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Reviewed by David Medsker
e see a smallish, empty stage splattered with light, while an audience of well-dressed Japanese businessmen and their wives sit patiently as “Pomp and Circumstance” plays over the speakers. Are they here to see an opera? No, it is the opening to Asia’s new concert video “Fantasia: Live in Tokyo,” and it is both surreal and a little sad. These guys were the biggest band in the world at one point, and at their peak, no one in attendance of one of their concerts wore a suit, and no one sat down. Twenty-five years later, Asia takes the stage, and are met with a golf clap. That had to have been disheartening.
Still, give credit to John Wetton, Steve Howe, Geoffrey Downes and Carl Palmer for giving it their all, even if their all is a far cry from what it used to be. The band plunges into every song from their million-selling eponymous debut, along with a smattering of tracks from its 1983 follow-up, Alpha. Not much of a set list, true – one wishes Howe would have acquiesced to playing the rocking Astra track “Go,” but since he didn’t play on the original recording, it was right out – so they flesh it out by including one song from each of the members’ former bands. This is where things get interesting.
The first band to be honored is Yes, in form of “Roundabout.” And if you’re anything like this writer, you thought, “Can John Wetton even sing ‘Roundabout’?” The answer, surprisingly, is yes, though he can’t hold those really high notes for as long as Jon Anderson can/could. The band’s versions of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and King Crimson’s “Court of the Crimson King” are competent but the crowd, oddly, doesn’t seem too interested. Or maybe their reaction only seems mild in comparison to the roar of the crowd after Downes played the first four notes of “Video Killed the Radio Star.” That’s right, the Buggles upstaged Yes, ELP, King Crimson and even Asia themselves.
If that seems harsh, well, the band has only themselves to blame. Its fan base is as staunchly devoted as you’re likely to find, but when it comes to playing the songs, prog is a young man’s game. Everyone in Asia has lost a step or two along the way, which resulted in several songs having to be played considerably slower than they were originally recorded (“Roundabout” and “Time Again” in particular). Howe and Palmer are the most egregious offenders; Howe hits a ton of broken notes, while Palmer’s drumming is overdone, Animal-type arm mashing, which appears to actually slow him down. Rush’s Neil Peart, by comparison, looks like he’s barely moving behind the kit, yet is as fast as he’s ever been. Food for thought, Mr. Palmer.
Despite its many, many flaws, Asia fans are going to lap up this long-overdue reunion, and in fairness, there is something special about watching the original members bang out these tunes as best they can. Indeed, what band from today’s rock scene will be packing a venue of any size 25 years from now? (Besides U2, of course, who will continue to play until they turn into dust.) It is a testament to Asia’s legacy that, “40-Year-Old Virgin” good-natured ribbing aside, people still care deeply about the music they made a quarter of a century ago. The problem is the nostalgia that comes with Asia at their peak is far more powerful than their actual performance.