Rick Wakeman – Nottingham Playhouse, Thursday June 17
For all the grandiosity of his best-known musical projects – the concept albums, the rock operas, the sprawling prog-rock symphonies – Rick Wakeman remains a remarkably grounded character: unpretentious, straight-talking, warm and funny. Having discarded the excessive trappings of the rock and roll lifestyle – once a notorious boozer, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in twenty-five years – he has embraced the mainstream (Watchdog, Countdown, even Songs of Praise) while remaining fully true to himself.
Rick’s one-man shows are sporadic affairs. To keep them spontaneous and fresh, he spaces them out over several months, sparing himself the tedium of the touring life. The shows follow a simple, effective formula, alternating between solo piano recitals and anecdotal stand-up. Some of the audience come for the music, others have been brought in by the television appearances, and all are catered for equally.
The words and the music are deftly intertwined, with each spoken routine serving as an introduction to the next piano piece. A selection from Rick’s 1973 debut album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was prefaced with a hilarious account of its performance at Hampton Court in 2009, which featured a barely controllable Brian Blessed as the show’s narrator. Three times divorced (“whoops, there goes another house”) and with a fourth marriage pending, Rick was wryly aware of the parallels; he’s only two wives short of an autobiographical follow-up album, after all.
A well-connected man, who clearly relishes the company of other kindred spirits, Rick told us tales of recording sessions with Cat Stevens, songwriting lessons from David Bowie and bird-watching jaunts with Bill Oddie, displaying an expert comic timing that matched his skills at the keyboard. His musical selections ranged from Morning Has Broken – whose rippling flurries and intricate cadences typified his piano style – to a sublime medley of two Yes classics (And You And I and Wonderous Stories), via a bizarre and brilliant reworking of nursery rhymes in the styles of various classical composers (Mozart, Ravel, Debussy… and Les Dawson). Astonishingly for such complex pieces, everything was played from memory, without the aid of sheet music.
The set finished with another inventive tour de force: Paul McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby, played in the style of Prokofiev. “I don’t care what McCartney thinks of it”, Wakeman quipped. “He never comes to my shows, so sod him!” But as with his “Grumpy Old Man” persona, the grouchiness was only skin-deep. This was a warm, generous and oddly life-affirming show, from a rare talent and a true survivor.