Asia was at its best last night when it stuck to catchy pop melodies. The melodic hooks penned by keyboardist Geoff Downes were strong enough to focus Steve Howe's guitar work into captivating, elating choruses. The band was at its worst when it succumbed to its own overblown ambitions and technology and lapsed into indulgent solos and bombastic jams.
Asia was formed by four alumni of British art-rock bands: Downes and Howe of Yes; drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and bassist John Wetton of U.K. Their performance last night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion suffered from the ponderous side of art rock, which they had largely avoided on their smartly produced debut album. Howe's guitar variations enhanced the melodies within song structures but lost purpose on their own. Even more pointless were his awkward attempts at ragtime and classical solos on acoustic guitar. Palmer's propensity for overplaying was held in check during most songs but began to break loose on the tag choruses and escaped completely as he soloed on his swiveling drum stand. Wetton added little to the songs as either a lyricist or vocalist.
Downes dominated the night. Racing back and forth among perhaps 15 computer-assisted keyboards, he created drum tracks, horn charts, string arrangements, grinding guitar solos and even some piano. Though he, too, sometimes got carried away with his toys, he usually created a thick texture in sound that sustained the concert. He is also the composer of the show's highlight tunes: "Heat of the Moment," "Only Time Will Tell" and "Cutting It Fine." In these songs, catchy melodies were built into masterpieces of top-40 craftsmanship.