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.
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 performances 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.
This 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.
This 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.”
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.
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.
At 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