Roger Dean's serpent rising from the ocean waters. The instantly recognizable artwork seems to have a voice of its very own. A voice given to it by John Wetton, Geoffrey Downes, Steve Howe & Carl Palmer. Asia, with their classic first record, changed the face of music for the classic rock genre in the early 80's. The debut stayed atop the Billboard chart for 9 weeks, yielding four Top 10 hits. The band, formed in 1981, has gone through many lineup changes, with the four original members playing their last notes together in 1983. Until now .
As I prepared to make the trek to the Park West, the 1,000-seat club on the North Side of Chicago where the band was playing this evening, my mind got to wondering. What has happened in my life since '82? I had to chuckle at the thought. Let's see high school, four jobs, four girlfriends, marriage, seven cars, three houses, two kids, three dogs, and a goldfish. It's completely insane to even fathom the changes that have occurred throughout the past 25 years. So I wondered, "How will this band sound after so much time apart?" My initial thought was of this band's expertise and professionalism throughout their careers. John Wetton and Geoffrey Downes were an unstoppable songwriting team; there was no stronger drummer than Carl Palmer back in the day; and, Steve Howe practically invented progressive music with his surgically precise Yes solos. But, even with this resume, I expected some rust to permeate the Park West air here in 2006. Well I should've known better. After not playing together as a unit for 23 years, this band played tonight as if they had never been separated.
With a simple tapestry backdrop with the band name emblazoned upon it, the four members of Asia looked composed and comfortable as they took the stage with "Time Again" from the unforgettable debut album. With Palmer bashing the crash cymbals like he was trying to crack them in half, and Wetton's voice sounding clear and sharp, the song was the first of many that would thrill the sold out crowd. With no hesitation, the band broke into yet another two tracks from the debut album ("Wildest Dreams" and "One Step Closer"). As a matter of fact, before the night would end, the band would perform the entire first record. As they parted ways with the debut for the next song, they decided to go back to the roots of Steve Howe's career by playing the Yes classic, "Roundabout." Now, what kind of insane man would try to sing like Jon Anderson and play bass like the incomparable Chris Squire at the same time?! His name is John Wetton, folks. And aside from streamlining the extremely complex bass lines made famous by Squire, and tuning down the Anderson high notes a bit, Wetton was at the top of his game here. A very impressive and commendable performance from someone that has not performed the song in more than two decades. And Steve Howe, who seems to take on the "old master" persona, was exquisite in his precision and technique. With his slight stature and his quiet yet commanding presence, he came across like the musical equivalent of David Carradine in "Kung Fu," or the Yoda of progressive guitar, if you will. The man was a technical and creative genius more than three decades ago, and nothing at all has changed since then. After "Roundabout," the band returned to their beginnings once again to give the crowd "Without You" and "Cutting It Fine." Throughout the entire set on this night, keyboardist Geoffrey Downes and drummer Carl Palmer seemed to never stop smiling. With Palmer punishing his drum kit like an ornery child, and Downes fidgeting about with three racks of keyboards, these guys looked and sounded very content.
The spotlight was yet again turned to "the master" for an acoustic instrumental piece called "The Clap" from the early Yes days. As Howe frantically picked and plucked strings for this bluegrass-style barn dance, the crowd clapped their hands and stomped their feet accordingly. As the audience wildly applauded Howe, you could feel the intensity mounting. As Wetton announced that we would be hearing a tune from Palmer's past, the crowd simply erupted as "Fanfare For The Common Man" was announced. How ironic is it to have Wetton playing Greg Lake's bass part on a stage with the original members of Asia?! With Greg Lake suddenly being brought in to replace Wetton in 1983, the change had ultimately caused the demise of the original Asia lineup. And now, 23 years older and wiser, Wetton and Asia pumped out a wicked rendition of the ELP gem that will never be forgotten. Thinking of Downes striking the first few keys of the tune is a memory that still gives me chills. The time had come to pull up some stools for a small acoustic segment that included "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes" and "Don't Cry" from Asia's powerful second release, "Alpha." With Palmer trading his sticks for a tambourine, and Howe trading his guitar for a mandolin, the band remained sharp and well prepared.
It was at this point that the set list really fired up. The band honored the majesty of King Crimson, a band that Wetton was once a member of, with a haunting version of "In The Court of the Crimson King." Much like they did for "Fanfare For The Common Man" earlier in the set, the crowd exploded into a frenzy for the King Crimson classic. The huge hit, "Here Comes The Feeling," was punchy, with seamless harmonies and pumped up instrumentation. But, it wasn't until Wetton sang through a megaphone that this show took on a whole new life. I am referring to the band honoring Downes history with The Buggles, of course. "Video Killed The Radio Star" was resurrected by having Downes donning a sleek white jacket and some ultra cool shades, and the rest of the band rocking out with a fury. I never thought the tune could be as strong as the members of Asia made it on this night. With "The Heat Goes On" being the last song the band would do from "Alpha," Carl Palmer single-handedly obliterated any doubts that he is one of the best ever. Playing so physical that he would sometimes rise from his throne, Palmer performed a drum solo/clinic that brought me to tears. Holding his sticks in the traditional position, with the right stick held between the middle and ring fingers, he blasted his kit with dynamic rhythm and overwhelming power. As the beating continued, Palmer turned his drum solo into a cymbal solo, and it was astounding. His playful attitude led to a stick and cymbal trick that was a real pleasure to watch. As he placed one stick atop his ride cymbal, he used the other stick to strike the cymbal with machine gun fire speed, and managed to keep the stick afloat on the ride. Even better than his amazing ability to do this, was the fact that he was enjoying his time so much. He really did look like the happiest guy alive.
As the band started to wind up the set with some of their biggest hits from the first record, they just seemed to get sharper and sharper; every member growing even more commanding in their roles. After "Only Time Will Tell" and "Sole Survivor" it was time for the encores. With their selection of the rare "Heat Of The Moment" b-side, "Ride Easy," my jaw dropped like it had just received an Ali right hook. With its catchy sing-along refrain, the sold out crowd sang along whole heartedly to this obscure gem. As the band cut into their biggest hit, "Heat Of The Moment," the singing continued as Wetton acted as the conductor of the rabid 1,000 fan chorus. With their fans thoroughly fulfilled, the band of musical giants left the stage
This show was remarkable for many reasons, but there are two that immediately come to mind. First, it was almost like seeing King Crimson, The Buggles, ELP, Yes, and Asia all on the same stage. It was a fine choice the band made to feature a glimpse into each members past. And second, it was simply astonishing to hear this group play as well as they did. Even as much as I respected them going into this show, I never expected everything to be so tight and well groomed. The band was practically flawless throughout the night.
As club employees started to clear tables and sweep up for the night, I noticed that very few people had left the building. I was then notified that the entire band would be out to sign autographs for everyone. Yes ..everyone. After almost a two hour set of grueling musical labor, the band was ready to say "thank you" to the fans for not forgetting them. It was one of the most admirable things I had ever seen from a band of this caliber. So, as I made my way to the merchandise kiosk in the lobby of the venue, I purchased my print of the Roger Dean serpent artwork, and proceeded to have four of the greatest sign their names to it. Having so many of my wildest dreams come true on this evening, I had to wonder if it could get any better. As I stood outside and started to pace the city streets of Chicago, I figured as long as the wait was less than 23 years for the next Asia concert, it really couldn't get any better than this.