It's enough to make any prog-rock fan swoon. Imagine members of Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer on the same stage together, playing hits like "I've Seen All Good People," "Roundabout" and "Heat of the Moment." In many ways, the 24-city tour of the legendary British supergroups Yes and Asia, featuring guitarist Steve Howe in both groups, really is a dream come true.
Yes, formed in 1968 by vocalist Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire, created some of the most distinctive sounds of the 1970s by blending dynamic vocals with elements of rock, classical, and symphonic music. Its critically acclaimed "The Yes Album" of 1971, which featured the hit "I've Seen All Good People," was followed almost immediately by the platinum discs "Fragile" and "Close to the Edge."
The years 1970 to 1974 are often referred to as the classic period of the band, which in addition to Anderson and Squire included keyboard wiz Rick Wakeman, legendary lead guitarist Steve Howe, and drummer Alan White.
Over the ensuing 35 years, the group has had more lineup changes than a triple-A baseball team, including disbanding between 1981 and 1983. Although its current incarnation includes Squire, Howe, and White, it has lost two of its most mythic members.
Anderson, known for his distinct alto-tenor voice (often incorrectly described as falsetto), left the group in 2004, followed by Wakeman, with whom many consider the group produced its best work. Replacing Anderson is Canadian Benoît David, a vocalist in several Yes tribute groups who was discovered by the band on the Internet. Wakeman's son Oliver is now on keyboards.
Asia, formed in 1981 by Howe, King Crimson's bassist John Wetton, drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Geoff Downes of The Buggles on keyboards, still retains its original lineup. The group's self-titled first release was the world's best-selling album of 1982, and included such hits as "Heat of the Moment," "Only Time Will Tell" and "Sole Survivor." Its latest album, "Phoenix," was released last year.
Howe, at 62, has never relaxed his penchant for ongoing experimentation. His classical and jazz influences have given him a playing style unique among rock musicians, and being in both bands allows him to flex his imaginative muscles.
Howe spoke about the challenges of being the cornerstone in both groups, the differences in their sound, and future projects in a telephone conversation from Tulsa, OK, the midpoint of the band's tour.
Q: Yes and Asia have got to have lots of crossover fans, or you wouldn't be touring together. Yet the groups are quite different. Could you say how?
A: Back in the 1970s, Yes went out of its way to make it as noncommercial as possible. It was always more, let's say, indulgent, introverted, and classically complex -- call it even highbrow. Asia was never like that. We carried maybe a little of what was later called progressive, but Asia was always more extroverted, and doesn't mind being a bit commercial. We like a good tune, and we're not ashamed to say that.
Q: Do you get into a different frame of mind in each group? What about different instruments?
A: Principally there is a textural difference for me. What I do in Yes is quite soft and floaty, and kind of meanders a lot, but what I play in Asia is, I wouldn't say rigid, but quite attacking. It's got a different sort of mentality if you like, which is a little bit harder, and I quite like that. I also play different guitars in the groups. I use 175 Gibson models in Yes mainly, or I'll play a Stratocaster, but in Asia I mainly do all my work on a guitar called a Gibson exhaust system, along with Martin guitars and also Line 6 Variax, which is an incredible guitar which plays different sounds from one central guitar.
Q: How do you break up the sets? I'm sure between the two bands, you've got to choose your play lists carefully.
A: We've been running about an hour for Asia, and maybe an hour and a half for Yes. Both bands are used to playing much longer. But we'll be playing what we're known for, not only the crowd pleasers, but also less-heard tracks. For Asia we'll do a bit of a career track, with songs from The Buggles, ELP and King Crimson. Then of course things like "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time will Tell." Likewise, Yes tries to cover the audience favorites, but we're also doing "Astral Traveler" from the early album "Time and a Word." And of course some tracks from "Drama." So we've got a nice mix of material.
Q: What has been the reaction to Oliver and Benoît?
A: We're really pleased with them both. It's been working out terrifically. I think they've really re-energized the band. What people find with Benoît is his confidence. He just naturally sounds like Jon -- he doesn't fake that voice. It's a one-in-a-million chance to find two voices like that so similar. The same with Oliver, he just does the stuff that Rick used to do, without flamboyance or show.
Q: Are the ages of your fans an indication that progressive rock is multigenerational?
A: Absolutely. I think what's happening is, when you take a step back, there was an almost aggressive challenging of your parents' music. But now, your kids are getting into the music that you liked, especially with progressive stuff -- that's very rewarding. I think it creates the potential for kids to be a lot closer to their parents than they used to be. They really understand the music of our generation.
Q: Did the music your parents played at home influence you?
A: Most of the time I didn't like mom and dad's records -- they were nasty, middle-of-the-road, orchestral, like Mantovani. But, there was some overlap. They also played Les Paul and Mary Ford, which was the music that turned me on to the guitar, especially Tennessee Ernie Ford. So my parents inadvertently started this fire in me.
Q: I understand you're doing a lot of solo work these days. Will we hear any of that in the concert?
A: Definitely. I brought out the CD "Motif" last year and have a second volume coming out soon. It's an attempt to bring together my solo performances that have been a big part of my life since I released "Clap" on the Yes Album "Mood for a Day." The influence of Chet Atkins on me with his solo guitar work was profound. I want to honor that side of my music, so I've been doing a lot of that on this tour -- playing a couple of solo tracks in the Yes slot. Then, in addition to my solo work, we're also looking at a new Yes album and a new Asia album. I'm trying to keep the whole thing moving again.
THE DETAILS: YES w/ASIA
Yes, with Asia, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2, Sands RiverPlace, Sand Island. Tickets: $22-$44. 610-332-FEST, www.fest.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times