Rick Wakeman Resurrects King Arthur

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There are a few special events in our lives that are once-in-a-lifetime occasions. Last night, June 19, 2016 at the O2 in London was a twice-in-a-lifetime evening, as Rick Wakeman performed an expanded version of his album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with his rock band, orchestra and choir for the first time since 1975. It was spectacular in every way, a dream come true for this native Californian who travelled across the pond to bear witness.

Way back in 1975, Wakeman wrote much of the original King Arthur album while in hospital, thereafter recording it in Morgan Studios with his band The English Rock Ensemble, and newly formed New World Symphony Orchestra joining the English Chamber Choir with David Measham conducting and Terry Taplin narrating. The result is arguably the best-realized blend of rock and classical music in his long catalog, a fine studio recording with all the trimmings, coming on the heels of his live epic Journey to the Center of the Earth the prior year.

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Famously, when it came time for Wakeman to bring this to the stage, against the advice of many, and due to scheduling difficulties booking Wembley’s Empire Pool, he made the bold decision to present the epic on ice, featuring ice skaters in period costume! Critics met this with derision at the time but fans paid no heed; all three performanWakeman_KnightsOnIceCover_72dpices sold out. Some of the world’s greatest skaters were recruited for the show and the stage was built center-rink surrounded by low castle walls to allow them clear ice around the set. Amazingly, the concert was filmed, and that footage is available from Gonzo
Multimedia as part of a box set, which features five of Wakeman’s
legendary performances over the years. As produced by Tony Burfield, and directed by Alan Yentob with a top-notch team of filmmakers and editing staff, it’s one of the best early films of this enduring artist.

Wakeman2016Arthur_Cover_72dpiThis year Wakeman launched a Pledge Music campaign to help him finance the recording of a revised and expanded edition of what was originally a seven track record lasting just under 40 minutes. The music now spans 2 CD’s and 23 tracks, several featuring Hayley Sanderson on vocals joining original singer Ashley Holt, with additional narration from English stage, film and television actor Ian Lavender exploring the themes of this legend more thoroughly. The album is just shipping now to supporters and will be available to all shortly – it comes highly recommended.

Wakeman2016HayleyAshley_72dpiThis time out, for this performance of the suite, there would be no ice, but instead a nice dry stage at the O2 arena. I had the rare opportunity to catch the sound check for that night’s performance, which included a run-through of many tracks from the new album. Ashley was in fine voice, nailing his original leads, even on the very challenging “Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight.” Hayley is a revelation live, investing her parts with grace and emotion and clear powerful vibrato – she’s a wonderful performer. The band included Oliver Wakeman backing Dad up on keys (on Father’s Day no less), long time English Rock Ensemble alum Tony Fernandez on drums, talented guitarist Dave Calquhoun, and Matt Pegg (yes, Dave’s son) on bass all sounding fantastic. Conductor Guy Protheroe led the Orion Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir from center stage, dispensing some final guidance, while Ian sat up front stage right in a majestic wood chair to provide the narration, the best bit of which still sets the spine tingling…. “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil, is the true born King of all Britain.”

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Ian Lavender

Sound check complete, I settled in to wait for the main performance. I had the chance to hear artist Roger Dean relate stories from his long tenure in the business, and reveal the beautiful new album cover. Also had coffee with guitarist Dave Calquhoun and his family – he is thankfully working on a new album of originals. Caught a bit of crafty prog rockers Haken, then headed in for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here Symphonic Live (after which I was hoping for more coffee!). Next up were two favorites, Steve Hackett, and Marillion, both excellent as usual, though squeezed into tight time slots that only allowed for short sets. Nevertheless, they shone brightly. Finally the stage was set for the King Arthur performance.

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It was all I hoped it would be. Wakeman was in fine form, concentrating, playing faithfully and emotively, even without any jousting! Though the focus of the ensemble was very naturally on the symphonic aspects of the work, Colquhoun unleashed several searing solos to spice things up a bit, while Fernandez and Pegg anchored the whole in steady rock motifs, even a welcome bit of reggae vibe during the bridge of “The Last Battle.” As in the sound check, Sanderson and Holt hit all their vocal leads, this time simply better dressed! The orchestra, choir, conductor, narrator, were all in excellent form. The music, both old and new, represents some of Wakeman’s best, particularly in the way the piano and harpsichord parts are crafted so beautifully, the songs so appropriately romantic, expressing sonically the heartfelt stories of Camelot. The Moog synth patches were aptly chosen to highlight the organic, analog sound inherit to the original instrument, all balancing rock, English folk, and sounds classical and choral to match the themes of the Arthurian legend. The revised “Merlin the Magician” brings a balance between the original instrumental and live vocal versions, retaining those spectacular Moog leads and music hall instrumental breaks with revised lyrics. The writing is top notch in general, from the opener “King Arthur” with it’s perfectly suited majestic theme to its reprisal in “The Last Battle,” and everything in between.

Wakeman2016Rick_O2ConcertAd_72dpiAt this point, there are no firm plans to perform this revised work again in its entirety, though Wakeman said that while an outdoor event featuring jousting and other events would be suitable, and not ruling out a return to the ice! Given the uncertainty, I am feeling pretty lucky to have attended this spectacular event. Long live the legend of King Arthur and his musical historian, Rick Wakeman.

Next up, my favorite, No Earthy Connection played to honor British astronaut Tim Peake please…but not on the space station!

 

 

*special thanks to session photographer Lee Wilkinson and Tim Bastock for additional photos

Don’t Stop Making Sense

One of the most surprising, exhilarating concerts I ever attended was way back on December 6, 1983, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium at the height of the “new wave” music movement. On that night, my roommate Irene and I arrived to find that the stage area of the cavernous concert hall was nearly empty. The Civic was and still is a hollow concrete shell, built originally to hold 7,000 patrons as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. On this night, there was a stage riser, but only plywood where normally there would be black flooring. A wooden ladder leaned against the dirty white wall stage right, along with a few racks seemingly bereft of gear. There were no lights, no curtains and no equipment save for a single microphone on its stand at center stage. We asked an usher what the hell was going on, and were told to just take our seats.

After some time waiting and wondering what was about to happen, the house lights dimmed, and the man of the evening, David Byrne came strolling onto the stage platform, a cassette tape player in one hand, acoustic guitar strung over his shoulders. He said “I gotta tape I want to play…” and clicked the Play button on the boom box. Then begins a pre-recorded backbeat to an acoustic version of the first Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer.” As anyone can imagine, particularly if you’ve seen the outstanding Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense (1984), which was filmed over three nights in Los Angeles just a week after the San Francisco date, we were in for a one-of-a-kind art-rock performance.

Talking Heads In Concert
HOLLYWOOD, CA – CIRCA 1980s: (From L to R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads perform at a concert circa the early-1980s in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We expected the Talking Heads to be avant-garde, to present something unique and different, but accounts of their previous shows all the way back to their first, supporting The Ramones in 1975 at New York’s dank CBGB club suggested to us that the show’s staging would be minimal. What we did hear is that the band would be wound tight, that singer, guitarist and principal composer David Byrne was an eccentric, that he could dance TalkingHeads_CBGB_72dpiand sing while somehow keeping his head straight, or bobbing or moving in some other unnatural way to accentuate the Reagan-era angst of their rock ‘n’ funk songs. We had no idea how far he had developed these skills, that he could truly hold an audience enraptured with every move, and play so effectively off the other musicians, each of whom were accomplished in their own right, dancing together or apart, songs building into manic eruptions of jubilant, rhythmic new wave music.

TalkingHeads_SMSPoster_72dpiWhat we saw that night has remained seared in my memory forever, repeatable to an extent by viewing the film. After the opener, accomplished bassist Tina Weymouth joined Byrne for the song “Heaven.” As she took the stage, road crew members, clad in black, wheeled out a riser for her gear, plugged her into the sound system and exited quietly. During this track the team wheeled out another riser packed with drums, shortly to be occupied by the Heads’ rock-steady drummer, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz. Next up, the fourth member of the core band, Jerry Harrison (guitars, keys) joined in for “Found a Job,” one of the really infectious early Heads tracks. From this point on, additional musicians including guitarist (Alex Weir), keyboards player (Bernie Worrell, of Parliament/Funkadelic), percussionist (Steve Scales) and backup singers (Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt) joined in succession until the entire band was assembled for then hit “Burning Down The House,” from their album Speaking in Tongues (1983). Now assembled, this expanded band drove through a perfect set list that included “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime” along with several from the new album, while the rest of the stage was completed with colored lights, video projection screens, and black matting for every exposed part of the stage. The movie does as good a job as possible of giving viewers an idea of what it was like to have a complete stage built out during such an event, but the necessity of focusing on the musicians precludes the ability to capture the nuanced impact of seeing all the rigging happen before our eyes – literally cabling, matting, lights, screens, everything it took to create a modern day concert was erected by the crew while we watched. It was an absolutely fascinating thing behold. It also ruined the band.

TalkingHeads_SITCover_72dpiAfter the experience of staging this massively creative show, the Talking Heads never toured again, despite the fact they went on to record three more albums before officially breaking up, the last including guest guitarist Johnny Marr from The Smiths. The daunting thought of topping the 1983 tour wasn’t the only issue. The band was growing apart, each member working on other projects. Chris and Tina continued on with the Tom Tom Club. David Byrne launched a long solo career. In fact, besides The Smiths’ Morrissey/Marr split, the demise of the Talking Heads was one of the most unfortunate “divorces” of the 1980s.

I was reminded of all this recently, when our art theater The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco screened a print of Stop Making Sense on one of their Monday concert film nights. The effusive sellout crowd led to a second showing, after all these years. It was a potent reminder of the popularity of the Heads and this angular music in general, as we were, midway through the reign of the punk/goth/new wave 80s.

Stop Making Sense (1983) © Talking Heads Films 1984, 1.78:1, 84 minutes

PrintThis is justly considered one of the greatest concert films ever made. The spectacle of the stagecraft, along with leader David Byrne’s jubilant performance, is emotionally impactful, filling attentive viewers with the lust for life he and the band exhibit. After a theatrical release, the movie was originally made available on home video tape in an extended version that included three additional songs from the actual show that had not appeared in the theatrical release. These tracks “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” and “Big Business” are available as extras on the extended “special edition” DVD which also includes audio commentary, promotional trailer, and other features.

p.s. There is also film of the Talking Heads on the prior tour in Rome, December 18, 1980 taken under bright white lights, when the core band was joined by Adrian Belew (guitar), Busta Jones (bass), Steven Scales (percussion), Dollette MacDonald (vocals) and Bernie Worrell (keys). It’s reasonably good footage of the band at this key point in time, before they took three years off prior to their final tour. The show is also captured in B&W footage from the Capital Theater, New Jersey on November 4th, 1980. Both films will be of interest to fans and collectors, particularly as the lineup at the time included guitar wizard Belew, who added his trademark distorted guitar noise, and who also harmonized with Bryne perfectly given their very similar voices.

 

 

Getting Into The Cure

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Robert Smith, The Cure

I saw The Cure  way back on October 10, 1985 in Santa Barbara, California supporting their smash album The Head On The Door, from that same year. While it was a powerful and emotional show in parts, I was ultimately disappointed with the stoic stage presence of the band. In particular, founder Robert Smith seemed to be napping through long stretches of the set list, only coming alive it seemed for the couple of hits at the end of the concert. In part my California roots drove my perceptions at the time; the gloomy mysteriousness of goth music, while connecting well in gritty San Francisco, was in part lost on the audience in sunny southern California. The band at the time was also right on the cusp of greater stardom, with just a few popular hits like “Let’s Go to Bed” and “In Between Days” overshadowed by darker dirges such as “A Forest.” A standout memory for me was their performance of “A Night Like This,” which bridged the two forms, it’s prolonged menacing prologue leading to a heartfelt reading of the chorus:

I’m coming to find you if it takes me all night
Can’t stand here like this anymore
For always and ever is always for you
I want it to be perfect
Like before
I want to change it all

Smith’s songs while sometimes quirky and playful are most often laden with sadness, relating stories of lost love, unbearable pain, or outright anger and hatred. While that might sound like torture to some, these songs have an ability to access deep-seated emotions in listeners, unlocking these feelings, even allowing for their release. The greatest melancholy music can do this. It can support a bit of wallowing, but a lot of healing as well. The Cure has always walked this line skillfully. That fact was gloriously on full display last Thursday May 26th at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, just south of San Francisco where so many of us first fell in love with the band. I took my daughter Elaina for her first Cure show, and my second, 30 years on. It was everything my first time wasn’t.

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On this night, The Cure took the stage beginning with the bluesy dirge “Open” from Wish (1992). It was clear from the first minutes that Smith was in top form, fronting one of the tightest lineups of his oft-changing collective. Robert Smith has been the only consistent member of The Cure since it’s inception in 1976 and as principal composer and vocalist, its driving force. In addition to some of his punk/goth contemporaries, Smith pioneered a style of guitar playing that drives so many Cure songs, a type of short repeating chord cycle, which relentlessly drives the music forward, allowing the listener to get lost in the sound. Consider the aforementioned “A Forest,” one of the purest examples of the form.

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Smith’s band is now composed of Simon Gallup (basses since 1979), Roger O’Donnell (keyboards on and off since 1987), Jason Cooper (drums since 1994), and relatively new guitarist Reeves Gabrels (since 2012). The rhythm section of Gallup and Cooper were a major part of what made the concert so exceptional. Cooper is able to execute the start-stop hiccups of so many Cure backbeats with precision and endurance. Gallup brings movement to the stage, pinning down deceptively complex bass leads that often drive the melodic force of these songs, ambling about, punk posturing, on fire.

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After the second track “alt.end” from The Cure (2004) the band made this fan a happy man, as they dove into five consecutive tracks from Head On The Door, followed by “The Walk” from the 1983 EP of the same name (and from b-sides collection Japanese Whispers), one of the best tracks of the set. Incidentally this rare track, along with the unexpected rendition of “Kyoto” before it, were two of those songs that showed off drummer Cooper’s ability to execute complex polyrhythmic leads, while “Screw” showed off bassist Gallup’s chunk funky lines.

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The Cure on this tour has been playing crowd-pleasing set lists that change each night, with a core of consistent selections from their most popular mid period work. The band played several tracks off Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), Disintegration (1989), which included career highlights “Lullaby,” “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You,” about which my daughter says “If you wanted to play one song to someone who did not know The Cure’s music, this would be it – so sad but beautiful.” Truer words. The other featured album was Wish (1992) from which the band pulled off a most unexpected pleasure, set closer “End.” This raw, psychedelic funeral march was absolutely overwhelming live, a perfect ending that summed up everything I came to love about The Cure. After verses like “I think I’ve reached that point where every wish has come true, and tired disguised oblivion is everything I do,” follows its poignant, desperately sad refrain:

Please stop loving me
Please stop loving me
I am none of these things

Cure_Smith2_140dpiI watched the crowd, many of whom had clearly never heard this coda to Wish, slowly come around as the band cranked up its intensity, realizing they were witness to an immensely powerful moment, joining in the refrain, despite its despairing message. Smith’s uncanny way of putting words to music, making the sum of the two something more than its parts, awakening dread, a cry for help, and ultimately survival, even transcendence is unparalleled. And, fortunately for us, he is a survivor and, as seen last week in concert, he continues to thrive, in apparently good health and surprisingly strong voice. Long may this artist persevere. In the meantime, catch this tour if you can. You might just find a bit of healing yourself, a salve for the ills of this world, a new reason to love this enduring band.

oh, and my daughter Elaina on that night….

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