Gig review: ASIA, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 2 November 2014

For a so-called supergroup Asia have shown remarkable longevity, but their profile is now much lower than it was in the heady days when their 1982 debut went multi-platinum, judging by a disappointing turnout at their first headline London show in four years.

Nevertheless from the moment they opened with a couple of gems from that album in ‘Sole Survivor’ (where an attempted crowd singalong on the first song may have been over-optimistic with Asia crowds notably reserved)  and ‘Wildest Dreams’, it was clear they were on top form.

ASIA, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 2 November 2014

In particular the rich, booming voice of bassist and singer John Wetton, who has come through a battle with alcohol and ill-health, can never have sounded better.

I was also delighted to hear ‘Face On The Bridge’ (complete with an intro which reminded me of Genesis’ ‘Turn It On Again’) from 2012’s XXX album, as that year I felt I was fated not to hear it with their Weyfest headline show truncated by sound problems and a curfew, and a UK Christmas tour cancelled when Carl Palmer fell ill.

This tour also marked a change in the Asia camp with Steve Howe departed (possibly taking a few Yes fans with him), replaced by long-haired youngster Sam Coulson. Even if he has yet to stamp (or be allowed to stamp) his personality in the band, his rapid, technically skilled playing certainly gave the likes of ‘Time Again’ a sharper, more metallic feel.

ASIA, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 2 November 2014

However the way Geoff Downes held court at a triple bank of nine keyboards in total, like the controller of a NASA mission, was a reminder that Asia were never primarily a guitar driven band.

There was always an internal tension in Asia between the musicianship of some of their creators of the greatest of progressive rock and the radio friendly AOR sound the band chose to follow. When the original line-up first reformed in 2006, as if to prove their progressive credentials, solos and songs from band members past formed a large part of the set.

On this occasion, with Howe gone and Geoff restricted to the outro to ‘Cutting It Fine’ (No ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ this time), the spotlight fell far more firmly on the songcraft of Asia originals. Not everyone would have welcomed this, but as a committed AOR-ster I found it more satisfying.

There were two other reasons to be cheerful. One was that a varied setlist did not just focus on the debut and latest release, but covered all phases of the band’s career with Wetton including all four post-reunion albums.

However there were only a couple from the underwhelming new Gravitas album including the title track and ‘Valkyrye’, which seemed to take its cue from some of the choral music inspired moments on the Wetton Downes solo albums.

ASIA, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 2 November 2014

The other was that John was more voluble than usual with stories behind the songs, explaining that the acoustically delivered ‘Voice Of America’ was a tribute to Brian Wilson and  drawing attention to how the big chorused ‘Finger On The Trigger’ had originally been a war song that descended into typically British innuendo.

John and Geoff also delivered a beautifully stripped back ‘I Know Who You Are’ and John’s trademark ‘The Smile Has Left Your Eyes’ was all the more powerful with his voice in such emotive form.

The timetable for the evening had the band playing two sets but by about this time I realised they had decided to plough on through the whole of the set and there were a couple of quite inspiring songs in ‘Days Like These’ and ‘An Extraordinary Life’ (written by John after his life-saving heart surgery and apparently used on America’s Got Talent, unsurprisingly as these are the type of motivational songs that the ‘shermans’ go a bundle on).

ASIA, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 2 November 2014

The latter even saw some of the band’s guests to the side of the balcony swaying their arms. There were more commercial gems in ‘Don’t Cry’ – with John joking Sam was too young to have heard it on the radio as the rest of us did in 1983 – and ‘Go’, one of the songs suited to Sam’s heavier style.

Carl Palmer is that rarity, a drummer whose solo slot is worth delaying a bathroom break for, and this occasion was no exception as his solo explored all parts of his kit including the percussion in minute detail, combined with entertainment as he dropped his drumsticks in a manner that suggested the old childhood phrase “accidentally on purpose”.

ASIA, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 2 November 2014

In contrast, Geoff’s parping keyboards helped make ‘Only Time Will Tell’ as evocative as ever, before, not bothering with the charade of an encore, they finished with two contrasting songs that probably epitomise the unusual Asia blend of musicianship and radio friendliness.

On the epic ‘Open Your Eyes’, Geoff and Carl seemed to be battling ever faster as the sound reached a real crescendo as Sam belatedly came in, while in contrast ‘Heat Of The Moment’ was timelessly catchy and even though Asia are not that type of band,  featured a brief singalong at the end.

Other than the absence of ‘The Heat Goes On’, the setlist could hardly be faulted (at least from this melodic rock fan’s perspective). It was an excellent show by a revitalised band and a timely reminder of why I loved Asia so much in the first place. I hope it will be a springboard to further live action in 2015.

Review and photos by Andy Nathan 

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 20 September 2020.

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