Friday, 9 May 2014

Rick Wakeman - Sheffield City Hall 8/5/14

If you're anything like me, there will be certain recordings that resonate with different periods and events in your life. One of my 'resonating' pieces is Rick Wakeman's 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', which evokes for me lazy summers in my mid teens lounging about at my mate's house, beginning to discover the many and varied delights of music. This was one of the first albums that I listened to as a whole, and one of its great attractions was, and is, that it tells a story.

When news broke that Rick was going to perform the piece again, in its original intended form (rather than the truncated one that his record company, A&M, had insisted on back in 1974), I was delighted. When it transpired that one of the venues for the tour would be Sheffield, I rejoiced greatly with great joy!

And so, on Thursday 8th May 2014, 10 days short of Rick's 65th birthday, we gathered. The first part of the show was Rick on his own, in grey suit and t-shirt, telling (with his characteristic sardonic wit) stories from his early life in music and the circumstances that led to his conception of the project. We were treated too to renditions of songs from his early session playing, including Cat Stevens' 'Morning has Broken', sung by the English Chamber Choir, and Bowie's 'Life on Mars', performed by Haley Sanderson.

After a 20 minute break, the main event unfolded, as the stage filled up with not only the English Chamber Choir but also the Orion Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Guy Protheroe, and Rick's 'house band' - the English Rock Ensemble. And centre-stage, Rick's keyboard rig, and the man himself, this time resplendent in silver-sequined navy velvet cape. The music was tight throughout, and everyone involved seemed to exude an air of absolute pleasure in the performance. Orchestra and band slotted together seamlessly, with all three - Dave Colquhoun on guitar, Matt Pegg on bass, and Tony Fernandez on drums - giving masterful displays. Rick, of course, was annoyingly brilliant, with a fluency and dexterity that still puts many a younger player to shame.

Guy, Rick, Philip (behind), Hayley & Ashley
As I said earlier, this is a piece of music that tells a story, and the narration of that tale was in the hands of (in words) the actor Philip Franks, who gave the evening a certain gravitas with his mellow tones, and (in song) Rick's long-time collaborator and contributor to the original recording, Ashley Holt, and the afore-mentioned Hayley Sanderson, one of the regular singers on 'Strictly Come Dancing'. I must confess that I have always had one or two issues with Ashley Holt's voice: he has a great range and equally great power, but always seems to be straining to me, and this just grates a little. Haley's singing style is a little easier on the ear, but both of them brought their own contirbution to a great show.

For the encore we were treated to a kind of reprise of the work, with sections from the later follow-up piece, 'Return to the Centre of the Earth', which allowed some space for the musicians in both the orchestra and band to express themselves a little more freely. After just over 2 hours of music, the crowd left having enjoyed a musical treat. I hope that there will be more to come from this highly-talented and urbane musician.