“He got all these twists and turns that I thought only John Wetton was capable of”: How Geoff Downes assembled his new Asia line-up

(Image credit: Press)

Asia have stubbornly refused to fade away despite the death of John Wetton in 2017. After a series of line-up changes in the following years, keyboardist Geoff Downes revealed his new bandmates for their 2024 tour of America. Wetton’s wife Lisa has voiced her approval for Downes’ move, inspired by his belied that Asia songs should be played live. Ahead of the road trip he told Prog how it all came together.

Yes keyboard player Geoff Downes’ new version of Asia features Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell, Planet X drummer Virgil Donati and singer Harry Whitley, in a move inspired by the same line-up’s performance at 2023’s John Wetton memorial concert.

“The reaction was just incredible, not just from the audience on the night, but also the people who were streaming it at home,” marvels Downes. “People seemed so impressed by what we were doing and it really made a big impact on me. And that kickstarted an idea: I decided it would be great to take Asia back out on the road and do it all again.”

True to his word, the new-look line-up headline the Heat Of The Moment Tour, which will take in North America and Canada this July. Named after the monster hit from Asia’s self-titled 1982 debut, the dates carry a certain symmetry for Downes.

“A lot of time has gone by since that first album,” he says. “But I think there’s a natural cycle to it, especially with me having discovered Harry. He’s not emulating John Wetton as such, but he’s always been a big fan of Asia and his voice is very similar.”

Wetton performs with Asia

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Classically-trained Whitley first caught Downes’ attention through his YouTube channel, where he offers his uncanny Asia covers. “Harry told me how my music was a big influence on him, so I thought I’d check him out,” says Downes. “I was really blown away by his attention to detail, particularly his vocal intonation. He did a version of Heroine where he managed to get all these twists and turns that I thought only John was ever capable of.

“To hear Harry do that was really scary and quite chilling, because John’s voice could bring people to tears. So I got in touch with him when the tribute show was coming together. I thought, ‘If anyone’s going to put their stamp on these songs, here’s the man for the job.’”

There’s quite a bit of material – I’m looking to maybe bring in someone like John Mitchell to collaborate

Along with guitarist Mitchell – who has history with both Wetton and Downes, appearing on their Icon project – Virgil Donati completes Asia’s new iteration. The drummer is perhaps best known for Planet X, though he was also a latter-day member of Wetton’s prog supergroup, UK. Downes sees him as a perfect replacement for Carl Palmer, who’s otherwise busy with his ELP Legacy project.

The Heat Of The Moment Tour will see Asia top-billed over Focus, Martin Turner (ex-Wishbone Ash) and Curved Air, with legendary album designer Roger Dean as MC. “We’ll be playing quite a lot from the first album,” teases Downes. “That was the defining one really, the one that put it all into gear.

2023's John Wetton tribute concert

(Image credit: Future)

“We never expected anything like the incredible numbers it did; it was the biggest-selling album of 1982. But we’ll also be looking across all the albums, putting together a show that’s hopefully going to be action-packed.”

No fresh studio offerings are imminent – but Downes reveals that he and Wetton had started working up some new Asia songs shortly before the singer’s death from cancer in 2017. “They weren’t really fully developed,” he explains. 

“They were basic ideas; then John’s health deteriorated quite rapidly and we never got the opportunity to get stuck in and take it further. There’s quite a bit of material – I’m looking to maybe bring in someone like John Mitchell to collaborate. Hopefully we can put it together in a way that John would have liked us to.”

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.