By CHRISTOPHER TREACY
Caped keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman remains an unforgettable pillar of talent within rock’s progressive canon. Most know him from his runs with The Strawbs and Yes, the latter spanning some of the band’s most celebrated material, beginning with 1971’s Fragile.
But what many may not realize is the breadth of his solo career, which boasts worldwide album sales of around 50 million. His first three solo recordings all became gold records in the States. When Wakeman overcame some persistent health problems by sobering up in the mid-80s, a mind-bogglingly prolific work ethic emerged; he’s released multiple full length recordings in most years since. Among them, he’s scored multiple films, sound-tracked video games, and even recorded his own version of Phantom of the Opera. Intermittently, he’s released updated versions of his Yes material, recorded a series of collaborations with his son, Adam, and composed multiple volumes of ambient, ‘relaxation music.” He’s also written three books.
Now, after 18 months of being locked down in the UK, Wakeman returns to the States this fall with “The Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour,” a delayed follow-up trek to his sold out ‘Grumpy’ tour in 2019, which brings him to the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA, next Tuesday, October 19. [Purchase tickets HERE.]
It’s a grand piano tour that provides an overview of his entire career, highlighting early session work (he played on David Bowie’s “Life On Mars,” for instance, though he apparently declined an offer to join The Spiders From Mars) and his contributions to Yes while surely touching on three recent releases: Piano Portraits (2017), Piano Odyssey (2018), and The Red Planet, (2020).
On the eve of leaving the UK, Wakeman took time out to answer a few questions for us in his inimitable, cheeky manner. He has much to celebrate, having been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen’s annual birthday honors. In chivalrous ranking—i.e., The Order of the British Empire—it’s just below knighthood.
LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE (LM): Lockdown was awful and frightening in many ways, but, for those that managed to avoid illness and jarring financial consequences, it held its own kind of delight… an enforced rest, perhaps. And maybe, for intensely creative people, enforced restlessness. How did you fill your time?
RICK WAKEMAN (RW): I found it terrible. I lost a few friends to the virus and it prevented performing, which is my great love. At 72, the last thing you need is an enforced rest! I wrote a lot, practiced a lot, screamed at the news a lot, and spent time walking with our rescue dogs who are great listeners when you’re constantly moaning about the mess the COVID virus has placed the world in… and I’m sure the dogs agreed!
LM: I imagine the Queen’s CBE honor is flattering. We don’t have anything quite the same over here, but it seems much more prestigious than an award, and it speaks to a lifetime of work rather than a particular recording or event. Can you talk a little about how that feels?
RW: It’s very flattering and genuinely came as a surprise as well. There are four awards given twice a year. Knighthood is the highest honor, then the CBE, then the OBE and finally, the MBE. The CBE is usually given in recognition of the work you’ve done—in my case, music and broadcasting. I’m extremely proud of it. I’m a strong royalist and to have this approved by the Queen means a lot to me. I have had the honor of meeting most of the Royal Family, including the Queen… it’s wonderfully British. I wish my parents could have been alive to have seen this happen, but there’s good reason they are not, since my father would have been 107 and my mother 105!”
LM: Sometime in the 80s, Rolling Stone published a ‘rock encyclopedia’ that pegged you as a beer-swilling, meat-loving foil to Yes’s otherwise uptight vegetarianism. Is that a fairly accurate description? How did it feel to be the guy that walks in with this incredible talent and, sociologically, being the one that turns everything upside down?
RW: I remember that. Written by Cameron Crowe, if I recall correctly. Back then, when I joined on, it was probably accurate. The irony is that apart from Steve [Howe] who is a strict vegan still, the rest of the guys aren’t, and I eat very little meat at all. And whilst the others all drink alcohol, I’ve been teetotal since 1985. So, my, how things turn around!
LM: In contrast to that image, your showcase piece on Fragile, “Cans and Brahms” sounds a bit prim.
RW: We decided that on Fragile, we would all have a solo piece to illustrate what our musical contributions to Yes were. I couldn’t do what I wanted because Yes had extreme publishing restrictions, which meant I had to record a piece that was already out of copyright, so I chose one of the pieces I studied for my A-level music course.
LM: Let’s talk about the capes. You’ve continued wearing capes on stage since the early 70s. By the middle of the decade it almost seemed like some sort of prog-fashion, but what was the original impetus? Were you just having fun, or does it aid your playing in some way?
RW: I bought my first cape from a deejay introducing us on stage in Hartford, Connecticut in 1971. I had previously been described in a review as ‘looking like a demented spider’ with arms and legs stretching out to try and reach keyboards and petals. Seeing the deejay on stage wearing one, I realized it covered up everything, and so I bought it from him. Michael Tate, our lighting man, said afterwards, ‘That’s your answer, but you need a specialist making your capes.’ He them introduced me to a lovely lady in Cleveland who made all the classic capes for me. I still wear them for all the rock shows, but not the piano shows, as it’s really hard to play the piano wearing a cape! I might give it a go again, though.”
LM: The CBE honor comes at time when you’ve recently released a trio of very well received solo recordings and are touring a show that takes a macro view of your whole career. I imagine it’s been a time of reflection, so are there things that you’re most proud of? Is there something that gives you more satisfaction, looking back?
RW: It’s a difficult question that I would probably answer differently on a daily basis. I’ll say this: my first solo album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was pivotal for me, as the head of A&M in England hated it. And the initial reviews weren’t good either. But, thankfully, the music loving public did like it and suddenly the record company and later reviewers changed their tune.
LM: Touring in 2021 is a bit different than in the 70s. In some ways it must be a better experience now, but maybe there are some things you miss? What’s your favorite aspect of being on the road nowadays that’s different from the pre-digital age?
RW: It’s very different now… better in some ways and not so much in others. Back then, so much was new. We were playing venues that had never before been used for rock concerts and sound and lights were just developing, so every day was a new adventure. Certainly, the reliability of [digitized] instruments make a huge, positive difference. And, of course, I miss being in my twenties for sure. It’s harder on the road when you’re in your seventies, but that’s mainly traveling and long days. Playing on stage will always be exciting, though, and long may that continue.”
The Narrows Center is located at 16 Anawan Street in Fall River, MA. Tickets can be purchased online by clicking HERE or by calling the box office at 508-324-1926. Box office hours areThursday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. and during show times.