August 31, 2019

Royal Festival Hall, London (13/7/2019)

Photos: Graeme Stroud

In truth I have genuinely never seen or heard a standing ovation as long…

Having missed Wakeman’s previous full performance of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth at the Albert Hall in 2014, I was highly pleased to be given the opportunity to attend this, his last-ever full, orchestral Journey bash at the Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. A mostly ageing audience packed the hall in this, the first of two performances over the weekend, and they were keen – we have all seen big bands, but with Wakeman’s excellent rock ensemble supplemented by the Orion Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir, plus sundry special guests including the venerable Robert Powell as the narrator, there were over 90 performers on stage at any given moment.

Massively over-the-top by any normal human standards as it was, the evening carries a strangely downbeat vibe, with a tiny pre-gig merch desk in the lobby being virtually the only nod to commercialism in the entire venue. No signs trumpet the great event, no directions point the way – the progger is forced to wander in and ask at the information desk, picking up a programme at the same time if so motivated; and after the gig we are marched out without being given an opportunity for a t-shirt or a CD. Wakeman himself ambles on to the stage to thunderous applause in a magnificent gold-and-ruby-red sequined cape that shimmers sumptuously in the spotlight, but underneath he wears a scraggy t-shirt and a pair of trainers, as if he’s just got off the train.

What are we there for though? When the brass section launches into the dramatic opening bars, there is pure adrenalin, and the world holds its breath for a matter of minutes until Wakeman follows his cue and starts to tickle the ivories in force. The vocals are shared three ways between Ashley Holt, a veteran of the original 1974 recording, the richly-voiced Strictly Come Dancing vocalist Hayley Sanderson and operatic powerhouse Alfie Boe, who gives rock an outing whenever he can – some readers may have been privileged to hear the leather-waistcoated prodigy whack Led Zeppelin’s Rock & Roll out of the park at the Sunflower Jam in 2012.

With the 40-minute original Journey from 1974 lengthened to a full hour for the 2012 re-recording, this audience was pleasantly surprised at the announcement that the program had now been expanded to approximately 2 hours, without any explanation of where the extra material had come from. In fact the first standing ovation of the night was for the joyously twinkling piano showpiece ‘The Dance Of A Thousand Lights’ from Wakeman’s 1999 sequel Return To The Centre Of The Earth, and I suspect that much of the extra material was from the same source. In addition, the closing ‘Mount Etna’ section was repeated in massively extended form as an encore, with each member of the band emerging from the shadows to perform a solo, and Wakeman strapping on a keytar and stepping uncertainly out into the audience accompanied by an assistant to light the way.

Wakeman is still hale and hearty as he passed his 70th birthday in May, but he didn’t look over-comfortable negotiating the auditorium steps in semi-darkness and stared at his feet throughout the ordeal. Whatever can be said for his physical condition though, his fingers are as lissom as ever and the fact that he kept up a blistering keytar solo throughout, speaks for itself.

Trying to keep a 90-strong band musically tight must be a logistical nightmare, and in truth, there were several evidences of under-rehearsed passages – virtually everyone fumbled the ball at some point, except for perhaps the astonishing Hayley Sanderson, whose chocolatey voice was spot-on throughout. Wakeman’s son Adam played second fiddle to his dad as a member of the rock band strumming an acoustic guitar or playing chords on an electric keyboard, but it was great to see him too slap on a keytar and launch into an impressive solo towards the end, duetting briefly with his old man.

The sheer spectacle of the evening was enough to mask any niggling details, and in truth I have genuinely never seen or heard a standing ovation as long as either the one that attended the end of the main set, or that at the end of the encore. Sticking a previously-unreleased live Journey recording from the 1974 US tour to the front of the program was a nice touch too.

You know what; I’m really glad that I didn’t miss it this time!