At the early age of 12 years, I went to the record store to buy my first two albums. One was “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Rick Wakeman. This began a lifelong appreciation for all the works by this brilliant keyboard wizard. Journey and it’s followup, “The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” were pure magic to my ears. Deftly blending rock, classical, and theater, these albums fueled my young imagination and continue to provoke wonder today. I played these same records for my own kids, and one of my son’s early first purchases was Rick’s “Return to the Center of the Earth” which sported the exhilarating “Dance of 1,000 Lights.”
Last weekend after a prolonged period making the arrangements, Rick played most of these masterworks on two nights in Cheltenham at the Centaur. The night before these, he gave an intimate performance with three of his children, now young adults, Oliver, Jemma, and Adam Wakeman. I took my son, now 19 out from California to Britain to see these shows – they were everything we hoped and more.
The first more intimate show held at Black Friars club in Gloucester, part of a restored Dominican Friary, allowed each Wakeman to play a few of their own compositions or covers they enjoy. Rick played his Nursery Rhymes, Beatles covers, and one from Rhapsodies. Most notably the guys all played “Jemma” from “The Family Album” teasing Jemma about her bedtime ritual, ultimately ending with Rick reading a modified, sweet and humorous bedtime story. Many who read this will know of Adam and Oliver’s work – what was a surprise to us is how talented Jemma is – great keys, guitar and beautiful voice. The family shared stories and quite a few barbs at Dad on that Father’s day eve, for his many marriages and other foibles. Heart warming, endearing, and a rare glimpse into the private life of these amazing artists.
The next night was the full concert with orchestra and choir. Though “The Six Wives of Henry the VIII” has been played with orchestra and choir several years prior, the Journey and Arthur material had not been played with proper accompaniment in the northern hemisphere for almost 40 years. The opportunity was taken, and the set list, and performances were spectacular. After an opening jig, the first notes of Arthur sent shivers as Rick and conductor Guy Protheroe led the ensemble through almost all of that album, with Merlin being played as part of the second set. After the bulk of Arthur, followed by “Gone but not Forgotten” and “Catherine Howard” Rick performed a special version of Cat Steven’s “Morning has Broken” with a beautiful arrangement for orchestra and choir. His rendition of Help/Eleanor Rigby ended the first half.
The second half began with a thrilling performance of “Dance of 1,000 Lights”. That this might have been in the playlist was a wonderful surprise particularly for my son, and the pace of this rendition was lightening fast, improving on the original. Merlin, After the Ball, and a faithful version of “Jane Seymour” followed. Excerpts from Journey closed the second set. The band touched on the highlights of Journey, including several vocal segments, though without narration. To these ears, the Arthur material was superior, possibly just due to it’s absence from Rick’s set lists for so many years, but this sampling of Journey whet the appetite for Rick to return and perform the complete newly expanded recording of the story – it’s absolutely meant to be heard with the orchestra and choir as we heard it that night, and surely will include the narration at his promised upcoming performances.
The encore was Starship Trooper, a nice chance for the rock band including Dave Colquhoun (guitar), Lee Pomeroy (bass) and Tony Fernandez (drums) all accomplished musicians in their own right, to stretch out a bit. The real pleasure for me in this whole experience was Rick himself, ever the orator, with an ability to hit all his marks at the speed of light, and one who still respects the sounds and techniques he used to build all these works in the first place. Topping that off was Ashley Holt’s vocal performance. How it’s possible for him to actually sound better at this point in life than ever before is amazing – his pitch and delivery were perfect and reminded us all how appropriate he has always been for Rick’s blend of classical, theater, and rock. Here’s hoping for some “Earthly Connection” from him, as the next encore! Worth every effort to attend – a pair of evenings that will not be forgotten.