It’s hard to believe that it was more than 6 years since the world lost John Wetton, an outstanding musician, singer and writer, who jumped from a Zelig-like role across so many styles of music in the 1970s, to superstar status in the 1980s, resulting in the opportunity pursue many and varied collaborations, solo and group projects.
A series of events and releases in recent months have brought well deserved reminders of Wetton’s extraordinary life.
An Extraordinary Life: The Music – Asia: Phoenix – Vinyl Reissue.
The Phoenix album marked the studio reunion of the Original Asia line up after a long hiatus. Downes and Wetton had produced some brilliant albums, together and apart – but Phoenix brought Carl Palmer and Steve Howe back into the recording band and into the writing team, and it’s a welcome return. Asia has had many guitarist and drummers over the years but there is a special magic that the original combination brings that shines out on Phoenix. Never Again is a powerful opener, packed with the Asia sound in every respect, and is a strident and confident return address by this band of “brothers”. The strength of the writing stands out in Heroine and No Way Back, moving from ballad to rock song, with the latter wrapped in a proggy intro and outro. It’s also one of 2 songs that exceed 8 minutes in length, along with Parallel Worlds/ Vortex / Deya – Asia weren’t ever a band to write particularly long songs, but these tracks show that their musicianship has breadth and depth as well as length.
Howe makes two strong writing contributions in Wish I’d Known All Along and Over and Over, tracks which, to me, point to his future writing with the renewed 2020s Yes band. Those two tracks are also the “bread” in a sandwich in which the “meat” is a cover version of Globus’ Orchard of Mines. It’s an enormous symphonic track fantastically suited to the band’s sound and Wetton’s vocals in particular.
The album ends with what many now look back on as the definitive Wetton anthem – An Extraordinary Life. It’s widely known that Wetton battled many personal demons, and this “seize the day” rallying cry is a masterpiece of confession and… well just a great positive sing along song.
A 12 inch vinyl of this album, with the vivid Roger Dean artwork, can certainly hold its own amongst my original Asia albums, so I’m glad that this Phoenix rose again!
An Extraordinary Life: The Book
Moving from the album that contained the track “An Extraordinary Life” to the book that shares its name. I’ve accumulated a few Asia books, and of course John did publish an autobiography during his life. Those all compliment the brand new book which is a fabulous collection of the remembrances of John from a range of family, friends, and musical collaborators.
The 3 things I find really refreshing about this book – and the reasons I’d whole heartedly recommend it – are:
(1) with such a large variety of contributors, I really like that the compilers didn’t impose a house style. So some write long with lots of detail, while others compress their sentiments into shorter text blocks. You get to hear about the joys and the struggles that he faced – really nothing is off limits and the text is packed with stories.
(2) I learned SO MUCH from this book! I reckon I have pretty good knowledge of John Wetton and his career but there is lots in here even a diehard may not know about. To mention it here would be a spoiler, so I’ll let you find that out by buying the book.
(3) It is ultimately a labour of love by Lisa and Dylan Wetton, his wife and son. I am sure they will always value having this book of recollections – and you will too!
An Extraordinary Life: Celebrating The Music of John Wetton
On August 3rd, the Trading Boundaries venue was filled with an invited audience and was jam packed with legendary musicians, to pay tribute to John. Space considerations meant a small in-person crowd, but a live stream meant any fans could join by supporting the Macmillan Cancer charity.
Reflecting on it now, it’s incredible how many musicians paid tribute to John over the course of 29 songs! Rick Wakeman kicked things off with piano renditions of Life On Mars and Eleanor Rigby while mentioning that he had tried and failed to form bands with John on 3 occasions. It was an entertaining, if low key, completely appropriate start to the event.
The backbone of of 2/3 of the show was the Paul Green Rock Academy – this is an extremely talented group of young musicians who, simply put, have the chops to pull off incredible renditions of rock’s most complicated music! Currently touring with Jon Anderson, playing an enormous set of Yessongs, the evening was packed with stellar performances. And… well there were so many of them. Many times a song ended and the PGRA players left the stage… to be replaced by another full band from the Academy! The first set they played focused on 3 Wetton Era King Crimson songs and featured David Cross, Mel Collins and Dave Kilminster. The playing was spectacular – I mean, a cover of Fracture was note perfect and… this music isn’t a 3 chord trick. The performances were confident and engaging, and captured completely what must be some of the most challenging pieces to play in rock’s catalogue!
Roger Dean paid his tribute, followed by an appearance by Martin Orford. Orford is a legend in British prog, founder of IQ and Jadis, who played in Wetton’s live band, and retired in 2008 after releasing his album Old Road (on which Wetton sang 2 tracks as well as playing bass). It was great to see him back and he dived into a version of UK’s In The Dead of Night, joined by John Mitchell on vocals with the PGRA it was great, as was the follow up Rendezvous 6:02 which Orford played solo.
The Paul Green Academy then returned with Wetton’s personal friend and collaborator, Mr Steve Hackett, for a version of All Along The Watchtower and Genesis’ Afterglow which Wetton had sung on a Hackett album. For long time fans, it was great to hear the PGRA version of Woman from the Caught in the Crossfire album, before Orford and Mitchell returned was a superb version of Battlelines, from the Voice Mail album. That was followed by a left turn into perhaps a less familiar avenue in Wetton’s career, his time playing bass in Family and Wishbone Ash. Roger Chapman, Laurie Weisfield and Jim Cregan played Family’s Burlesque and My Friend The Sun – it’s funny to note that Cregan was the bass player who replaced Wetton, who played on the original recording of those tracks. The performances were quite relaxed and informal which was a nice change from some of the Crimsonic precision of earlier in the show.
For me, there were 2 “jaw drop” moments in the show. The first was seeing Bill Bruford get behind a drum kit, to help belt out Roxy Music’s Let’s Stick Together, with Phil Manzanera, Guy Pratt and Chris Difford – a relaxed performance once again but a lot of fun and… BILL BRUFORD PLAYING DRUMS!!! The older musicians then took a break while PGRA brought us Ride Easy and Voice of America, both by Asia – another great example of how the set list plucked from all aspects of Wetton’s musical career, including an Asia single b-side! And talking of Asia…
Steve Howe and Carl Palmer both sent video tributes, Palmer from his tour, Howe from home… but Geoff Downes was in the house, and so an Asia line up was constructed. Billy Sherwood, as well as producing, playing and writing on Wetton’s Raised in Captivity, was bass player and vocalist on Asia’s first tour after John Wetton’s passing. His Yes rhythm section partner Jay Schellen had also been an Asia member in the era following Wetton’s departure – so this line up boasted 3 genuine Asia band members. Guitars were covered by John Mitchell, himself familiar with the Asia classics from many years in Wetton’s solo band. Their set began in an unexpected way, as 2 Wetton Downes songs from the Icon albums, In The End and Rubicon, were played. The show has been fantastic at making sure all aspect’s of John’s career were recognised and the Icon albums stand with his finest work in my opinion! They were followed with version of Only Time Will Tell, My Own Time, An Extraordinary Life and Sole Survivor – and each rendition was fantastic. The secret weapon in this line up was vocalist Harry Whitley – my second jaw drop moment! Geoff Downes had spotted some of Harry’s YouTube videos singing Asia songs and decided he was the perfect candidate to take the vocal lead on these songs – and it was an excellent choice. Singing these songs, backed by world class musicians / original band members to an audience of friends and relatives takes a lot of courage, and Harry showed he had what it took.
The show closed out with 2 songs which, amongst the many performed tonight, are solid classics. Starless is the masterpiece of the Wetton-era King Crimson, and Jakko, Dave Kilminster, Mel Collins and David Cross, plus members of the PGA gave a fantastic rendition. What other way to close the show than with Heat of the Moment where the Asia line up were supplemented with singers from PGA – it truly was the perfect ending!
I certainly hope that this streaming event receives a future release to share this collection or performances with a wider audience. Many congratulations to the team who organised this – you did yourselves, the fans and John proud!