Rick Wakeman Amazes at the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall!
Lyn Funnell went to see Rick Wakeman at the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Theatre on his Piano Odyssey Tour.
I remember Rick Wakeman when he was with The Strawbs and Yes, with fanfares and flowing cloaks.
But he quietly appeared on the stage, surprising us all, sat down at his piano and started to play.
The piano is positioned so that he sits slightly sideways but almost with his back to the audience.
I thought this was a bit strange until I realised that he almost goes off into his own world when he plays, concentrating on the keyboard. And he doesn’t read any music! He plays fast most of the time, and all completely from memory. Amazing!
I’ve never heard such a beautiful tone from a piano. Goodness knows what it cost!
When a tune finished, Rick would stand up and immediately change from composer to stand-up comedian. And he’s funny! Again like his playing, his memory is perfect. He tells the jokes including his family and friends. He has six children and 11 grandchildren. And of course, he’s had a lot of very famous friends.
How things have changed! He looked towards the back of the theatre and said, ‘What’s that white light back there? At my age, when I see a white light I’m tempted to walk towards it!
The audience was all middle-aged and smartly dressed, and there were a few mobility scooters parked outside. Not a hippy in sight!
I calculated that when he was at the height of his fame, the combined ages of all the audience would have been 40,000 and now it’s around 120,000.
Rick likes to take a couple of tunes and play them in the style of classical composers.
First he played Strawberry Fields for Ever, blended with While my Guitar Gently Weeps.
He once told George Harrison that While my Guitar Gently Weeps can be played on any instrument except the bagpipes!
Next came Dance of 1,000 Lights, with a recorded orchestra backing, which is played very very fast, and all from memory of course.
Rick Wakeman wrote and put the music together for Ken Russell’s film Lisztomania. And he played After the Ball from his album White Rock in the style of Liszt.
But I bet Liszt couldn’t do stand-up comedy!
The 6 Wives of Henry Vlll album was released in 1973. Rick played the track Jane Seymour.
‘Henry Vlll had six wives,’ said Rick, ‘I’ve only had four. And I’m not having any more. It’s too bloody expensive!’
To finish the first half, he played a combination of Help and Eleanor Rigby, again in the style of classical composers. Then he said, ‘Time for a break now. You need it when you get to my age. The old bladder. When I come back here again, the first half will probably only last for eight minutes!
Cat Stevens contacted Rick, asking him to play the piano for a hymn that Cat had found, titled Morning has Broken. It was too short for a record, so Rick had to improvise to stretch out the time.
It went to Number 1 in the charts. And many musicians have asked Rick for the music as they wanted to record the tune, but he always refuses and he’s never written down the music. It’s his secret.
As a session musician, he should have been paid £9, but he didn’t get it from Cat Stevens for 36 years!
Sweet Georgia Brown came next, and I swear that both hands were playing different tunes. Amazing, and oh, the speed!
In 1975 he had three heart attacks and was in hospital for nine weeks. He wrote King Arthur there, which is the only time when he’s composed straight onto paper and not on the piano. So he didn’t hear it for weeks.
David Bowie was another musician who Rick worked with a lot. He was involved with Space Oddity and Life on Mars, which he played as a finale.
Then he waved and walked off, and of course everyone applauded loudly for an Encore.
Back he came and said, ‘Encores are so bloody stupid. I bet you thought I’d gone to the loo? Actually I was hiding behind the curtain waiting for the clapping to get loud enough for me to come back on!’
Finally he played his Nursery Rhyme Concerto, with each nursery rhyme played in the style of a classical composer – except Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which was played in the style of Les Dawson; every note in the wrong key!
What a wonderful evening! And surprisingly, nobody coughed. I heard one cough buried in the applause. Apart from that, there was complete silence.
My verdict? Why on earth hasn’t Rick Wakeman been given a Knighthood? He’s a member of the Water Rats and does work for charity, and he must be one of the greatest British composers and performers – and that’s not including the comedy!