“They can play the entire first album, and I’ll be happy,” said one fan filing into House of Blues Saturday night to catch a performance by the reunited original members of ’80s prog supergroup Asia. And with six of nine tunes from the band’s 1982 self-titled album played, he got a good bit of what he wished for. With a new album, Phoenix, just released last week, the group had a bit of business to take care of. Saturday’s concert was Asia’s second House of Blues date since its reunion a couple years ago. Judging from the full house, those rave reviews persuaded many fans to check out the show ...
Asia ran through a set list that had more variety than the shows the band played two years ago. “Oh my God, they’re playing ‘Daylight’,” yelled an excited fan as the group dug into the closing track from its second album, Alpha. We only spotted one mullet in the audience, which featured an even mix of prog nerds and ’80s music junkies. One fan even sported a T-shirt giving props to ’70s progsters Angel. Asia’s singer John Wetton -- as one audience member pointed out – sounded “like thunder” in the live setting. He was dead-on throughout the night, sounding just as good as he does on the original albums – which is quite impressive, considering the guy had major heart surgery last year.
While some groups are known for their signature guitar riffs, Asia has signature keyboard riffs. Geoff Downes’ classic intros burned into our collective conscious in the ’80s. And he wisely chose to showcase one of his greatest, the one that propels “Only Time Will Tell,” as the night’s second song. If Asia needed any help grabbing the attention of the Cleveland audience, it nailed it with that track in the early moments of a show that had only a few bum spots.
The concert also acknowledged the group’s rich pedigree by spotlighting a song from each member’s former bands: “Court of the Crimson King” for King Crimson’s Wetton, “Fanfare for the Common Man” for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer drummer Carl Palmer, Yes’ “Roundabout” for guitarist Steve Howe, and “Video Killed the Radio Star” for former Buggles member Downes.
“Roundabout,” especially, felt unnecessary -- Yes fans don’t even want to hear that song anymore. It’s a cut that works well for Yes singer Anderson; not so well for Wetton. The song was rearranged Saturday night to accommodate Wetton’s lower range, and the results weren’t pretty. Wetton fared better “Video Killed the Radio Star” --once he put down the megaphone after the initial verse, that is. And “Fanfare and Court” came off as wasted time, seeing that Asia has a new album to promote.
Thankfully, only a couple of tracks from the new Phoenix – “Never Again” and “An Extraordinary Life.” The former is a keyboard-driven cut that would fit comfortably on any of Asia’s albums from back in the day, while “An Extraordinary Life” nods to both Wetton and Palmer’s recent heart ailments. But you certainly wouldn’t have known that Palmer was in the hospital in February by his performance. He opened the set modestly, but by the time he got to his drum solo at the end of “The Heat Goes On,” it was anything but modest. His two-and-a-half ton steel drum kit from the glory days is on display at the Rock Hall these days. But his new kit still includes not one, but two, gongs. And he found time to use both of them before the night was over.
Downes’ keyboard setup was a bit excessive too. As one fan noted, he had 10 keyboards onstage, yet he could realistically get by with three. Add a pair of laptops and a bunch of rack-mounted audio equipment, and it sure looked impressive. Meanwhile, Howe’s guitar tone featured a dirtier edge than it does when he plays with Yes (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a tour). Onstage, Howe was more energetic and animated as a player than we’ve seen him in years.
Overall, it was an excellent set from Asia that lasted about 140 minutes. It covered a lot of ground, including a three-song acoustic set with B-side rarity “Ride Easy.” Downes even hauled out his keytar for “Heat of the Moment,” which is one of the supreme rock jams that actually merits use of this goofy instrument. The band stretched out its greatest hit with some “call and response” with the crowd. Encores included the one-two punch of “Don’t Cry” and “Sole Survivor,” which left plenty of fans saying, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.” Asia, judging from the packed set, didn’t forget a thing. --Matt Wardlaw