At The Keswick Theater, Glenside, Pennsylvania: I admit I was quite skeptical when the opportunity arrived to see Rick Wakeman’s 2006 Grand Piano Tour. I was expecting dinosaur rock ‘n’ roll from a dinosaur musician but instead we were all treated to an outstanding night of music from a man who is a true keyboard virtuoso.
Wakeman played alone on his grand piano all evening. He didn’t have a band and he didn’t need one. He performed music from all phases of his career and regaled us with extremely humorous and detailed stories about every piece. We heard music from his days with the Strawbs. He played two Yes classics, “Wondorous Stories” and the lengthy but superb “And You And I” from Yes’ Close To The Edge. He played half of his 1972 solo album The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII and an instrumental version of “Morning Has Broken,” the Cat Stevens classic. Fans of that song should listen closely the next time you hear it, because it is Wakeman playing his own arrangement on the singer-songwriter’s huge hit single. The record features some of the most beautiful piano playing ever to grace a pop hit.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Long before Yes, Rick Wakeman was an ace studio musician. We examine his genius first-take contribution to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”]
To show off his virtuosity even further, Wakeman closed the main show with two Beatles songs. First he played an arrangement of “Help” as he believed it would have sounded if the French composer Saint Saens had written it, followed by a Serge Prokofiev version of “Eleanor Rigby.” I think both composers would have approved.
The encore was a big surprise. Wakeman played the Keswick’s house organ for a rousing version of “Jane Seymour” from Six Wives. The crowd went wild.
Another major surprise, at least for me, is that this ultra-serious musician, who became famous playing in an ultra-serious band, is a major cutup on stage. His humor spiced his stories and kept people in stitches all evening. The man could have been a standup comic if he hadn’t pursued music.
At one point Wakeman mentioned that Yes’s Jon Anderson is one of his best friends but he also said that Anderson is a bit out there — as if you couldn’t tell from his lyrics. He described the Yes singer as “a man who is trying to save this planet while living on another one.” Believe it or not, Anderson apparently appreciates this assessment of his personality.
There are a lot more stories I could repeat here but much of the humor and impact are lost out of context. Perhaps someday you will get the opportunity to witness this comic act for yourself.
The Keswick was not quite full but neither were we. Wakeman could have played longer than his two-hour performance. Most of us would have stayed all night.
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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Rick Wakeman and Yes. Click through the headlines for more …
RICK WAKEMAN – IN THE NICK OF TIME (2012): If there is a central image of prog rock’s excesses, it is likely the cape-sporting Yes man Rick Wakeman surrounded by a semi-circle of towering keyboards. But strip away at the pomp, the pageantry and, yeah, the cape, and there remains just as much musical brilliance, something you’re reminded of all over again with this never-before-released live date from 2003 with the New English Rock Ensemble. At times, In the Nick of Time has an almost unquenchable propulsion, as Wakeman works in furious bursts of creativity — moving from classically inspired fugues to gnarled rock squalls and back again, with all of these winkling squiggles of color in between.
JON ANDERSON AND RICK WAKEMAN: THE LIVING TREE IN CONCERT: PART ONE (2011): Anyone expecting the cosmic prog-rock journeys of this duo’s work as members of Yes must have been a little disappointed — and not just with the spare instrumentation. More striking than the lean, guitar-free musical structures was how intimate, even grounded this concert performance was. If anything, though, this album speaks to both the individual trials and the shared will to overcome for both singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Each has had to grapple against some terrifying health problems, even as Yes continued on without them.
SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: YES: We dig back into deep cuts and favorites from Fragile, Relayer, Drama, and 90125 — including “South Side of the Sky,” highlighted by “Chris Squire’s gurgling bassline. Listen closely: Bill Bruford is also mesmerizing behind the drums. It seems simple but it gathers steam as the song wears on, packing in more twists and turns than seems necessary and yet seems perfectly sensible. Rick Wakeman compliments all of this with organ and, in the breakdown, a beautifully elegant piano line. On top of it all, Jon Anderson’s airy vocals narrate a polar expedition gone tragically wrong.”
Anderson shares his thoughts on some of his more memorable tracks, and a few deep cuts, as well. Go inside the creative process as Anderson and Co. complete the epic Side 1 opener to 1974’s Relayer. Get insights into working with Vangelis, and find out why Anderson made another pass at the closing track from 90125 for a solo project almost 10 years later. And, of course, there are the lasting mysteries of “Roundabout.”