If you walk into Rick Wakeman’s “Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour” expecting, as ARW billed their shows, an evening of Yes music plus, you will be disappointed. If, however, you go in realizing that Yes was a small part of Wakeman’s amazing musical journey then you will be thrilled and thoroughly entertained.
After kicking off the tour a few nights earlier, Wakeman brought the show to the Academy of Music in Northampton, MA for a Friday night show. The stage was sparse, just a grand piano in the middle and a keyboard stand to the side. Wakeman walked out, sans cape, and immediately set the tone for the night by addressing the audience with a joke before walking to the keyboard for the beautiful “Sea Horses” from his 1979 release Rhapsodies.
Shows like this not only allow Wakeman to dig deep into his solo catalog, but also a chance to showcase the enormity of session work he’s done. That deep catalog combined with the fact that he is a master storyteller makes for a fun night. A perfect example is a story he tells of being in the studio with Cat Stevens and Paul Samwell-Smith as they try to stretch Steven’s version of “Morning Has Broken” from a 1-minute hymn to a 3-minute single.
After visiting two of the Six Wives of Henry VII, “Catherine Howard” and “Catherine of Aragon”, Wakeman set up “Gone But Not Forgotten” from 1981’s Cost of Living. If you have seen a Wakeman solo show, or his legendary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, you know he has an extremely funny, un-PC sense of humor. That humor was in full effect all night long. Particularly as he dedicated this track to the late Keith Emerson. It was the first of 3 “bathroom” stories, this one involving Emerson and Ian Anderson (another involved Trevor Rabin “writing a #1 while doing a #2”, and the third included a police officer, a breathalyzer, and an overzealous fan).
At this point, Wakeman spoke of the impact Yes had on his life. He sat behind the piano for a trio of Yes-related tracks, ABWH’s “The Meeting” followed by “And You And I” and “Wonderous Stories”. Needless to say, this trio of songs received the largest ovation of the evening.
One of the more unique arrangements of the night was “The Dance of a Thousand Lights” from 1999’s Return to the Center of the Earth. It was the only song of the night that featured more than just Wakeman’s piano. A recording of the orchestra from the studio version played in the background against his piano. Hearing it, you can’t help but wonder how amazing an entire night of Wakeman with an orchestra would be.
After “Jane Seymour”, Wakeman began to talk about the enormous impact David Bowie had on his life and career. The crowd absolutely loved the stories behind and gorgeous versions of “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars”. To end the set, he played unique arrangements of the only two songs he didn’t perform on when originally recorded, The Beatles’ “Help” and “Elenore Rigby”.
For the encore, Wakeman’s storytelling and sense of humor were once again on high display. The evening ended with the wonderful “Merlin the Magician” and everyone left with a smile after enjoying a great night of comedy, stories, and music.