On a gorgeous summer Sunday evening, July 28th, a small army of Prog Rock legends played the final concert of their Royal Affair Tour at the Saratoga Mountain Winery. The venue is an intimate amphitheater which sits on top of a mountain offering a spectacular view of the valley below. Surrounded by a vineyard, the location is drenched in California winemaking history. The Mountain Winery, formerly known as the Paul Masson Mountain Winery, is a fully functioning winery in Saratoga, California. It is one of the oldest and most famous wineries in California, founded by Paul Masson, a legendary pioneer of the California wine industry. The winery is most famous for its slogan, voiced in television commercials by Orson Welles: "We will sell no wine before its time." The amphitheater. which has expanded over the years to its current capacity of 2500 people is also one of the oldest concert venues in the area with shows dating back to 1958.
The show on Sunday began early with a 6 PM start time to accommodate the four separate sets of music. As the afternoon sun painted the venue and the valley below in a searing orange glow, early-bird concertgoers arrived to sample some of the local wine and beer available or grab a bit of gourmet food. Carl Palmer, one of Prog Rock’s premier drummers, opened a short five-song set with his group the ELP legacy. The band paid tribute to Palmer's former bandmates Keith Emerson and Greg Lake who passed away in recent years. The band opened with a thunderous “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2.” The band featured two young rockers David Pastorius on bass and Paul Bielatowicz on guitar. David is the nephew of the genuinely legendary jazz-rock bassist Jaco Pastorius and inherited much of his talent. Bielatowicz is a talented young guitarist who was taxed with emulating Kieth Emerson’s exquisite keyboard skills on a guitar. The trio of rockers was joined on several songs by the 77-year-old Arthur Brown, dressed in a feathered top hat, multi-colored Victorian coat and lace collar, with a painted face. The band played Brown’s hit song “Fire” one of the strangest rock songs of the 20th century. The short set ended with a perfunctory drum solo by Palmer and almost immediately went into the next set. While most of the musicians reappeared in different iterations throughout the night, the enigmatic Brown was done for the night and sadly, most of the crowd hadn’t even arrived yet.
As the intense summer sun began to set behind the mountain, the original bassist of the Moody Blues, John Lodge led the second set. The band played seven Moody Blues classics and songs from his album with Justin Hayward, ’Blue Jays.' Lodge was backed by a four-person group of solid rockers, including a cello player. The classic songs lacked the original depth of the exquisite vocal harmonies of the original Moody Blues, but the band did an excellent job laying down the well-known tracks for an appreciative audience.
The amphitheater filled up as the sunset began to paint the mountainside in beautiful pastel colors during the first extended intermission. The crowd seemed to be in good spirits while sampling the good local spirits. The third set of the night featured the revamped Prog Rock band, Asia. The supergroup, originally formed in 1981, featured four members of different progressive rock bands from the 1970.s. The group included the lead vocalist and bassist John Wetton of King Crimson and U.K., guitarist Steve Howe of Yes, keyboardist Geoff Downes of Yes and the Buggles, and drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
On this night three of the four played a crowd-pleasing set of 10 songs and paid tribute to Wetton who passed away in 2017. Original member Carl Palmer returned to the stage for the second time to play drums for Asia, along with original member and Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes. On bass was another Yes alumni Billy Sherwood. The set began with Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal on lead vocals and a double-necked guitar, infusing some youthful energy into the group. The band opened with “Go” from the Astra album and blended into “Don’t Cry from the Alpha album. The band then gave a nod to Downes, the keyboardist of the Buggles and played their biggest hit song “Video Killed the Radio Star." The well-known song got the crowd on their feet for an energetic sing-along. Original guitarist Steve Howe notched up the excitement when he took the stage to play the final four songs while Thal took the role of lead vocalist without his guitar. The crowd remained on their feet for the rest of the set as the iconic guitarist played mesmerizing chords on “Wildest Dreams," “Sole Survivor," “Only Time Will Tell” and the band’s biggest hit “Heat of the Moment."
Twilight began to fall, and myriad stars became visible in the crystal-clear night sky as Yes took the stage for the final set of the night. Yes is celebrating their 50th anniversary. Original singer Jon Anderson has been touring with long-time band members Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman doing their own renditions of the band's classics. The Royal Affair tour featured Yes alumni Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Billy Sherwood, and Alan White. Young singer John Davidson took over lead vocal duties, and the band opened with young rocker Jay Schellen on drums. The group started its nine-song opening set with “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed,” a Richie Havens cover used as the opening track on its 1970 album “Time and a Word.” Howe mixed things up when he rolled out a pedal steel guitar to play “Going for the One." Four songs into the set, the band played on of its biggest hits, “I’ve Seen All Good People." Howe then played a riveting acoustic solo rendition of his song “Second Initial,” which he first played at the 1979 Montreux Jazz Festival. The band then returned to do an extended version of “Siberian Khatru,” from the 1972 Close to the Edge album.
Long-time Yes drummer Alan White joined the band for the final five songs, exhibiting wild applause from the crowd. The band played a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” which it first did in 1970. Howe used the opportunity to turn the song into a guitar jam that wowed the crowd. The 72-year-old seemed as playful and energetic as a giddy teenage punk rocker. The group then played “The Gates of Delirium,” a song absent from the band’s set list for nearly two decades before this tour.
The near 30-minute jam featured Howe on both pedal steel and lead guitar. The jam ended the main set but was followed by a three-song encore. The encore opened yet another cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” (White played drums on the original recording.) Howe played another ear-piercing pedal steel jam during the song. The show ended with two of the band’s earliest hits, “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper,” capping a nearly two-hour set and a four-hour marathon of Prog Rock classics. It was a unique night of rock music history that has endured for half a century.