Rick Wakeman, Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland, Sunday October 7 REVIEW

Before...
CASTING ONE’S MIND back to adolescence tends to yield embarrassing memories, so I don’t go there often. But the occasion of last night’s Rick Wakeman performance unleashed an unstoppable flow of remembrance. The thing is, in the early-to-mid-‘70s, the English music mags had annual readers’ polls of favourite musicians, and for some reason that I can barely connect with now, it mattered to me that Rick Wakeman sometimes beat my favourite, Keith Emerson, to the number one spot on the favourite keyboardists lists.
Wakeman, resplendent in long blonde hair and cape and surrounded by almost as many banks of onstage keyboards as Emerson, was a dashing figure and an extraordinary player, but he was more interested in filling up every particle of air with flowery notes than Emerson, who seemed every bit the virtuoso, but also loved making a god-damn, freaky-ass noise, a piss-off-your-parents noise.
While I soon got over my schoolboy fandom and joined the ranks of the cynical press corps, I never imagined that nearly 40 years later I’d be watching a paunchy 63-year-old Rick Wakeman (sans cape) regale a crowd of similarly greying fan-boys with stories about “those days”, and then illustrating his stories with songs rendered anew on nothing more than a grand piano (and the odd bit of karaoke accompaniment).
The Bruce Mason Centre was packed (as was his performance in Wellington the night before) and to be fair, there were women in attendance, and a smattering of young folk, but it was the fan-boys who stood out like sore thumbs. There was one sitting right next to me with his well-worn vinyl copies of Yes’s Fragile, and Wakeman’s The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and during the performance, I could hear him suck in air and almost cry with joy every time the pianist announced a tune that a connoisseur such as himself could really appreciate; and annoyingly, he insisted on loudly tapping his knee in rhythm, which in his mind may have made up for the absence of drums tonight, but in mine just made for an irritating seatfellow. I’m not sure whether my temporary friend got his albums signed, though – to guarantee that, you had to pay for premium seats, in a designated area, and stick around after the show, where you would be granted a personal audience with Rick.
... and after.
But anyway, what an odd concept. Having staged some of the most outrageously lavish productions in the history of popular music (he last played in New Zealand at Western Springs in ’75 with full symphonic orchestra, and in England, has even performed The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table on ice!) what we get is ‘An Intimate Evening With Rick Wakeman’ and his piano, courtesy of the Stetson Group, a promotions company that has been bringing oddness to NZ for decades. [Let me tell you about Mike Nesmith’s The Prison concept album tour some time].
And instead of the impressive-looking guy with the Nordic-looking long blonde hair and cape, we get a 63-year-old who looks like he’s just come in off the farm, and one who sports a bulging, jelly-like tummy that’s hard to take your eyes off, because it rather takes centre-stage, given the way he’s tucked in his t-shirt and belted up his trousers for maximum accentuation. It would be unjust to dwell on Rick Wakeman’s jelly-belly, but I couldn’t help but think it not just unsightly, but also a clear marker of poor health… a frame just can’t carry that kind of weight without endangering the life of the host, and while it’s clear that the guy is blessed with boundless enthusiasm and energy, it’s worrying that he’s not looking after himself better. [End of public service announcement! Head over to www.doctorfeelgood.co.nz for more weight management advice!]
The contrast between the virtuoso pianist and the gruff-voiced raconteur-cum-comedian with the between-song banter couldn’t be more marked. Wakeman’s brand of humour isn’t exactly sophisticated (stories about women with large breasts abound), and even his telling of the stories varies – some of his lines and his execution of those lines are sharp and perfectly timed, but he also often falters, seems to lose his way momentarily.
Clearly, the audience wants to hear him talk about the band that made him famous – prog-rock titans Yes – and the stars with which he famously played sessions. But while we get regaled with the full story of Cat Stevens’ ‘Morning Has Broken’ (a piece that Wakeman fairly demonstrably had a large part in shaping), disappointingly no light is shed on his time and work with David Bowie, and even his section on Yes is limited to a fond mention of the band’s former lead singer, Jon Anderson.
On balance, however, the ‘chat-to-audience and play a tune, then chat to the audience some more’ approach does make for a strangely entertaining two hours that passes more quickly than it might have… a bit like being regaled by a drunk uncle at a wedding and finding that, unexpectedly, he’s the most interesting person in the room.
The music? Well, the guy can play that damn piano. And no matter what he plays, he sticks in about 10 more notes than he needs to, which always stuck in the craw of back-to-basic rock nerds. But why shouldn’t he do what obviously comes naturally? Wakeman comes out of a certain classical music tradition, and by nature it’s both flowery and about more of everything, because with this kind of exposition, less just won’t do. Wakeman’s command of his instrument was at times jaw-dropping, and it’s a long time since I’ve heard a pianist sound like a one-man orchestra: his physical attack over the whole keyboard is so present that at times, I could swear the ringing harmonics create the illusion of more than just one piano.
As the player said, every tune he ever wrote was created on the piano first, and that’s why he can perform just about anything acoustically. I mean, I can’t imagine hearing Emerson successfully render the synth solo on ‘Lucky Man’ on a Steinway grand. So anyway, there were some 13 pieces performed in all, including a couple from Yes days (‘And You & I’, ‘Wondrous Stories’), a few from his epic concept albums (‘Merlin The Magician’, ‘Catherine Howard’), and of course an impressive ‘Morning Has Broken’, which didn’t lack for the absence of vocals.
There were a few eccentric diversions, including a set of segued nursery rhymes in the style of the “great composers”, and a thunderous version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as he imagined it would have sounded if composed by Sergei Prokofiev. While an odd idea, it worked, and showed how it was possible to transform a fairly simple ditty into a grand piece of classical-style pomp.
Wakeman – apparently a political conservative and a fervent Christian – is the aesthetic equivalent of a bull in a china shop. His music is never going to win awards for good taste, but like quite a few classically-influenced progressive rock musicians from the ‘70s, Wakeman knows how to have fun with that. The aesthetic police have been on the case so long that it’s impossible to get away with anything remotely clever or virtuosic in rock music anymore, without being branded for crimes against aesthetic credibility. Like I said way back there at the beginning, Wakeman’s style never appealed to me as much as the prog-era musicians who had darker streaks; those, like Emerson and Fripp, who were influenced by Stravinsky and Bartok. But give me even Wakeman’s most Richard Clayderman moments over some overrated piece of flaky feedback from an old Velvet Underground record any day. GARY STEEL

3 Comments

  1. Generally agree Gary, except for Eleanor Rigby…he didn’t play the song as much as beat it into submission. Check out my review here: http://13thfloor.co.nz/reviews/concert-reviews/rick-wakeman-bruce-mason-centre-october-7-2012/

  2. Agree with your comments. I found the “stand up comedian” raconteur role a bit weak. The expression “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” definitely applies to Rick. The stories seem to be embellished.

    Enjoyed the music in it’s raw form particularly 2 Yes songs and Merlin. A pity he didn’t 2 or 3 support musicians to liven things up.

    On a sour note. I wish venues would eject morons who try to film the show on smart phones or take pictures with flash camera’s. i had to tell a moronic Russian? family in front of us to stop their multi media show after 30 minutes of the above !!!!

  3. Marty, we’ll have to agree to disagree on ‘Eleanor Rigby’. I also think that ELP (and the Nice?) have been unjustly maligned. Perhaps you just don’t quite get the idea of Eurocentric (as opposed to Americanised) rock music? And Keg, I agree about the annoying punters blinding patrons with their flashes. Also, so many people storming into the venue late like a herd of bloody elephants made it quite hard to even hear what Rick was saying.

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