The need for new material from Asia is a subject that on paper, is highly debatable in certain circles. But for those that have caught the reactivated ’80s rockers live in the past few years, it is likely that they are among the converted who have seen the light after hearing the band’s new music intermixed with their classic material. A few years ago, it seemed unlikely that we’d ever see the classic lineup of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Steve Howe and Carl Palmer back together on any stage, and the prospects of new material were somewhere below “never” and “not a chance in hell.” Since the band’s unlikely reunion in 2007, there have been two new Asia albums released, the well-received Phoenix in 2008, followed by the band’s latest album Omega, released earlier this year. (And the band will celebrate their 200th performance since reuniting later this month in California.)
Phoenix is my favorite of the two albums that they’ve released so far, but as it was when I first saw the reunited band in 2008 (at a time that I was lukewarm about the new album), they did a lot during Friday night’s performance at the House of Blues in Cleveland to sell me on the merits of their new material. I’m happy that unlike some “classic bands” that tour for an album and then dump the material from the set, Asia have kept two of the strongest cuts from Phoenix — “Never Again” and “An Extraordinary Life,” in their 2010 setlist. (And with members of the audience singing along to every single one of the tracks from the past two albums, there was visible proof that people are still buying new music, at least when you’re talking about progressive bands like Asia.)
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If you followed John Wetton’s career (or lack of) in the ’90s, it probably doesn’t seem possible that he would be a strong enough anchor vocally to make Asia worth going to see in 2010. But Wetton (and the other three members of Asia) have all dedicated themselves to making this a proper reunion that is worth the ticket price, and the result is an Asia experience that is nearly a mirror image of seeing the band back in their heyday. The 2010 tour keeps all of the necessary album tracks and hits in a tight setlist that ran nearly two hours with at least one surprise added into the mix. “Days Like These” from the band’s momentary half and half 1990 reunion disc Then and Now is a recent setlist addition, and it’s one of those tracks that I figured I’d probably never see them play. The audience response was unfortunately tepid, perhaps a result of the track being placed as the opening track of the two song encore (and granted, it didn’t chart very high on Billboard, but I still consider it one of the most underrated tracks in their catalog).
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Both Wetton and legendary drummer Carl Palmer have weathered heart surgeries in recent years since the reunion, events that have only strengthened the theoretical impossibility that is Asia in 2010. At 61 years of age, Wetton sounds better vocally than he has in years, while Palmer, against the odds, remains a monster behind the kit. And speaking of odds, the deceptively fragile build of guitarist Steve Howe makes his dexterity on the fretboard even more impressive (and dare I say it, one of the things that you notice live is how much more his guitar work shreds with Asia compared to his more mellow vibe of playing in Yes). Keyboardist/founding member Geoff Downes has managed to scale his keyboard rig down from a record setting 28 keyboards that he employed at one point during the ’80s to a more roadie-friendly number of 8. For those about to rock, Mr. Downes, your roadies they do salute you.
The eye candy with any of these guys is watching them display their unbelievable skill on the instrument and with Downes and his jungle of keyboards, there’s plenty to geek out about. The band has enough collective gear that it’s understandable that their stage show would be modest by comparison, employing only a series of Asia album covers and related images to illustrate the setlist. With the new album, they’ve also opted to dump the historically related tracks from their other projects (Yes, ELP, King Crimson, etc.) that were present during the initial reunion tours in favor of playing new material and that’s a welcome change for the better. The new material? Kinda sounds a lot like the old material (read: it’s classic Asia) which makes this tour a nice ticket for anyone that might be feeling nostalgic. If you want to go backwards to remember how things were back then, Asia will happily take you there. “Time Again,” indeed.
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Random thoughts and observations:
- As a member of the cult of prog, please note that it is an unspoken requirement that you must wear a t-shirt of your favorite prog band when going to see another prog band play a show. Since this is an Asia show, it is completely acceptable to wear Yes, Rush and Porcupine Tree t-shirts to show the others in attendance that you are legitimately prog. Remember, wearing an Asia shirt if you’re going to see Asia violates that other unspoken rule. (Additional concert t-shirt tips can be found here.)
- There are girls here at this show, but I’m not quite sure how they got here. Many of them are stuck on dates that they will never forget, and not for good sentimental reasons. Some are in attendance as the supportive wife/girlfriend and surprisingly, there are quite a few here that are visibly big Asia fans. Is it a Wetton thing? Or perhaps it’s something along the lines of “that Geoff Downes guy is so dreamy.” You tell me.
- The tribe is cheering as Palmer raises a mallet high into the air to signify that there will be gong-age on “Time Again.”
- I know I said this earlier in the review, but Steve Howe shouldn’t be able to play guitar like that. Massive amounts of geeking out during his acoustic guitar solo portion of the show. And during “An Extraordinary Life,” why play one guitar when you can play two guitars instead? You’re welcome, disciples.
- “The Heat Goes On” brings the expected drum solo from Carl Palmer. I feel sympathy for guys like Carl Palmer, because drumming is a very physical activity and yet you’re expected to bring it every night on that solo, just like you did back in 1973. So it’s no surprise that at the end of the song, Palmer springs from behind the kit and does a victory lap out to the microphone. You’d better believe that he earned that lap and subsequent riotous standing ovation from the ever-adoring audience. Actually, most of us are already standing, so does that still count as a standing ovation? Sure.
- During “Days Like These,” I observe a shocking moment where Geoff Downes actually has time to step away from the keyboards and he makes good use of the time, playfully mugging with the crowd. Up until this point of the show, all hands have been on deck with Downes manning at least one keyboard at all times.
I’ll leave you with the evening’s setlist for your enjoyment and perusal. Prog on, my friends!
Only Time Will Tell
Through My Veins
Don’t Cry (John and Geoff solo with crowd singalong portion)
Steve Howe solo
The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (John and Geoff solo with electric full band reprise at the end)
Open Your Eyes
An Extraordinary Life
End of the World
The Heat Goes On (w/ Palmer drum solo)
Days Like These
Heat Of The Moment
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