Saturday, June 15, 2019

Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy, John Lodge, Asia, Yes

A few months ago, Denise started talking about an '80s cruise some of her friends from the WLIR group are going on next March. It has a pretty good lineup, including The B-52s (who are one of her favorite bands), Berlin, Scandal, The Motels, etc. (There are a lot more, but these were some of the ones that intrigued me.) Also, listed among the non-new-wave-'80s bands was Asia, which didn't interest Denise a bit, but interested me a lot. Even though John Wetton passed away not that long ago, I've never seen Asia, and I still wanted to. At first, I said I'd go with her. Then, when I started thinking about the logistics of it, including leaving my son alone for a week, the money (when my finances are kind of a mess), how much I hate to fly (the cruise is leaving out of Florida), etc., I decided it wasn't a great idea. So she's going with her friends, but I'm staying here with my son (and possibly my daughter - her boyfriend is planning to go into the military in November, so it's not clear if she's going where he goes, she's coming back here, etc.) But there was a little pang in my heart about not seeing Asia, even without John Wetton.

Shortly after that, I got an email notice that Yes (the Steve Howe version) was bringing a tour called The Royal Affair Tour, to Long Island in June. (For some reason, I have a mental block about the tour name -- I keep wanting to call it "The Royal We" tour -- but whatever.) The tour would include Yes, John Lodge (of Moody Blues fame), Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy, and, wait for it ... Asia! (You guessed that, didn't you?) I bought myself a pair of tickets almost immediately. I had just seen Yes last year at Westbury, of course, but they're one of my top favorite bands of all time, so even though they're showing their age a little, it's still always fun to see them. As to John Lodge and Carl Palmer's bands, I would never have bought tickets to see them on their own -- I'd seen both The Moody Blues and Emerson Lake & Palmer back in the day -- but it certainly wouldn't hurt to add a little Moodies and ELP music to the show. And as I read more about the tour, it made sense -- it was going to be a musically incestuous thing (maybe that's where they got the "Royal Affair" name), with a lot of the musicians playing in several of the bands over the course of the evening.

Ironically, shortly after I bought the tickets, I learned that there were actually two versions of Asia out there now (shades of Yes!), and that the other version, "Asia featuring John Payne" (who took over Asia's lead singing duties from Wetton in 1992, and went to on to make six studio albums with them) would also be appearing on Long Island this summer at The Patchogue Theater. (I still might get tickets for this show too, although I watched a few clips on YouTube and wasn't blown away by Payne's vocals.)

So this week was one of those weeks where Denise and I each went our own way for music. She went into the city on Thursday night and met up with her WLIR friends to see Howard Jones, Men Without Hats and All Hail the Silence again. (We both just saw the same lineup together last week at the Paramount in Huntington, but Denise reported that the NYC show was twenty times better. Thanks a bunch, Hojo!). And last night, I made my way to Bald Hill for the prog rock show.

First, a few words about the venue. This venue has had like a zillion different names, and about as many different management companies. I always think of them it as The Brookhaven Amphitheater, but as recently as last year, it was the Pennysaver Amphitheater. This year, it's The Long Island Community Hospital Amphitheater. (Ironically, Long Island Community Hospital also changed their name this year. As Brookhaven Hospital, they always had a lousy reputation. So instead of upgrading the service and improving their reputation, some marketing genius had the idea, "Hey! Making it better would be hard. How about if we just rebrand it!" Don't even get me started on this topic.)

Now I haven't been to this venue for twenty years or so, and largely for two reasons. The first is, their booking has usually sucked! Very seldom in the last twenty years have they booked a show that I was actually tempted to attend. But the second reason is equally important. They call the area that the amphitheater exists on "Bald Hill", and they're not kidding about the "Hill" part. The venue is a pleasant enough outdoor arena at the bottom of Bald Hill. It's a little bit of a trek going from the parking lot to the venue itself, but at least it's all downhill. Getting back to the parking lot after the show, however ... well, suffice it to say that the last time I made this trip, I'm pretty sure I passed Heidi the mountain girl out walking her goat. It's a fairly brutal walk. Which made it an interesting location for this particular show, since the primary audience for bands like Yes, The Moody Blues and ELP is all old people! I'm bad enough, but there were a number of people there last night who were barely ambulatory. I'm hoping maybe they had some kind of prearrangement with the venue to take them back up the hill in golf carts. But even to go from the seating area to the bathrooms is an uphill walk. All I can say is at least the show didn't take place in the heat of August.

Anyway, I got out there about an hour early, and made my way down the hill to my seat. I bought myself a water and a huge pretzel knot about the size of my arm, and I was good to go. I had brought both a jacket and a sweatshirt with me, because it was supposed to be cool and a little windy last night. However, the temperature was comfortable all night, and the only time I really used my jacket was in the beginning of the evening (the show had a 6:30 starting time). This was because my seat (two seats, actually) was right out in the sun, and I didn't want to get sunburned. (I'm sure I looked like the Unabomber with my hood up protecting my ears.)

I watched the crowd for awhile -- I'd say I was about at the 50th percentile as far as age went.

A few minor complaints about the venue. (Because it wouldn't be a Long Island Music Guy write-up without some complaints.) The arena is pleasant enough, but much like the crowd on this particular evening, it's gotten a little long in the tooth. The way it's set up, there are about twenty rows of metal seats in front of the stage. Behind that is a mental floor section/staircase, with another fifteen rows or so. Then there's a wide break between sections for a central floor area that leads over to the bathrooms. (And in the pavilion above the bathrooms, as well as behind the pavilion, there are various food and merch vendors.) Then there's a section of metal bleachers with seats going up. And at the top of the hill (well, the top of the hill near the stage, anyway -- it's still a long walk up from there back up to the parking lot), looking down, is a general admission grassy area, where people bring blankets, lawn chairs, etc., to watch the show.

I was in the third row of the second section of seats, near where the metal stairs begin. And some of parts of the stadium are in disrepair. Right near me, in a narrow space between the last row of the floor area and first row of the area going up, the bottom of the metal staircase had a strip of metal sticking out that was a lawsuit waiting to happen. One of the young usherettes kept warning people to look out for it, but I saw several people trip over it during the course of the night. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt.

The second complaint about the stadium was that in this age, where smoking has mostly become forbidden even in outdoor spaces, this amphitheater (named after a hospital) had as one of its vendors a cigar stand! And there were several groups of idiots ... um, I mean patrons ... puffing out stinky cigar smoke. I wasn't even sitting that close to them -- I was a good ten rows back -- but every so often, a breeze would carry the stench back my way. I can only imagine how miserable it was for the people sitting around them. So boo! to Long Island Community Hospital Amphitheater for that. Whatever the opposite of kudos are, you deserve them.

(Also, they made most of the young kids working as ushers wear bright yellow shirts with the words "I Heart My Job" on the back. I'm sure some of them do, but I'm also sure those shirts made liars out of the rest of them.)

OK, I've been writing for about an hour now, so I guess I should finally get to part about the actual show, huh?

Now I had gone up on beforehand, and printed out the setlist that each of the four bands had performed in Pennsylvania two nights earlier. My experience has been that especially with some of these older bands, they don't vary their setlists from night to night -- it's easier to keep sharp on the material if you keep your setlist consistent -- and this held true for this show, as each of the four bands performed exactly the same setlist they had done at Wednesday's show in Bethlehem, PA.

At exactly 6:30PM, Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy took the stage for a relatively short five-song set. There were a couple of interesting things about this set. The first was the complete lack of a keyboard player. They used canned keyboards throughout the night. I thought that this was an interesting choice, given that Emerson, Lake & Palmer's music was 99% keyboard driven! But I have to admit, when I thought about it, it made at least some sense. Because barring Rick Wakeman dropping by, a fairly unlikely event, who the hell are you going to get to try to stand in for the late Keith Emerson, one of the two behemoth keyboard players of the seventies! I guess they could have asked poor Geoff Downes, but he's already killing himself trying to play Wakeman's parts for Yes every night. So it was Palmer on drums, a guitarist named Paul Bielaowicz, Simon Fitzpatrick on bass, and a vocalist.

Now bear in mind that at this point, there was bright sunlight glaring in my eyes and I was wearing sunglasses, so it was a little hard to see. (There was a small video screen behind Palmer, but all of the bands just used this to show their own concept video footage -- you never enlarged versions of the bands). But the way the vocalist was dressed as a cross between Elton John (in his wackiest days) and Paul Revere, with one of those big top hats that Slash of Guns & Roses so favors. The band started playing, diving right into "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2". Now I consider Greg Lake to have been maybe the best vocalist in rock history -- his voice was both rich, and very, very beautiful. So as soon as this freakshow started croaking, "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!" I had a Beavis and Butt-head moment. ("Uh oh! What's this? ... Can I see your backstage pass, sir?") The guy was terrible! It was fascinating to watch, because of his outfit, but in a horrific kind of way. I will say that the crowd (which was still fairly sparse at this point) was eating it up, for nostalgia reasons. There were large cheers going on. But I was partially confused, still trying to see where the keyboards were coming, partially amused at this guy's attire, and partially aghast at the godawful noises that were coming out of the man's throat.

It soon became clear that this was a guest vocalist, as he left the stage for the second number. This one made me sad, as at the beginning of the song, Carl Palmer announced that he'd gotten mixed up the other night and introduced "Hoedown" as having been on ELP's Trilogy album, when of course, it was actually on Tarkus. Um, no Carl, you were right the first time -- it was on Trilogy. I thought that poor Carl had gone senile. (As it turned out, whether it was senility or just a mental block, the more I watched him throughout the night, the more I realized that he has still has plenty left in the tank as far as drumming goes.) Anyway, this song was done, as it was on the album, as an instrumental, so no harm, no foul (albeit, also no live keyboards.)

As the third song loomed, the aberration made his way back onto the stage. This time he was wearing what my weak eyes perceived as a Hawkman mask, and some kind of metallic space hat. (The guy next to me lent me his binoculars for this one, and I was then able to see that the mask was merely a mask of many colors.) At this point, Palmer introduced him, and cleared up the mystery as to who this buttmunch was and what he was doing there. It was none other than Arthur Brown, of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, which was actually one of Palmer's first bands prior to Atomic Rooster and ELP. This at least explained what this guy was doing there. The song they played was "Knife-Edge" which at least starts in a lower key than "Karn Evil 9", so Brown was slightly less dreadful on this one. As I listened, I wondered if the man's voice was shot, or if maybe he'd never been able to sing, as like most of you (I'm sure), the only song I knew of his was "Fire".

The next song -- surprise, surprise -- was a cover of "Fire!" The band had a cool video of fire going on behind them. (Back to Beavis -- "Yes! Fire! Fire!"). This was probably the highlight of the set, although even here, I felt distracted, watching ushers leading more and more audience members to their seats, and hoping that no one was going to kill themselves on that loose metal strip. The ELP Legacy finished out their set with another instrumental, this time of "Fanfare for the Common Man". (Between this and "Hoedown", it was a big night for Aaron Copland.)

The crowd gave the band a big cheer. And I had to smile. Did the set much please the gods of music? Probably not. But had I been entertained? I had to admit that I had.

Less than five minutes later, the speakers emitted a painful ear-splitting screech. It was a video montage of John Lodge and The Moody Blues, but some sound person had accidentally turned up the volume to about ten times what it should have been. The sound was turned down to a more acceptable level, and a few seconds later, John Lodge and his band took the stage.

The band was a five-piece, which included a keyboard player and a second guitarist who doubled on electric violin for some songs. I'd like to tell you who the musicians were, but I can't find it online, and I didn't shell out the thirty bucks for the Yes Royal Affair Tour Guide (which might have included it, or might have simply focused on Yes. You're welcome to order it on the Yes website. If you do, let me know.)

Here are the key things to know about this set. 1. Lodge's singing was better than Arthur Brown's, but like so many '70s rock vocalists, his voice has taken some hits over the years. 2. They had some colorful hippy-ish videos playing on the screen, which added to their set. 3. They played a seven-song set. I thought that some of the choices were strange for such a short set (for example, "Steppin' in a Slide Zone" and "Gemini Dream"), given the Moodies' extensive catalog. Then I realized that they (naturally) wanted to mostly focus on songs that were written by Lodge. And this led me to another revelation: 4. In spite of some true classics, like "Isn't Life Strange", "I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)" and "Ride My See-Saw", Justin Hayward and the rest of the Moodies have obviously been carrying this lazy bastard over the years.

OK, let me stop. I'm obviously exaggerating here. But ironically enough (I think that's the third time I've used that word in this review so far), for me, the highlight of the set was a cover of "Legend of a Mind" (better known to most of you by its first line of lyrics, "Timothy Leary's Dead!"), which was written and sung by Ray Thomas. Oh well.

Near the end of Lodge's set, during the last song, I was distracted again by the crowd, as a middle-aged women was being helped up the stairs by a man, while a worried-looking woman followed behind. The first woman was either drunk off her ass or ill (or maybe both), as she pitched sharply a number of times, and it was all the man could do to keep her from falling. Yes singer Jon Davison joined Lodge for this song ("Ride My See-Saw"), which should have helped to smooth out the vocals. Sadly, however, they had him turned down so low that you could barely hear him. It was a good idea, but a missed opportunity.

Anyway, Lodge and his band finished up and took their bows, again to a nice hand by the crowd. At this point, it was only slightly past 7:30, and I predicted to the couple next to me that we were all going to be out of there by 10, especially since the set changes were happening so fast. I figured that the idea was that the bands and the crowd were all so old, they were trying to get us home and to bed. And sure enough, in less than five minutes, Asia took the stage, and were ready to play.

Now here's where the night changed for me, from a nostalgia night to a good music night. In spite of Wetton's death, Asia still seems to have quite a bit left in the tank. Their new lead vocalist, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal sounded world's better than either Arthur Brown or John Lodge. Mind you, he's not in the same class as a Wetton, or a Greg Lake. But his vocals certainly didn't detract from the music. As for the rest of the lineup, it included Yes bass player Billy Sherwood, Yes keyboard player (and original Asia member) Geoff Downes, and another original band member, an energized Carl Palmer, on drums. And as a special treat for the crowd, the band was joined for the last four songs by another original Asia member, none other than Steve Howe.

This set had a number of highlights. The first was a cover of The Buggles' classic, "Video Killed the Radio Star", which was appropriate because in addition to being a member of Yes and Asia, Downes was also one-half of The Buggles. (I actually texted Denise at this point to tell her I'd had my eighties moment for the night. She texted back that that was cool, and that maybe she'd even go see Asia on the cruise ship if they were going to be doing that one. Unfortunately, while was I was researching this blog entry, I looked up the cruise lineup, and found that it's the John Payne version of Asia that's going to be playing on the boat. Sorry about that, sweetie.) A few songs later, to give Mr. Palmer some respect, they did a cover of ELP's "Lucky Man". And they closed out the set (with Howe's assistance) with four of the best songs off of their classic eponymous 1982 debut album, "Wildest Dreams", "Sole Survivor", "Only Time Will Tell" and "Heat of the Moment". It was an excellent ten-song set.

By this time it was dark. The venue had been about two-thirds full when Asia took the stage. Now it was mostly full in the seated area, except for some open spaces on the sides. This time, there actually was a break between sets, although it was still a reasonably short one of about 15 minutes. (Which thankfully gave me a chance to run the bathroom. This new diabetes medication I'm on has me peeing like a race horse. And I'm sure Howe, Downes and Sherwood were grateful for the short breather as well.)

Then, the chords to the traditional opening of a Yes concert, "The Firebird Suite" started to pour out of the speakers. And a moment later, Yes hit the stage.

Now as I mentioned, I'd seen this rendition of Yes last year in Westbury. The full lineup included Davison on vocals, Howe on guitar, Downes on keyboards, Sherwood on bass, and Jay Schellen (for most of the night) on drums. It's not the best lineup the band has ever had -- it's hard to replace people like Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Chris Squire. In comparison to, say King Crimson (as of the end of 2017 when I saw them), I'd say they've lost a step as a band. Even Howe will flub the occasional note nowadays. But they were at such a high level to begin with that even a lesser version of Yes is still pretty great. And for me, on the whole, Yes has more great material in their back catalog to choose from than King Crimson, which also gives them a leg up. So having just enjoyed a fine set from Asia, I was psyched to have Yes close things out.

The setlist the band had chosen for this tour was a little unusual. If I was seeing them for the first (and maybe only) time, I might feel a little cheated that they opted to leave out such staples as "And You and I" and "Heart of the Sunrise". (And "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was right out, as that's a Trevor Rabin song, not a Steve Howe one -- although weirdly enough, they did choose to play "Rhythm of Love"). For someone like me, though, who has seen the band seven times now, it was exciting to see them do a bunch of songs I hadn't seen them perform before. For example, they opened up with "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed" from Howe's first album with the band, Time and a Word (which as it turns out is actually a Richie Haven cover -- who knew?), and went from there into their well-loved cover of Paul Simon's "America". Other oddities included "Going for the One" (from the album of the same name), "Onward" (from Tormato, which they dedicated to Chris Squire), "Tempus Fugit" from Drama, and "Sketches in the Sun," a solo acoustic number from Howe's one album as part of the band GTR. (I thought that "Onward" was especially lovely, although the couple sitting next to me got up "to walk around" at that point, because they said it was putting them to sleep. They never did come back.)

Near the end of the set, Howe announced that for their extended piece for this tour, they were going to perform the entirety of "Gates of Delirium" from the Relayer album (for the first time since 2001). In some ways, this was a difficult choice (as was "Onward") for an outdoor show of this type, with a partially inebriated crowd that was looking to hear the obvious hits. And there were some people who gave up the ghost during this 20-plus minute performance. On the other hand, I thought that the band did a great job on it, much better than when they had performed the full "Close to the Edge" last year, One of the reasons for this, I think, was Geoff Downes.

In some ways, it's hard being Geoff Downes. The man has accomplished a lot in his career. As mentioned earlier, he was one-half of the new-wave duo The Buggles. He was a founding member of Asia. He was a member of Yes for the excellent Drama album, as well as for the underrated (IMHO) Fly From Here and Heaven & Earth albums. But every night, he has to sit down and bust his ass trying to play the Rick Wakeman parts in some of the greatest prog rock songs that were ever created. And he's just not up to it. (Nor would almost any other keyboard player be.) He plays the same notes as Wakeman did, but nowhere near bombastically enough. Where Wakeman's parts blast in over Howe's guitar and shake you to your soul, Downe's notes kind of sneak in, sometimes barely noticeable, so that you feel like part of the song is missing. On "Gates of Delirium", though, he doesn't have play Rick Wakeman parts. He just has to play Patrick Moraz. And while Moraz is himself an excellent keyboard player, he's much more in Downes' range. Unfortunately, if you're playing a Yes show, you just can't leave out the Wakeman songs altogether. But the more you replace Wakeman songs in the setlist with the songs of Moraz, Tony Kaye, and Downes himself, the more you allow Downes to show himself in his best light.

As happened in Westbury last year, Alan White only joined the band near the end of their set, since health problems have left him no longer physically capable of playing for full show. White took the stage right after the eighth song of the set, "Tempus Fugit", at which point Howe announced that it was White's birthday. We all sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Then the band played "Rhythm of Love" (possibly at White's request, as he is the only member of the current band who was with Yes when they recorded that song on the Big Generator album.) White then left the stage for the bulk of "Gates of Delirium", returning only for the last part of the song (which is sometimes performed by itself), the ravishing "Soon".

(This made me think about how unappreciated Jay Schellen must feel. He's not an official part of the band, although he carries the bulk of the drumming chores these days. Last year, I was kind of hard on him in my review of the Westbury show for making some of the material a little draggy. However, I've since realized that this was a decision by the whole band, because they really aren't capable of performing some of the more complex songs, like "Close to the Edge", at full speed these days. But at least last year, when White came out for his part of the set, Schellen got to stay on the stage and play hand percussion with the rest of them. Tonight, every time that White came out, Schellen was kicked offstage. I pictured him sitting bitterly at the bar over the bathrooms during White's part the set, muttering to himself, "Get out of here, Jay! You're not really part of Yes! We only you play when Alan isn't here.")

At this point, Yes took a quick bow to a standing ovation from the crowd. They left the stage briefly, then came back for a two-song encore. Howe introduced the first song, reminding the crowd that in his storied career, prior to joining Yes, Alan White had done some drumming for John Lennon. The band then launched into a cover of "Imagine". They finished up the night with a mandatory rendition of "Roundabout", the only song of the night they performed from the Fragile album. (They also performed only one song each from Close to Edge -- "Siberian Khatru", and The Yes Album -- "I've Seen All Good People").

The band then took a long bow to another standing ovation, and the crowd started their long, painful journey back up the hill, yodeling all the way. (Not really, but we should have.) And actually, in a pleasant surprise, I learned that I'm actually in better shape now than I was twenty years earlier -- the climb was less grisly than it used to be. It was a good evening all around.

All of the band's setlists for the evening are available on Just go up on that site and enter the band name, and you'll find the setlists for many of their recent shows, including last night's show.