7:10, played a nice and lively 20-minute set, and quickly left, making way for Asia.

Finally, after seeing Howe arrive just minutes before, Asia hit the stage at 8:30. They opened with “Daylight,” from Alpha. Acclimating themselves to their small surroundings, they appeared a bit stiff at first, but slowly adjusted to the environment and loosened up. Wetton was powerful, asserting the choruses of “Only Time Will Tell” and “Wildest Dreams” with conviction and authority. Howe announced a new song, “Never Again,” and it took its place alongside Asia classics.

Looking fit and fast, Palmer grabbed the microphone and introduced “Roundabout,” and the crowd erupted. A key lower, and it still sounds as sweet as ever as long as Howe handles the guitar. From there, Downes took over on “Cutting It Fine,” uncoiling a subterfuge of layers and textures that defy the 13 set of keys surrounding him. Then Howe returned with some brilliant acoustic guitar work, even a minute of two of “The Clap,” undiminished by time or space.

The crowd settled in and Wetton, now relaxed in the comfort zone, strapped on his acoustic and spoke to the adoring crowd of mostly middle-aged men and women. He said he once met Brain Wilson and was inspired by the Beach Boys’ song “God Only Know.” to write “Voice Of America,” a stand-out number from Astra. It made for the perfect set-up of “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” a song that I love as much as loathe, if that makes any sense. By this time, the whole band was back on stage, embellishing where they could. Then, out of nowhere, they broke out “Ride Easy,” the B-side to “Heat Of The Moment,” and any perception of Asia of being predictable and bland was out the door. These guys still like the challenge of mixing it up when they can.

The momentum exploded during “Fanfare For The Common Man,” which found Howe and Downes locked in a musical dual. At the point, the band is firing on all cylinders. “An Extraordinary Life,” another new one, lifted everyone’s spirits before Palmer took front and center to introduce a song so old, “I barely remember it myself.” The band fell into a magical reading of “In The Court Of The Crimson King,” a song Wetton has made his own despite the fact that he was not the original voice when King Crimson recorded it in 1969. That voice belongs to the same Greg Lake who replaced Wetton in Asia for the one-time show in Tokyo. Yeah, it’s a funny world, innit?

The spotlight reverted back to Downes, who lays claim to appearing in the very first video that ever appeared on MTV, the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.” The keyboardist donned himself in a silver lame jacket and wraparound shades while intoning the synthesized chorus. Wetton sang through a megaphone while Howe built a solo around what was once considered a silly pop song. Over 25 years later, it’s attained a cool sheen that fits in nicely with the rest of the set.

And now for something completely different. Actually, “The Heat Goes On” was a perfect lead-in to Carl Palmer’s acrobatic drumming. Still a trickster and as fast as a jack rabbit, Palmer looked no worse for wear — a booming vitality and youthfulness sets him apart from most of his peers, and he probably has a long career ahead of him. It will interesting to see where he goes from here.

The show wound down with “Heat Of The Moment.” Five minutes later, the band bounced back on stage for a two-song encore of “Don’t Cry” and “Soul Survivor.” OK, they only did two new songs the whole night, but at least they’re moving in a forward direction. Playing small venues with a new album to support is almost like being a new group. Considering their pompous origins, it’s good to see them hungering it out in the trenches, working their way back into the game — hopefully expanding on the idea of ‘progressing’ and taking the music to a higher plane. If Asia is to exist in 2008 and beyond, it’s essential they kick things up a notch without falling back on their laurels any more than necessary. This is their chance, to coin the lyrics from “An Extraordinary Life,” to “go, seize the day.”

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