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Q&A and Live Review: Rick Wakeman

| October 1, 2019

Rick Wakeman

Rick Wakeman

Arcada Theatre (St. Charles, IL)

October 4, 2019

Celebrated prog-rock keyboardist and raconteur Rick Wakeman visited the Arcada Theatre on Friday night, performing a set of classically oriented solo piano pieces. The songs performed as part of Wakeman’s Grumpy Old Rock Star tour are connected by stories that were equally poignant and ludicrous. “Every story I tell tonight has a percentage of truth,” insisted Wakeman after opening with Pachelbel’s “Canon.” The percentage was later benchmarked at roughly 65%.

The setlist drew from Wakeman’s successful instrumental albums from the ‘70s, as well as carefully curated and creatively reimagined covers. The fare included “Catherine Howard” and “Catherine of Aragon” from 1973’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, as well as “Merlin the Magician” from 1975’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Wakeman said that the latter was written to staff paper without playing a note while recovering in the hospital from a series of heart attacks. The near-death severity of the circumstances was undercut by one of many ribald jokes.

Wakeman expressed gratitude and fondness for experiences throughout his career, even while verbally skewering them. He described the sessions for Cat Stevens’ chart-topping “Morning Has Broken,” and referred to the camaraderie of traveling with Yes (and Yes faction ARW) to play hits such as “Owner of a Horse and Cart.” “What in the world is a ‘Siberian Khatru?’” said Wakeman, recalling a question posed to singer and mystical lyricist Jon Anderson during an inter-state drive. “I don’t know,” was the reply, with Wakeman mimicking Anderson’s helium-high voice. The keyboardist played a medley of Yes favorites, including “The Meeting,” “And You and I,” and “Wondrous Stories” that brought fans to their feet.

“Sweet Georgia Brown” was performed in tribute to Wakeman’s father, a man introduced as a wonderful stride piano player and someone who spent half of his meager income on his son’s piano lessons. The freewheeling arrangement fused the piano duet that dad and son once played together at home.

Wakeman reflected upon college days and a favorite exercise of one music professor while performing the Beatles’ “Help!” in the style of Camille Saint-Saëns. “More as a ballad, as Lennon intended,” said Wakeman. He then performed a spirited and colorful “Eleanor Rigby” in the style of Sergei Prokofiev. “McCartney never comes to my shows, so I don’t give a toss what he thinks about it,” said Wakeman with a grin.

The encore featured a lush rendition of “Dance of a Thousand Lights” from 1999’s Return to the Centre of the Earth, with a twist. The original version had been recorded live, adding the power of the London Symphony Orchestra. “As you can see, due to budget restrictions, they’re not here,” said Wakeman. He then offered what he called a “karaoke” performance, playing a nimble piano to a canned track of the classical players.

Although the tone never became serious, Wakeman was almost reverential when describing the friendship, and valuable learning experiences gained while working with David Bowie. The medley of “Space Oddity” and Hunky Dory’s “Life on Mars?” was an emotional highlight of the evening.

Review by Jeff Elbel. Photos by Lou Bilotti.



Hello My Name is Rick Wakeman

What’s so funny about Rick Wakeman?

Pretty much everything, according to most of his bandmates, friends, and family, and much of the TV-watching public in his native Britain. Jon Anderson — longtime vocalist in prog-rock stalwarts Yes and the recent ARW spinoff — calls the keyboardist the most hilarious man he’s ever known, and other members swear that it’s his razor-sharp wit that makes touring tolerable.

Yes fans might know it, but he has an actual standup comedy routine that he performs overseas. “In the UK, I’m as well-known for that as I am for the music,” he reveals. “I hosted a comedy show for eight years on television called “Live at Jongleurs,” and then the “Grumpy Old Men” show — #1 rated that ran for six seasons — I was on all of that, and I’ve done quite a lot of standup.” Currently, the man is on his first American solo tour in 13 years, tapping into illustrious high points like “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” alongside more recent quieter work from last year’s “Piano Odyssey.” But the show will be peppered with playful anecdotes, in accordance with his new profile as a ribald raconteur.

IE: When did you first discover you had this twisted sense of humor?

RICK WAKEMAN: When I was a kid at school, really. Invariably, I’d never get my homework done because I lived quite a long way from school. And by the time I got home and did my piano practice, it was too late to do any homework. So I’d go back to school, and I found one way of avoiding being caned — they used to give me the cane st school — I found out that if I could make the teachers laugh, you avoided being caned. You just got told odd. And I found that laughter covered a multitude of things for you, and you could get away with absolute murder, almost. And also, I love laughing. Life makes me laugh, and everything that happens in life can be funny. And I think that laughter goes along with music, as well, because I say with this show that I do that I take the music very seriously, but the laughter is like an antidote to the seriousness. And I enjoy that because you just can’t be unhappy if you’re laughing.

IE: What’s the tightest situation your wit ever squeaked you out of?

RW: Well, it would have had to do with school. There was one incident in particular, where we had half-term holidays, which are holidays that come up in the middle of the term, and they normally run for three days., But — for whatever reason — I decided that three days wasn’t long enough, and I took three weeks. So I turned up back at school, to the wrath of the teachers and the headmaster, who said, “Where have you been for three weeks?” And I replied that I was on my three-week half term, but they said, “You’ve been at this school for seven years, so there’s been 21 half terms, and they’ve all been three days. When did it suddenly become three weeks?” So I said I was told it was, they asked by who, and I mentioned a teacher from another student. “And he said they I’d to have three weeks, so I presumed that I would get three weeks, too.” And they just started laughing, going, “Where did you come up with this shit? Just go away. Go away.” But I did get away with murder at this school because they knew that I’d already gotten a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, and there hadn’t been anyone who’d gotten a scholarship to go there before. So they probably felt, “He’ll be gone soon. Let’s just leave him be.” But I stole the deputy headmaster’s car one day 00 that didn’t go down very well. On my last day of school, on my last report card, the headmaster wrote, “Wakeman will end up in one of three places — onstage at the London Palladium, in Westminster as a member of Parliament, or in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.” My mother was not impressed. But I did do two of them — I’m not an MP, but I am an advisor on intellectual property rights for the government. And I have been onstage at the London Palladium a number of times, so I’ve got those two out of the way, at least. But then I have gone into prisons to entertain, just not Wormwood Scrubs. So he wasn’t that far off.

IE: Outside of Shawn Phillips — who had a nasty run-in with an outboard motor — you always had the longest hair in rock. How did that tradition start?

RW: I did some albums with Shawn Phillips, funnily enough. But I started growing my hair since I was 17 or 18 years old. I was playing in different bands, and people were starting to grow their hair. Because what was considered long hair then was if it touched your collar. So I started growing my hair, but then when I went to the Royal College of Music, I had a piano professor who I did not get on with, and t[then she says to me one day, What’s all this fur growing on your head then, it’s touching your collar — you’d better get it cut. In fact, don’t come back to me until you’ve got it cut.”So I said, “How does the length of my hair affect my piano playing? I pass all my exams; I learn everything I’m meant to learn, How can it affect my playing?” And she said, “I don’t like it! And don’t come back to my lessons until you’ve cut it!” I said I could practice, do everything I needed to do to get through the next set of exams. But there was no way I was cutting my hair. And she just went mad. And I never went back to her. So by the time I got to Yes, my hair was really long, because I never got it cut again after that. So I was already four inches ahead of everybody else in hair length. All thanks to this miserable piano teacher.

Appearing Friday, October 4th, at The Arcada Theater, St. Charles.

-Tom Lanham


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