“Have you ever seen him before?” asked the friendly man from New Zealand who was sitting next to me. He was on a 4 month tour of Europe with his wife, but had managed to pitch up at Cheltenham Town Hall in the second row to see ‘Another Evening with Rick Wakeman’. I had, I explained, having been taken as a 14 year old by rather reluctant but loving parents to the Wembley Empire Hall (now Wembley Arena) to see The Myths and Legends of King Arthur performed on ice. My dad would have seen Rick Wakeman as a ‘layabout’, but because his music sounded fairly classical in nature and he’d been to The Royal College of Music, he let him off. It was all very dramatic, lots of dry ice, knights on skates having sword fights, etc. The man from New Zealand had also seen him, when Rick had toured there. He’d told a story about the sword fight where all the knights die. One night, one of the knights was taken unwell and couldn’t perform, which left another knight, at the end of the choreographed battle, alone and skating around aimlessly whilst the orchestra and Rick played on and on waiting for a conclusion. Fortunately for all concerned, the knight decided the only way out was to turn his sword on himself and allow the next sequence to begin. “Have you heard about Rick having a curry during a Yes performance of Topographical Oceans?” I asked New Zealand man. He hadn’t. I decided not to tell him in case Rick used it in his act. Rick had a support group, called The Cadbury Sisters. I’d never heard of them and didn’t know what to expect, but heck, I had nowhere else to go.
It turned out that The Cadbury Sisters really were sisters, not part of the Cadbury chocolate family dynasty and came from Cheltenham (or rather more accurately a village called Edgworth just outside Cheltenham. From the moment that they opened their mouths, I was hooked. A real folky, crystal clear voiced, beautifully harmonised sound, just with one electric and acoustic guitar and a floor tom. Think an English version of First Aid Kit and you’ve pretty much got it. Lady Barton St Mary were so impressed we bought their EP in the interval from the girls themselves, who were happy to chat to everybody. Have a look at their video at the end of this blog.
Then to the main event, with Rick Wakeman taking to the stage to the music of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, sitting at his Steinway grand piano and accompanying the backing music. This show was Rick talking and playing pieces. He explained that he’d started playing the piano at 5 years old, with his piano teacher, Mrs Symes, who taught him right up to the time Rick went to The Royal College of Music. In typical Wakeman style, he explained that he noticed two things about Mrs Symes: the amount of freckles on her face and the enormous size of her boobs, a theme Rick returned to rather often during the evening. He told us that his wife had suggested he play the first thing he ever played publicly, which was a 13 note piece called ‘See a Monkey on a Stick’. Rick told us that as soon as he received applause for playing it, he was hooked and his mother had to be called to drag him off the stage after his fourth rendition! To watch Rick Wakeman in action is spellbounding. His playing is effortless, his skills incredible. As the evening passed, he told tales of his time playing for Clive Dunn, Black Sabbath, The Strawbs and Cat Stevens, Tim Rice, stories about Jon Anderson and Yusuf Islam. In fact, I don’t know how I’d failed to realise it was Rick playing Piano on Cat Stevens’ number one version of ‘Morning Has Broken’. In between these tales, Rick played some pieces, classical and contemporary, including a chance to show his skill playing nursery rhymes in the style of different composers (Mozart, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rimsky Korsakov). He reminded us of all the different things he’s done – keyboard player with Yes, session musician, solo artist, star of Countdown, compere on Jongleurs Live and his contributions to Grumpy Old Men, making the demographic of his audience very wide and varied, although it must be said, the Cheltenham audience was predominantly over 50. Again, it was obvious when you knew it that Rick Wakeman played the piano on David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ (possibly my favourite Bowie song). But there was more. David Bowie was a neighbour and friend of Wakeman’s in the 1970s. One day, he asked Rick to come and visit and listen to his latest songs. Rick was very impressed and became the first person to hear all the tracks that were eventually recorded for ‘Hunky Dory’. “I want you to learn all these songs on the piano,” explained Bowie, “then we’ll arrange the music around you.” I was blown away. The encore (something Rick, like the rest of us, finds preposterous) was inevitably a piece from King Arthur, namely Merlin the Magician, taking me back to that night many, many years ago watching the ice show with the smell of dry ice in my nostrils, then later, as an older teenager, listening to the album at full blast whilst my dad shouted ‘turn it in!’ from the bottom of the stairs. It was a wonderful evening, a strange combination of laddishness and culture, one that’s sent me home eager to listen to classical music again. He never told the curry story, either.