Monday, July 2, 2007

Asia Draws Prog Rockers to Westbury

Asia has always been one of my favorite bands, but on paper, it was a group that had no business working. Four veterans of classic progressive rock bands, none of whom were known for cranking out a lot of conventional hits, got together in 1982 and started a band that was built around writing and performing conventional hits. But catching the original lineup performing for a near-capacity crowd on Saturday night at the North Fork Theater at Westbury (known as the Westbury Music Fair in a less corporate era) left me feeling like, in the end, it all did make sense.

The last and only time I saw Asia perform live, at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August of 1983, the band was an omnipresent force on MTV, thanks mainly to its videos for "Heat of the Moment," "Only Time Will Tell," and "Don't Cry." The stage set for the concert matched the group's station in the industry. The musicians inhabited their individual sectors of a massive stage. Drummer Carl Palmer, as active as a pug on amphetamines, played animatedly on a riser that featured him like the star of a Vegas review. Keyboardist Geoff Downes raced around a platform that stretched the width of the stage, above and behind Palmer, seeming to make it just in time to whichever of his multitude of keyboards was needed at that moment. And guitarist Steve Howe and bass player and lead vocalist John Wetton were camped out in their front corners, placidly churning out song after song.

By December of 1983, Wetton had left the band. While different incarnations of the group with alternate players existed on-and-off over the next 23 years, the original four members reunited in 2006 for a tour that has now lasted into 2007, with dates scheduled through December. And now, crammed onto Westbury's small circular stage, with Downes down to two racks of less than 10 keyboards and Palmer's kit on ground level with his mates, the focus has shifted from arena showiness to the music. Palmer is still an engaging performer, working the audience like a veteran Vaudevillian, mixing his virtuosic drumming with stick tricks and gimmicks more akin to an Ed Sullivan Show plate spinner than a Charlie Watts concert, and Downes still is a ball of energy, shifting between keyboards with flourishes and often hopping up and down like Roger Federer waiting for a serve. But it was the music that ruled Saturday night.

More fans were decked out in gear from Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer than from Asia. While it might seem odd from listening to the records that fans of these progressive rock standard bearers would be interested in seeing Asia live, the live performance afforded listeners the chance to see how Asia combines the virtuosic performances that were the hallmark of 1970s progressive rock with commercial songwriting that made the band a best seller in the early 1980s. You never once felt like the musicians were showing off. Everything served the songs, and there was absolute respect for the melodies, as well as for the fans. While the Police treat their early songs like the starting points for live experiments that are more fun to play than listen to, Asia's obvious devotion to their songs, despite the fact that the band never got the same respect as the members' earlier outfits, is what makes them special.

The quartet ran through seven of the nine songs from its self-titled 1982 debut album (plus one B-side) and four cuts from the next year's follow-up, "Alpha." Adding a little spice to the show was the decision to dig out one selection from each of the members' past bands, with uniformly positive and interesting results.

After opening with "Soul Survivor" and "Wildest Dreams," Howe launched into the iconic opening guitar harmonics of the Yes classic "Roundabout." I have no doubt that Yes purists probably had a hard time swallowing Wetton's dulcet baritone intoning lyrics normally offered by Jon Anderson's Everest-high soprano, but I thought Wetton gave the song some muscle. The Asia version played like a cool alternate take on a song that has started to feel a bit worn.

Howe thrilled the guitar aficionados in the crowd with some impressive acoustic guitar work, before the band continued with an acoustic take on "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes" and the "Heat of the Moment" B-side "Ride Easy." It was then time for Palmer's trip down memory lane as Downes launched into the familiar synth-trumpets opening of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's rocked-out version of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Quickly it was clear why Asia chose this instrumental rather than one of ELP's better known selections like "Lucky Man." "Fanfare" gave each member of the ensemble a chance to show off his prodigious skills. Wetton's bass solo mirrored his playing the whole night, a kind of effortless dexterity and rock-solid rhythm that helped hold everything together. Downes was more than able to hang with Emerson's signature keyboard gymnastics on the song. Howe, a kind of mad scientist of the strings with his his oversized hollow body guitar dwarfing his Nicole Richie-thin frame, and with his bookish glasses poking out from behind his straight, thinning hair, added guitar flourishes that enhanced the ELP arrangement. And then there was Palmer, lightning fast, hands in perpetual motion, all while keeping metronome-level timing, providing the flash for the song.

Two more Asia album cuts followed, "Midnight Sun" and "Without You," before it was Wetton's turn to go back in time when the band covered a piece of "The Court of the Crimson King" (sung on the original King Crimson album by Greg Lake, but no doubt played live often by Wetton when he took over as the band's vocalist). Asia's take on the song was pretty close to the original but successfully retained the melody's haunting beauty.

After "Here Comes the Feeling," the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" provided the evening's final (and most lighthearted) journey to the past, complete with Downes donning his old satin jacket and sunglasses for the occasion. The song provided the only chance of the night for some of the women in the audience to dance (for most of the show, the crowd sat respectfully still during the performances, like they were attending a fascinating lecture, only to stand up and explode in applause at the songs' conclusions). But, the New Wave 1980s MTV hit also produced the only indifferent performance of the night. Wetton looked a little embarrassed to be singing such a silly trifle, even blowing a line halfway through. It was not enough, however, to ruin the fun of the performance, and Wetton even gamely spoke the first verse through a bullhorn to capture the transistor radio feel of the vocals on the original recording.

"Video Killed the Radio Star" kick-started the last section of the performance, with "The Heat Goes On" (containing a mind-blowing and entertaining drum solo by Palmer that included stick-balancing and stick-throwing antics and sections performed on limited portions of his kit, like the cymbals or tom-toms) and the band's second biggest hit, "Only Time Will Tell."

The show ended with a two-song encore of an acoustic "Don't Cry" and extended version of Asia's biggest hit, "Heat of the Moment." When Howe kicked it off, strumming one of the catchiest chord progressions in rock music, the crowd exploded. After a false ending, Wetton, propelled by Palmer's drums, led the crowd through a sing-along of the chorus to wrap up the 90-minute show.

As the band stood in line, arms around each other's shoulders, to bow to the audience, it struck me again how Asia can seem like such a mish-mash. Wetton, with his protruding beer belly, longish hair, and stone-washed jeans, looked like a good-hearted, middle-aged plumber you would see having a pint at the pub with his mates after a day of work. Downes, with his pretty-boy, dyed-blonde hair looked like Simon Le Bon gone to seed. Palmer, wearing a buzz cut and a red T-shirt over his fit frame, came off as a retired football hooligan sitting in the same pub as Wetton, waiting for the Chelsea game to start on the telly. Throw in Professor Howe, and the four members were as visually dissonant as they were musically in sync. But, the contrast only served to underline the unlikely magic of four prog rockers making accessible music together.

It was worth the 24-year wait to see the original lineup of Asia again, and the enthusiastic audience seemed to agree. Watching four great musicians come together in service of good songs, rather than just showing off for the sake of showing off, is a rare opportunity. Let's hope this tour isn't the last one for another 24 years.

Set List:
Soul Survivor
Wildest Dreams
Time Again
(Steve Howe Acoustic Guitar Solo)
The Smile Has Left Your Eyes
Ride Easy
Fanfare for the Common Man
Midnight Sun
Without You
The Court of the Crimson King
Here Comes the Feeling
Video Killed the Radio Star
Heat Goes On
(Carl Palmer Drum Solo)
Only Time Well Tell
Don't Cry
Heat of the Moment