John Wetton & Geoff Downes
10 June 2006
Raglan Festival, South Wales, UK
On the back of the recent hype about the reformation of the original line-up of Asia for a 25th Anniversary tour of the U.S. (and hopefully Europe to follow) I was intrigued to see that John Wetton and Geoff Downes were playing a gig for their Icon project in the small rural village of Raglan near Abergavenney in South Wales. This is near to where Geoff now lives so it seems to be something arranged as a favour to organisors of the now annual Raglan Music Festival. As I live in Swansea, which isn't too far away, a trip to this small and intimate gig was a must.
With the gig due to start at 8 my "Gig Buddy" Mel and I arrived later than we'd have liked at about 7.30. Never having been to Raglan before we found it to be a really picturesque little village dominated by a large castle nearby. The joint was definitely not rocking as we passed the venue for the evening, a nice looking country pub and restaurant on the main street, The Beaufort Arms - about a dozen people sat in the sun relaxing with their pints of real ale. I found it surreal that we could park 100yards from the Beaufort, grab a bag of chips and sit outside the church on a really warm summer evening in a particularly beautiful part of the world before having a pint in the sun and strolling in to a pub to watch half of Asia!
The pub itself was quite full and there seemed to be a number of "ordinary" customers just booking in to the guest house or eating in the restaurant - I wonder what they thought about the tranquility of their country retreat being ripped apart later on! John Mitchell of Arena and Kino, guitarist for the evening, was seen at a table with a few friends. The atmosphere was very relaxed and totally not what I usually experience at gigs. At about 8.30 we went up the narrow stairs to the function room, a place which I expect is much more used to the celebration of wedding receptions than gigs but very pleasant it was. Tables down the edges, a number of seats for the early attendees, a bar at the back - and a made up stage crammed with gear! Capacity for the hall couldn't have been more than 150. I spoke to someone there from the commitee of the festival and she reckoned that with the tables in you probably had no more than 120 in. However many were there we certainly weren't crammed in and it was easy to move around and get a vantage point even though we were too late for the chairs. At our age this is becoming more of a factor but Mel and I managed to remain standing for the entire evening without too much foot trouble! As I mentioned, a very warm evening at the end of what must have been the hottest day of the year so far so all the windows were thrown open but it was still a very warm and sweaty place for the rest of the evening - evidence of this could be visible from the state of John Wetton's shirt after just a few numbers!
But first a quick word about the support - local band The Bitchpups. Trio of guitar, bass and drums with the girlie bass player also adding a bit of keyboard now and again. I really enjoyed their mix of pop, punk and off-the-wall oddness - well rehearsed and played with good stage craft, much too loud to start and the vocals indistinct for the first half but this rectified itself. They had good stage presence and were enjoyable to watch and though Mel thought their material to be a bit samey I found there to be enough odd stuff, stops, time changes and weirdness to keep this old KIng Crimson fan happy for the hour they were on. Not so for others in the house - on a trip to the toilet Mel overheard a couple grumbling that they "hoped the next lot were more their thing". Consensus eventually reached on the decision that they must be better "as they are professionals". Not surprising as the audience was a real cross section - plenty of older people obviously just there to support the local festival, quite a few teens there for The Bitchpups, a bunch of gig veterans like myself who knew exactly who we were there to witness (t-shirts seen include Dream Theater, Manfred Mann, Foreigner) and local kids in their best clothes out with their parents for this special weekend event. Very strange.
After the 'Pups had finished to a very good response their equipment was quickly removed and Steve Christie of Jadis appeared to check out his drum kit. The stage was only about a foot high so sadly I didn't get to see a lot of Steve during the gig which was a shame for me as a long time Jadis fan, but his contribution to the evening was outstanding. The stage to our left was dominated by Geoff's keyboards, Christie to the right, John Wetton centre stage and John Mitchell far right. Speaker stacks either side of the stage didn't block the view at all and anticipation rose as the locals shuffled their chairs closer to the stage! The announcer appeared and was obviously very excited stating on more than one occassion that he couldn't believe it before reminding the crowd that the next time John and Geoff would be on stage it would be in the U.S. performing in stadiums with Steve Howe and Carl Plamer. The weirdness of the whole event was becoming more pronounced all the time.
The band appeared through the fire exit (!) looking really relaxed, John Wetton said they were really pleased to be there and they were off with a much better sound than earlier in the evening and showing that this bunch are not only professional but extremely talented players. I can't remember all that they played in the 90 minute set but I'll do my best. First off they started with John Wetton on harmonica with keyboard support before steaming into The Heat Goes On, Only Time Will Tell and Voice of America which had those who knew the material grinning widely. I saw Geoff's Asia in Cardiff in March 2005 with John Payne, Chris Slade and Guthrie Govan but on numbers like these tonight sounded like Asia while previously they had sounded like a very good cover band. John Wetton was in fine voice and his bass sound was immense adding the secret ingredient that had been missing previously. John Mitchell and Steve Christie were superb throughout and note perfect. I can't imagine Steve Howe being so true to the originals during the Autumn Tour with his penchant to change things on a nightly basis.
Then things slowed down for Wetton's I Lay Down, and once again John Mitchell stepped up to the plate with an excellent solo. I'm not that familiar with the Icon album but they certainly played a few from this, the first being Hey Josephine. Geoff then performed a solo mainly piano version of The Buggles classic Video Killed the Radio Star - was it really 27 years ago?! - which on the whole sounds much better in a stripped down version. Yes, it can be a bit twee but the melody line is marvellous when slowed down and stripped bare. There then followed a short acoustic set with John singing a lovely song called We Move As One followed (I think) by Meet Me At Midnight. Then came the gorgeous Battlelines, one of the best songs of the evening with fine support as always from John Mitchell. The full band returned for the opener from the Icon album, Let Me Go, which was followed by Don't Cry, the hit single from Alpha which included superb exchanges of solos between Downes and Mitchell. Sole Survivor was next. A blistering version of a track I haven't heard in ages follwed by Open Your Eyes to close the set in fine style. After a really appreciative ovation, the band returned for a rocking rendition of Heat Of The Moment to tie things up nicely and send everyone home happy.
All too soon it was over and a tight squeeze back down the narrow staircase to the bar and then home. Overall certainly an extraordinary night and one to remember with fond memories. It's always fascinating watching talented musicians in intimate venues and this was no exception, particularly in terms of the fact that tese guys are on the edge of a massive worldwide comeback. I've mentioned Steve Christie and John Mitchell a number of times but they were exactly the right men for this particular job. John Wetton was singing better than in ages and his bass playing was effortless and wonderful to see. Geoff also seemed much happier then in the Asia gig last year and added much more to the proceedings than he did then. I must admit that I had been disappointed with him the first time I had seen him play at the Cardiff gig but tonight all that was forgotten and I really enjoyed his performance.
On tonight's evidence all bodes well for the original lineup tour. Our only worry was that Steve Howe wouldn't stay the course, either due to the pull of Yes or his disinterest in playing this style of music for any length of time. Should this be the case then in John Mitchell they have the perfect substitute who, frankly, would play the material in a truer style than Steve Howe. I'm a HUGE Steve Howe fan but I know how he can be with his material! Great to see a gig like this for just £8! Next time I think we'll have to pay considerably more for the pleasure of their company!
The Heat Goes On
Only Time Will Tell
Voice of America
I Lay Down
Keyboard Solo : Video Killed the Radio Star
We Move As One
Meet Me At Midnight
Let Me Go
Open Your Eyes
Heat of the Moment
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