Tag Archives: Oliver Wakeman

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

Yes: Beyond, Before and Again

Yes Squire CTTE 2014 72dpiBeen thinking since Sunday about what to say after the passing of Chris Squire, the immensely talented bass player and vocalist for Yes. I’ve seen Chris play live over the years at more than a dozen Yes shows, and every time his performance has been incredibly entertaining and inspiring. He is one of the most important musicians of our time and will be sorely missed by fellow artists and fans alike, as evidenced by the outpouring of remembrances and condolences over the past week. Yet the band Yes will continue and change once again, as they have so many times over these more than 40 years. And that’s an honor to Mr. Squire, and a very good thing indeed.

Chris had been part of the artistic flowering of rock music since it’s maturation during the 1960’s and beyond. The progressive rock and jazz-fusion genres nurtured some of the best bass players of the modern era. Unlike much of mainstream rock and jazz, these adventurous forms inspire each instrumentalist to stretch out, to explore the boundaries of their craft and produce artistic music that startles and amazes listeners. Such was the case with Chris Squire and his signature Rickenbacker bass. To help describe just what makes Squire so unique, I reached out to my collaborator, author and musicologist friend Tim Smolko. He came up with an excellent four-part answer to this inquiry:

  1. Squire’s treble register. Squire spent as much time exploring the upper register of the bass as he did the lower. Utilizing such a wide pitch range gave him the ability to construct his elaborate bass lines, take solos, and interact with the other melodic instruments in the band (voice, guitar, and keyboards). Most players create intensity by developing a low, growling tone. Squire not only did that (the “Roundabout” bass line), but he created the same intensity in his upper register.
  1. Squire’s use of a pick. Squire was not the first to play the bass with a pick, but he was among the early pioneers. His use of a pick gave his playing the speed, execution, and punchiness that most other bassists didn’t have.
  1. Squire’s participation in the “emancipation” of the bass. I like to compare what players like Squire did for the bass guitar to what Beethoven did for the cello. In the Classical period before Beethoven, composers often gave cello players a boring job: just play the root position notes that underlie the harmony. Haydn and Mozart came along and gave cellists more interesting parts, but it was Beethoven who treated the cello as an equal instrument alongside the violin and viola. In his string quartets, the four instruments are equal partners. Chris Squire did the same for the bass guitar. Instead of playing just the basic notes that outline the chord progression, they created melodies of their own and became an equal partner with the other instruments. It’s as if Squire is soloing all the time, but he’s still laying the foundation for the song. Like Paul McCartney and John Entwistle, Squire stands out as a great bassist because he treated his instrument as a melody instrument.
  1. Squire’s band mates helped him become great. It’s obvious when listening to Yes that the other members never dictated to Squire what to play. He had the freedom to make his bass parts as elaborate as he wanted. Not only that, the other players “took over” some of the traditional roles of the bass guitar in order to let Squire become the melodic player that he was. Steve Howe, Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman, and Billy Sherwood often played the low-end notes and the basic rhythm of a song while Squire did something else.

All keen and valid observations; thank you Tim! It’s particularly important to understand that his bass melodies share the sonic palette as an equal partner with the other instrumentalists. In addition, the other aspect of Squire’s talent as a musician was his powerful vocals. Chris could almost be called the co-lead vocalist of Yes, so frequent was his simultaneous harmonic pairing with Jon Anderson, Trevor Horn, Benoit David, and Jon Davidson. The signature Yes sound relies in large part on these vocal harmonies. At every show I attended Chris was consistently in strong clear voice, and it’s an important part of his legacy.

Yes Squire White 2009 72dpiWhich brings us to Squire’s longevity and legacy in general. Provided one does not count the Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, Howe album as Yes, Chris has been in every incarnation of the ever-changing Yes lineup, enduring for over 40 years. Other band members have come and gone, some with fairly prolific solo careers, particularly Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson. Yet with the exception of his outstanding 1975 solo album Fish Out Of Water, and a few other collaborations, Squire’s primary focus had been Yes. He poured every ounce of his focus and his talent into it’s many incarnations, helping drive the relentless touring schedule that has kept the music alive.

yes troopersAnd it is important that Yes does live on and endure, as they have thus far when other band members have passed on or have left the fold. The fundamental reason for this is clear – the band has produced a huge catalog of music, rife with stellar compositions and virtuosic musicianship. This music should and will be played even after the original and long standing members are no more. As evidenced recently when Squire first announced that his illness would preclude his involvement in the upcoming Yes tour and he indicated his support for collaborator Billy Sherwood to carry on in his stead. “The other guys and myself have agreed that Billy Sherwood will do an excellent job of covering my parts and the show as a whole will deliver the same Yes experience that our fans have come to expect over the years.” I for one am very interested to see who will fill in for Chris over the coming years and what kind of interpretations they will do of his work.

Yes Squire band CTTE 2014 72dpiWhich leads me to the broader question, one often debated amongst fans on Facebook and other social media sites, as to what gives a musical group it’s identity. This is the point recently raised by Geoffrey Himes in a Smithsonian.com article. Mr. Himes poses a valid question about rock bands, “How much can you change its personnel before it’s no longer the same band,” suggesting there is both a legal angle and a fan’s perspective to consider, and continuing with other valid points. It’s interesting fodder when considering a group like Yes. I’ve read posts by fans adamant that “Yes is not Yes” without Jon Anderson, who so embodied the band’s core vision and spiritual leadership. But I would argue that like the classical composers of the past, progressive rock music should be played in concert into the distant future for generations to come. In fact, Chris said it best in a 2013 interview with Jason Saulnier “I believe that like a symphony orchestra there could be a version of Yes in 100 or 200 years from now, honoring the music and presumably creating new music as well. That would be a nice thing I think.”

Yes Squire Keys (c) Owen1996  72dpiLet’s celebrate the fact that progressive rock music, particularly as composed by bands such as Yes, is that good. That it is a valid and viable form of music and it can continue to be interpreted for original and new audiences, just as has been the case with classical and original jazz forms. While any original members survive and are able, they should be part of the family that continues in this pursuit. While I can still catch Steve Howe, Jon Anderson and the other band members, either together or solo, and while they can still play, I will continue to attend their live shows, and will continue to recommend others do as well, provided they still enjoy the results. As new musicians come to the fore and perform this music, if they do it well, I will be there to enjoy their mastery of these works and honor the memory of those who came before them.

Like all fans, I was terribly disappointed when Jon Anderson fell ill just before the summer of 2008 tour, as I had 3rd row tickets to the cancelled show in Mountain View. But the band soldiered on, with new vocalist Benoit David, then Jon Davison and we’ve seen every tour since. We’ve also seen Anderson live in solo tours including one with Wakeman in Scotland, and we loved every minute. Last year Davison again took lead vocals for the band at Cruise To The Edge and put in an astounding performance. He hit the most powerful sustained note I’ve seen by any Yes singer for “Heart of the Sunrise” on the refrain “I feel lost in the city….”

The band are on tour this summer with Toto, then hosting the third annual Cruise To the Edge voyage this November and they will begin a tour of the UK and Europe next year, having announced that the set list will include all of Fragile (1972) and Drama (1980). Both of these albums showcase some of Squire’s most intricate bass leads, and so it’s fitting timing that these will be the focus of this upcoming tour. We were all deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the great Chris Squire and I for one will be at the upcoming shows and beyond, to celebrate his life’s work and continuing legacy.

Yes Transcends

Asia Opening
Asia Opening

Finally!  After a year of uncertainty about the future of Yes, I am pleased to report here that the show last night at the Warfield theater in San Francisco exceeded my expectations making the long wait worthwhile.  Asia opened and played a set list that included several songs from their debut, two tracks from the followup, and one from the most recent release. Group members presented something from their past –  John Wetton (King Crimson/In the Court of the Crimson King), Geoff Downes (The Buggles/Video Killed the Radio Star), and Carl Palmer (ELP/Fanfare for the Common Man), each representing a bit of the the history of their 1970’s bands.  While Asia was always this “progressive supergroup gone pop”, their work was pleasent, powerful and certainly less angular than their predecessors.  John Wetton is one of my favorite vocalists and he delivered with accurate, clear vocals throughout the show – awesome and unexpected after all these years.

When Yes took the stage for the opening track, “Siberian Khatru”, any fears that this ensemble would have troubles melted away.  This first track would be a litmus test for any band, given the complex interlocking passages and strong harmonies. This band showed right away that they are up to the task, as Chris Squire (bass), Steve Howe (guitars), and Alan White (drums) played as well as I have seen, and seemed to enjoy themselves during the almost two hour set. Though this music calls for precision timing and accuracy, the band kept a the slight looseness to some passages which added to the experience.  The only minor complaint for me is that while Oliver covered his father’s material (and Geoff/Tony) faithfully, he never really stood out in the mix, but that has been a common affliction of Yes keyboard players other than Rick Wakeman.

Siberian Khatru
Siberians

Most important was the question – would the absence of lead singer Jon Anderson, the zen center of Yes, render the show a lesser form?  Would the emotional integrity of the experience be intact?  Covering for Jon Anderson is even more difficult than what we have seen with other ’70’s acts such as Alan Parsons, Journey, Foreigner, Boston, etc. because Jon is so much part of the fabric of the whole Yes experience.  The main reason most of us love this band is simple, and goes beyond exceptional musicianship and compositions – its that when Yes hits it marks, we are taken somewhere on a transcendent journey, getting in touch with an energy outside ourselves.  The band construct these intense, chaotic passages, which build, and then shift into the most angelic, harmonic major-chord-based resolves imaginable.  Jon seems at the heart of this journey, embodying his spiritual lyrics – often obtuse, but imparting radiant, positive messages.  When this is presented properly in a live concert setting, the results are powerful.  On this night, of course we missed seeing Jon himself, but even without him in this lineup, all was well in the Yes universe.

The current vocalist Benoit David has Continue reading Yes Transcends