This post is part of my series of posts on progressive rock which you can see here.
On September 13, 2006 I saw the progressive rock supergroup Asia during their 2006 reunion tour at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA.
Asia, which formed and released their first album in around 1982, started its life as a progressive rock supergroup which combined members of great prog rock bands of the 1970s into a single band. The band consisted of Steve Howe (guitarist of Yes), Geoff Downes (keyboardist of Yes and The Buggles), John Wetton (former bassist/vocalist of such bands as King Crimson, Family, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, Renaissance, UK and Wishbone Ash), and drummer Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and Atomic Rooster), along with Roger Dean as their cover and stage designer to boot.
It is worth noting that the band, in progressive rock circles, is controversial in that, despite the pedigree of all of its band members, the music the band created is not nearly as progressive as the bands of origin for its members. Many prog rock fans felt let down by the more accessible music Asia released, however that did not stop the band from having great success. For me, I think much one’s impressions of music (or movies or whatever) is dependent upon one’s expectations. So, if one approaches Asia expecting a Yes/ELP/KC mash-up will be terribly disappointed. I think if one approaches Asia on its own terms, it provides a much different impression. I think Asia is really fantastic at what it does and I really enjoy that: they play really good stylized rock music that features good melodies and tight arrangements with good punchy solos that is influenced by prog rock. Taking Asia on its own terms makes them much more satisfying. I think Steve Howe said it best. He was asked how a Yes guitarist could play Asia’s music and he replied (I am paraphrasing) that sometimes someone needs a 7 course meal (Yes) and sometimes someone needs a light lunch (Asia) and that both of those needs are legitimate and that music is no different.
Their first album was an enormous success. It was the number one album in the United States for 1982, spent nine weeks at number one on the Billboard Charts, went quadruple platinum in the Untied States, sold about ten million copies worldwide, and spawned the number one hit single (for six weeks) “Heat of the Moment.”
Unfortunately for Asia, their second album, Alpha, though selling in the millions, did not do nearly as well as the first album which led to a even greater decline in sales for their third album, Astra. There was also internal unrest within the band. The Wetton/Downes writing team that proved so popular on the first album was pushed by the record company to lead the writing on Alpha which left Steve Howe feeling sidelined. As a result, he left after the Alpha tour to form GTR with Genesis guitar player Steve Hackett. John Wetton had his share of problems too. He was suffering from alcoholism around this time and that, of course, negatively affected his ability to work with the rest of the band. He stepped out for a time during the Alpha tour and was briefly replaced by ELP alumnus Greg Lake, whose time with the band is memorialized in the Asia in Asia video (along with some keyed down songs for Lake’s voice). Wetton returned for Astra, but by then the band had former Krokus guitar player Mandy Meyer in for Howe.
By 1986 Wetton was gone and there was little interest in the band continuing. Downes kept the flame alive with a half-new material-half-old material album Then & Now in 1991 but could not truly reunite the”classic” Asia, which led to an essentially new Asia led by Downes and bass-player-vocalist John Payne with a host of other musicians which only occasionally featured Howe and Palmer as guests here and there on record and/or live (notably Wetton stayed away until 2006 as described below). The Payne-led Asia released several albums and toured extensively over the next 15 years or so but to considerably less success than the original supergroup.
By 2006 the Payne-led Asia was losing steam and there was a push to reunite the classic supergroup as its twenty-fifty anniversary approached. So, in 2006, the original line-up reunited, which led to John Payne, through legal and practical means, creating an effective schism in the band, with his incarnation of the band essentially scrubbed from Asia history by retconning it to be that of another (new) entity called Asia Featuring John Payne. The classic line-up was restored as if they had simply went on hiatus since 1986. From 2006 onward they have released four albums (though their most recent album Gravitas lacks Steve Howe as he left again in 2014).
In celebration of their reunion, the classic line up of Asia went on tourin 2006 and I had the pleasure of seeing them and that is the inspiration of this post. I took three photographs at the show which you can see below. The set list was composed entirely of material from their first album and Alpha. Their stage set was rather simple: just some lights and a large tarp bearing the band name behind them. The band played loudly and powerfully and were able to play all of their old classics like they did in 1982. They even played an acoustic version of”Don’t Cry,” which Wetton indicated was how he initially conceived the song. One aspect of the show that I especially liked is that the band played one song from another band they each had been in before Asia. So, they played “Roundabout” (a song from Yes, Howe’s previous band), “Fanfare for the Common Man” (an ELP song, Palmer’s previous band), “Video Killed the Radio Star (a Buggles song, Downes’ previous band), and “The Court of the Crimson King” (a song from Wetton’s previous band King Crimson). Wetton’s choice was curious as that is a song from a time when he was not part of Crimson, but no one seemed to care. The band pulled off these other songs with aplomb. As these guys are getting a little older, some have noticed Palmer’s drumming to be less intense and the songs a little less aggressive, and that may be so, but I do not think it was very noticeable and certainly did not to detract from the show. Indeed, contrariwise, it could be said that Wetton’s voice is stronger than ever. All in all, it was a fun show with great music and great performances, and especially if one is an Asia fan.
Before I forget, let me add that the theater is a very nice, old, beautiful theater that sits about 1000 people and there is not a bad seat in the house for either visuals or sound. It is a great place to see a show!
Finally, after the show was a reunion of sorts as my concert-mate (my father-in-law) bumped into some of his old band mates from his younger years and I bumped into my old co-workers from my years at Acme Markets. So, a fun time was had by all.