Sunday, October 21, 2012

Asia - Keswick Theater - 10/20/2012

I had the thrill of seeing Asia live last night for the first time in 29 years, and it was a great show. Amp and I had originally intended to see the show with The Neighbors, but after buying the tickets months ago, they realized they would be traveling and unable to go. Brother Dave and Leo filled in admirably, and all seemed to have a good time.

Steve Howe
This was only my second time to the Keswick Theater in Glenside, but it is a nice place to see a show - an old 1,300 seat theater (with a bar) where no seat is a bad seat or too far from the stage. One of the things that had me especially excited about this concert was the fact that we had seats in the sixth row, dead center. They turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped they would be. And the thought of seeing one of my favorite bands from my teen years brought back a lot of fond memories. This is the 30th anniversary tour, and all four original members were on board: Steve Howe (from Yes) on guitar, John Wetton (from King Crimson) on bass and lead vocals, Carl Palmer (from Emerson Lake and Palmer) on drums, and Geoff Downes (from Yes and the Buggles - Video Killed the Radio Star, the first ever video played on MTV) on keyboards and backing vocals.

After buying the tickets, I did some digging into what all these guys had been doing in recent years, and learned a bunch of things I didn't know. Apparently, Asia for the most part never ceased to exist in the 1990s and 2000s, but continued on with a wide array of non-original members coming and going. Albums that I had never heard of were released; people I had never heard of were in the band. But in 2008, the original lineup released an album (Phoenix). And toured some. And then released an album in 2010 (Omega), and toured some. And now have released a third new album ("XXX"). So they have actually put out more material and toured more in the last 5 years than they did back in the day. All while mixing in Yes albums and Yes tours, and Emerson Lake and Palmer reunions, solo and other small group projects, etc.

I do like the surprise of not knowing what a band is going to play at a show, but I was curious enough about this one that I cheated and looked up set lists online a few days before. What I could find for the prior few shows was pretty consistent from one to the next, so I jotted down the most recent one and took it with me. With one exception on Howe's acoustic solo original piece, it was dead on. So this is exactly what the show was, with my notes and comments (all songs are from the first album, Asia, unless otherwise noted):
Downes and his U-shaped 3-tier stack of keyboards
  1. Only Time Will Tell - This was not one of my absolute favorites from the first album (although I liked everything), but it was a terrific song to start the show with. Downes started in with the classical-ish intro, Palmer led Wetton in to establish a solid base, and then Howe came in over the top with an ethereal guitar line. It sounded just like... Asia. Probably my biggest "I wonder..." coming into the show was how the vocals would hold up. Their sound was primarily defined by lush keyboards and multilayered harmonies on the choruses. As performers age, the first thing to go is generally the voice, and I wondered how badly that might be the case here (as their ages run from 60 through 65). I was pleasantly surprised, and would continue to be throughout the evening. Wetton's voice was clear and strong, and range was not too much of an issue as his parts were never typically very high (so less upper range to lose). The harmonies were interesting (and very effective for the most part), and I am still not 100% sure how they did it. The only band member singing backup was Downes, but it sounded like more than one person. He was typically singing into a pair of mics, and I am guessing that they ran the signals through electronics that varied the end result just enough in tone and effect that one person became like several similar but slightly different people. Howe had a stand mic, but I don't remember ever seeing him use it. Palmer was singing along at times, but didn't have a mic. It worked fine.
  2. Wildest Dreams - A favorite and very well done. 
  3. Face on the Bridge ("XXX") - The first of three songs from the new album, and I liked it a lot.
  4. Time Again - Perhaps my favorite song because of the complicated instrumentals. I loved it. By this point, several songs in, I had lapsed into focusing primarily on Steve Howe. Being about 30 feet from him, I could see every move of his fingers with perfect clarity and detail, and I was completely mesmerized. We could see every little detail of everything down to the level of who was wearing what kind of rings on which fingers. Very very cool. The term that kept coming to mind watching Howe was "spider fingers" - long thin fingers dancing effortlessly up and down the fretboard. "Awesome" is an overused word, but I think it really can be called "awe" when your mouth is literally hanging open.
  5. Tomorrow the World ("XXX") - Another good new song.
  6. Ride Easy - This is an early track recorded along with the first album, which according to Wetton's intro, they wanted to include on the first album but the record company people told them not to. Wetton thought the record company people were wrong, and I agree. I have this on a 1990 "best of" CD and have always liked it a lot.
  7. (something Vivaldi) - Steve Howe acoustic guitar solo part 1. Stunning classical guitar piece, with Howe seated alone at center stage. He later said that this was Vivaldi, but I don't know what specifically.
  8. Bach Chorale Prelude - Acoustic guitar solo part 2. More beautiful classical.
  9. All in the Course of a Day - Acoustic guitar solo part 3. An up tempo contemporary piece. Fast and clean. I know I saw Dave watching with rapt attention through this part...
  10. I Know How You Feel ("XXX") - Wetton/Downes duo part 1. The third song from the new album, and another winner. Looks like I will be getting this album. Wetton singing by himself with only keyboards behind him showed that his voice was still nice and clear, if ever so slightly challenged in the higher range.
  11. Don't Cry (Alpha) - Wetton/Downes duo part 2. Wetton jokingly introduced this as the most popular song the band had ever done, and the one that broke them up back in 1983. I don't know the full story behind the breakup, but I do know that despite pretty much the entire second album (Alpha) having been written by Wetton and Downes, Wetton left the band prior to the tour for that album. The famous "Asia in Asia" concert video in Japan has Greg Lake on vocals and bass instead of Wetton. Whatever the full story is, and whether or not you can read anything into this song being performed by only the two that wrote it, it was another nice duo arrangement of a good song. 
  12. The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (Alpha) - Wetton/Downes duo part 3. This started out as a duo, but partway through the other two returned to the stage and finished up the song as a full band like on the album.
  13. Cutting it Fine - I remember this as being one of the less memorable songs from the first album, but the live version was really strong, driven by a good guitar line. I have to go back to this on the album and give it another listen.
  14. Holy War (Omega) - More new-ish music. This was probably my least favorite of the five newer songs they did, but it was still pretty decent.
  15. (Drum solo) - Palmer is known as one of the better drummers out there, and is famous for long solos with lots of acrobatics, and we certainly got one of those. We got tricks with sticks, gong playing, crowd interaction, and some fabulous drumming. The crowd loved it. I remember him doing something similar way back in the day, and I don't think he's lost much of anything in the intervening years. He seemed to be having an absolute blast performing.
  16. An Extraordinary Life (Phoenix) - Another newer song, and another really nice one. At this point I am planning on buying myself some newer Asia albums for sure... probably all three of them. This is the last of the newer material and it has all been good.
  17. Here Comes the Feeling - Back to the first album.
  18. Open Your Eyes (Alpha) - A longer song from the days of "everything will be 4 minutes long for MTV and the radio". Very typical Asia in terms of soft vocal bits interspersed with driving full-band bits. The difference between soft and loud is one thing on an album, but I absolutely love that feeling in the concert hall when a soft part dives back into something louder and you can feel the contrast through the air, through the floor, through your chair... The song had a nice long instrumental crescendo building to a climax before the band left the stage.
  19. Sole Survivior - Encore part 1. The crowd was on its feet for much of this, and the band really sounded great. I loved watching Howe on this as he played pretty much the whole song using a wahwah pedal. Great song. Which led us inevitably into...
  20. Heat of the Moment - Encore part 2. Not necessarily my favorite, but there was probably no way that this wasn't going to be either the first or last song of the show. The band really seemed to be enjoying themselves (Howe even looked up from his guitar I think...), and the main part of the song led into a house-lights-up audience participation segment. Cutesy, but a nice way to end the show.
Asia in 2010
And with that the concert was over. Two hours end to end, and I was thrilled; if nothing else, it reminded me that the kind of music that I liked in my youth is pretty much still the kind of music I like now. Songs with a nice melody, but also songs that can be musically complex and technically impressive in the execution. Now, as well as back then, Steve Howe is the single biggest thing that makes this band for me (much the way that he is a major reason I always liked Yes). In addition to being a fabulous technical guitarist, I like the way he fits into the band(s); he is not a standard play-chords-through-much-of-the-song-and-then-solo-a-little guitarist. There is chord playing of course, but much of his time is spent playing primary or secondary melody lines, descant parts, background soloing, riffs and fills, all of which make the music much more interesting to me.
Bleached out pic from my seat - close!!

Guitar notes - Other than the acoustic section and a few bits where he played a few bars on a second guitar (with effects) on a stand, Howe played the guitar in the picture above for the entire show. I don't know what it is... but I have seen pictures of him playing this exact guitar in much much earlier Yes pictures, so he has had it for a very long time (or an identical one). He used one Line-6 cabinet with two mics in front of it, and a few pedals and stomp boxes, but for the most part relied on a clean bright sound with minimal extras.

Great show, and you know what? I do feel young again... :-)

1 comment:

  1. es 335 is my guess. most common of the gibson hollow bodies