After watching Steve Howe & Co. perform for three hours at Kansas City’s Uptown Theater, I know two things – Steve Howe is neither the centerpiece of Asia nor Yes. He may have been the most technically proficient performer of the night – he certainly has the most impressive resume – but rather than trolling the stage like any good classic rock axeman should, he stood guard over a square foot patch left of center. He occasionally bent his knees or lifted a leg in the air; hell, I think he jumped in the air once; but mostly his frail frame looked in need of a walker to prop him up. I swear he was leaning against the wall during the encore.
Okay, okay, I shouldn’t go to an Asia and Yes concert if I’m looking for young, energetic performances. Oh, wait, there was that, too – however sadly out of place. Unfortunately, Yes’ longtime frontman Jon Anderson was laid up by a respiratory illness and, in true dinosaur band fashion these days, the other members perused YouTube videos scouting out lead singers for Yes tribute bands until they found a guy young enough to date their granddaughters. In this case, Canadian Benoit David drew the lucky lottery ticket and figured if he pranced about enough on stage, the audience might forget he was a nobody. Let’s face it, though, other than Queen’s Freddie Mercury, no other rock singer has ever pulled off prancing. On top of that, David sported a mostly white outfit that certainly recalled the ‘70s – it just had the misfortunate of reminding one of Saturday Night Fever more than Yes’ dinosaur prog-rock.
Based on my tirades against Howe and David, one might think that I was dragged to this show against my will. Not the case. I went eager to appreciate these Gods of Prog. They kickstarted the genre forty years ago. They are the grand masters at stripping a record of every last bit of commercialism and leaving ten minutes of instrumental prowess behind. Howe’s guitar is still at the forefront of every memorable Yes song – and was highlighted midway through Yes’ set with a two-song solo – although Howe still wasn’t physically center stage.
And for all of David’s gyrations, give props to anyone who can tackle Jon Anderson’s vocal gymnastics. Add Howe and Chris Squire as a triple threat on the mike for gems like “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Speaking of Squire, he made a great case, at least in Anderson’s absence, for being the true heart of Yes (he is, after all, the only member to survive every incarnation of the band). His hulking figure towered over Benoit and, despite what seemed a perpetual fan blowing his wispy white hair, he appeared to be the only performer to break a sweat, drenching his shirt by the end of the night.
Anyone looking for Yes music from the last 25 years was out of luck. Their only post-1980 song was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and, judging by the lukewarm response, they could have jettisoned it. In fact, other than “Owner” and a pair of songs from 1980’s Drama, perhaps the band’s low point yet well received in this concert, this could have been a tour to support 1972’s Close to the Edge album.
While Yes represented the original prog rockers, opening act Asia symbolized the next wave. Exploding on the scene in 1982, the members’ resumes included Yes; King Crimson; and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but instead of the second coming of prog rock, Asia delivered their brand of ‘80s corporate rock – slick, commercial, and arena ready. Here’s where my musical roots reveal themselves and I commit sacrilege – I enjoyed Asia more than Yes. Trot out all the 40 Year Old Virgin jokes you want, but there’s no denying one’s first musical love. I was born in 1967 and after surviving disco, was just grateful for pop radio hits that actually featured guitar solos. I would later become a classic rock junkie, but bands like Asia were still my gateway drug.
Seeing the original Asia lineup of John Wetton (vocals, bass), Steve Howe (guitar), Carl Palmer (drums), and Geoff Downes (keyboards) was more satisfying than a Jon-Anderson-copycat-fronted Yes lineup. And if we’re going to have a drum-off, Palmer would embarrass Yes’ Alan White, as the solo on “Fanfare for the Common Man” would attest. Then there’s the matter of keyboards. As the only man to play on every Asia album, Downes deservedly took his place near mid-stage. Rick Wakeman was featured as the keyboardist on nearly every Yes album, but his son Oliver takes the reigns here – and promptly fades into the background so much that they could have just put up a cardboard cut-out of Pops and piped in the music over the speakers.
Since the original Asia lineup lasted for only two albums (and last year’s 2008 reunion album Phoenix), they mixed in songs from the various members’ pre-Asia days. Palmer delivered the show’s highlight with the aforementioned “Fanfare,” which he’d previously done with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Downes got a showcase with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which he’d done with the Buggles. Wetton whetted the prog-rock crowd’s appetite with “In the Court of the Crimson King,” a 1969 gem from King Crimson, who Wetton joined four years later.
That may well have been the theme for the night – songs that had been made famous long before some of tonight’s players got their hands on them. Still, even with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman stand-ins, Yes championed the durability of their catalog. And even if Asia was largely forgotten a quarter century ago, they earned their title of super group, proving that sometimes the same players, such as a Steve Howe, can figure prominently in the story of two genres of rock and roll.