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Rick Wakeman of YES on his ‘Grumpy Old Rock Star tour

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Rick Wakeman of YES on his ‘Grumpy Old Rock Star tour (photo courtesy of the artist)

Legendary keyboardist, composer, comedian, TV and radio host, and author Rick Wakeman has never done anything half-baked.

His five tenures with the band Yes helped elevate the progressive rock torchbearers into the pantheon of greats beginning with the album “Fragile” in 1971. Wakeman’s contributions to the music of other artists has had a similar impact, including David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Hunky Dory” LP, and songs by Cat Stevens, T-Rex, Elton John, Lou Reed and Al Stewart.

The solo career of Rick Wakeman is deep with scores of titles and liberally peppered with high-water marks, including concept albums about the wives of Henry VIII, King Arthur and Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” that sold in the millions on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s still doing it today with his piano-based theme albums – all of which vaulted into the U.K. top 10 upon release, with his just-completed “Christmas Portraits” due to follow suit in late November.

Wakeman is set to bring his first solo trek of America in 13 years to New England this week when his “Grumpy Old Rock Star” tour arrives at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, New Hampshire, on Sunday, September 22, to be followed by a show at Boston’s The Wilbur on Monday, September 23. Before heading to the west coast, Wakeman will include a show at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, Connecticut on October 13.

Wakeman’s “Grumpy Old Rock Star” tour is an extension of his contributions to the “Grumpy Old Men” British TV series and his hilarious best-selling memoirs “Grumpy Old Rock Star” and “Further Adventures of a Grumpy Old Rock Star.”

Wakeman’s tour will encompass 25 dates and promises a variety of music from throughout his career, including some of those famed cameo songs, mixed with riotous dry humor, stories, commentary, insight and maybe the odd naughty joke. He’ll spend November plotting a “Grumpy Old Christmas” U.K. tour for December. The man appears unstoppable.

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee explains during the following interview, Wakeman does not enjoy idle moments. His outlook and enthusiasm for creativity is inspiring.

“I don’t like to have even one day without anything to do,” he told me, adding “Because I worry that one day, I might not have anything to do and then wonder why I didn’t make use of the days when I had the chance.”

Rick Wakeman has always been one of the greatest of all music interview subjects. Unfailingly honest, self-deprecating and quit-witted, he calls it as he sees it. That truthfulness has landed him in hot water on occasion but he takes it in stride. Speaking from his home in England just before entering the studio to record his new album, Wakeman was clearly thrilled about his forthcoming American tour and could hardly wait for it to begin.

The Maine Edge: When you do a solo tour, is it freeing for you in the sense that you don’t need to be concerned about other musicians because you’re the band?

Wakeman: There are two ways of looking at it. What you just said is absolutely right. I’m on my own, so if I suddenly decide halfway through the show to do a different piece or tell a different story, I can do it without someone in the band wondering what the hell I’m doing.

The disadvantage is that you don’t get any respite. There are no moments where you can say ‘I’m going to relax for the next five minutes because there’s a guitar solo or a big vocal thing.’ It means you have to be very alert at all times and it also means that if you need a good scratch, you can’t divert attention from yourself to do it. There are pluses and minuses but it’s a completely different show to what I do with a band.

Everything I write, I write it on the piano, and a lot of what I’ve done with other people heavily featured piano. It’s great to strip pieces back to just the piano because it almost sort of shows how they all came about in the first place. And it’s great fun to do. I thoroughly enjoy doing variations on other pieces of music.

The Maine Edge: I love the versions of some of my favorite songs that appear on your recent piano albums, including some songs by The Beatles. Do you plan to include some of those titles on your “Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour?”

Wakeman: Absolutely. Quite a lot of what people will hear on this tour is taken from two piano albums that I did over the last three years which were top 10 albums in the U.K. I like taking well known melodies and doing variations on them. The Beatles’ music is just perfect for that. Sometimes I play them in the style of other composers. I just have a lot of fun with the music which I’ve enjoyed doing for many years.

The Maine Edge: How gratifying has it been to see those albums do so well?

Wakeman: I’m very pleased with how both records have been received. To have them both go into the top 10 on the album charts was very gratifying indeed. For whatever reason, they’ve received a lot of radio play on the classical stations, mainstream album rock stations and even the top 40 stations. It just seems that, for whatever reason – and I wish I had done it before – people seem to like it. And the tours that I did for them were fantastic. They all sold out. Here in the U.K., I’m known for music but I’m also known for comedy. A lot of people here actually know me more for comedy than for music. I’ve always mixed anecdotes and stories into my shows and it will fun to bring this show to the U.S. It’s like inviting the audience to my front room.

The Maine Edge: I’ve read many glowing reviews of some of your recent U.K. shows, where you had them crying during “Life on Mars?” and in stitches minutes later from an anecdote or observation.

Wakeman: The great thing about this ‘Grumpy Old Rock Star’ piano show is that it covers a wide range of emotion. There’s a lot of laughter in the audience. I hosted a standup comedy show here in the UK for 8 years and I’ve done a lot of standup tours. When my agent in America heard the title, he said we needed to use it for the tour. It’s something I get called a lot over here and it seems there’s a good chance it will stick in the U.S. as well (laughs).

The Maine Edge: You maintain a very busy global concert schedule. Do you do anything special to stay in shape for a long tour?

Wakeman: I stay in shape but unfortunately it’s not the shape I want to be. At the moment, I’m about 30 kilos heavier than I’d like to be (approximately 66 pounds). That comes from eating all the wrong things at all the wrong times. I’m making a bit of an effort to get myself into decent shape. I don’t like to have even one day without anything to do because I worry that one day I might not have anything to do and then wonder why I didn’t make use of the days when I had the chance.

I like people. My late father – who died more than 40 years ago – said ‘Don’t go into the business, son, if you don’t like people.’ I told him that I love people and he said I’ll do alright. I have so many friends that I’ve met over the last 50 years or so and it’s just fantastic. There are some new theatres on this tour that I’ve never visited, so that’s always good, just as it is to revisit some areas. I just love playing and I can’t imagine a day when I can’t do it anymore.

I start recording my next piano album in a week’s time. This one will be called ‘Christmas Portraits’ and it will be out on November 29 (on the Sony Classical imprint).

The Maine Edge: Literally days after you brought the house down during your induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, Yes split off into two bands. Do you see a time when the musicians might come together once more or has that ship sailed?

Wakeman: The ship has not only sailed, but it sunk, I think. We did the big ‘Union’ tour back in the late 1980s and that was great fun. The bands have gone off in different directions since then. Steve (Howe) has his band, which is great. I have every respect for him as a player, as a performer and as a person.

If you want my honest opinion about everything, I rather feel that when Chris (Squire) passed away, that should have been the end of it. Chris was a founding member of Yes and an integral part of that band. He was the only guy who was in there from start to finish. When he passed away, I rather felt that it would have been the right thing to do to call it a day. That isn’t to say that we can’t go out to perform Yes music. We did it with A.R.W. (Yes, featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman. This band performed from 2010 to 2018. A final tour is planned for 2020.) This is only my opinion, but I felt that the name Yes should have gone up to Heaven with Chris.

The Maine Edge: A number of classic Yes titles have been recently remixed in 5.1 surround sound by Steven Wilson and they are mind-blowing, in my opinion. “Fragile” is one of my “desert island discs” but I love them all. First, have you heard the reissues? If so, what do you think?

Wakeman: I’ve heard them and I think they’re great. I’m not a person who feels that the original mixes are sacred and should never be touched. I’ve always felt there are many ways to listen to the music and play the music. I think what Steven Wilson has done is fantastic in the same way I’m always interested when pieces get re-recorded by other artists.

I remember the recording of the ‘Fragile’ album very well. A lot of thought went into the recording and how it was achieved. Back then, we basically had 16-track machines to play with. Consider today that most drummers demand about 40 tracks and you can see that we had to be very careful in putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. We would bounce tracks to create space (on the recording tape) and all of the things we did created the sound of the final record. We didn’t have digital recording back then so it was quite an art form to record. We spent a lot of time working out how we were going to do it. That has paid off – quite rightly, as you say – when someone like Steven Wilson gets hold of the multi-track masters – it’s very well organized. I haven’t spoken to him about this but I can imagine that Steven must have been quite impressed with how it all was.

The Maine Edge: A number of artists have asked you to perform on their songs, including David Bowie and Cat Stevens. Of all of the sessions you’ve done for other people, is there one that is closest to your heart?

Wakeman: Yes, I would say the ‘Hunky Dory’ album and ‘Life on Mars?’ in particular was very special to do. That isn’t looking back retrospectively. I realized it at the time it happened. The whole story of how that happened isn’t commonly known but I share it during the show.

Cat Stevens’ ‘Morning Has Broken’ was another important session. I’m not sure how it did in America but it was a massive hit in England. (Note: The song charted at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1972).

Cat - or Yusuf as he’s known now – said that he needed a piano introduction. We played around and eventually sort of came up with what I do, which he really liked. He said ‘Great – that’s it.’

At first, it was just the introduction then we put it at the end (laughs). Then we stuck it in the middle. An interesting thing about that song: People say ‘Oh, great piano all the way through that song’ but it actually isn’t all the way through. The piano does those introduction pieces and the occasional little flourish – that’s all it does.

The Maine Edge: One more question…have you heard any good naughty jokes lately?

Wakeman: Yeah, but they’re so desperately un-P.C., I shouldn’t. If something is funny, it’s funny. We know if it’s offensive but the trouble now with this politically correct thing is that people ultimately think they have to find something offensive because it deals with a certain subject. I’ve always argued that Jewish people tell the best Jewish jokes, Irish people tell the best Irish jokes and gay people tell the best gay jokes. I’ve got loads of gay friends who tell me hysterical stories but I can’t tell them because people would find it offensive. Humor has been wrecked by the P.C. brigade, and it’s such a shame.

The Maine Edge: Jerry Seinfeld has said essentially the same thing. He won’t play colleges anymore because of it.

Wakeman: When I was doing a lot of standup shows, people would hold up their mobile phones, film it, put it on YouTube, and suddenly you get a barrage of people saying ‘That was really offensive what you said.’ Hold on a minute, it’s a joke. It’s funny, it’s not being offensive at all. People know when it’s offensive and people know when it’s funny. Comedy has essentially been ruined by the P.C. brigade and people with mobile phones. Jerry Seinfeld is absolutely right.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 September 2019 05:08

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