January 18, 2024

Three and a half hours of quintessential Wakeman…

There’s a simple and sensible construction to Live at the London Palladium 2023, the new 4 CD boxed set showcasing Rick Wakeman’s triumphant pair of sold-out concerts last year in all their dazzling pomp and nostalgia. The four interlocking components of the set – each housed on their own separate disc – are comprised of Rick’s most classic material of all – undoubtedly the crème de la crème of the Sequined One’s long and storied career.

With the recent announcement of his final solo tour, one wonders if Rick, soon to be 75 years of age, has begun the gradual process of putting all of this beloved and acclaimed material to bed and giving it a proper sendoff with the production value it deserves. Gathering together a modern English Rock Ensemble comprised of new and familiar faces, Rick brings along Lee Pomeroy on bass, Adam Falkner on drums, Dave Colquhoun on guitar, Hayley Sanderson on vocals, and his son Adam on additional keyboards. Augmenting this lineup is The English Chamber Choir, conducted by Guy Protheroe, along with recorded narration (where appropriate) by Peter Egan and Ian Lavender.

Disc one contains a complete performance of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, surprisingly only the second time it’s ever had a full live airing (some 14 years after the Hampton Court Palace concert, staged to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII taking the throne). Rick mentions in the liner notes that neither he nor the band were made aware these shows were being recorded, which meant the ‘live album’ pressure was not a factor; the band were simply able to get up there and deliver a powerhouse performance of these stunners – and it truly is a cracking show. There’s the odd alteration here and there, which I’ll leave up to the listeners to discover without spoilers, but none of these are a drawback. The original album is still sitting there in just about all of our record collections if one chooses. Incidentally, in this particular case the pieces are played in their actual chronological order, rather than the order found on the original 1973 LP.

While there are individual renditions of some of these pieces from over the years that I may prefer, this performance as a whole is among the finest in Rick’s recorded history (and quality-wise, leaps and bounds above the dodgier releases in that vast live catalogue). Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves are particularly fiery deliveries which sound spectacular when turned up as loud as you – or your neighbours – can stand. I will hold my hand up and honestly say that in 90% of cases, modern live albums do not get much air time in my home; there are simply too many better or more familiar versions to occupy my precious listening time. But this is one disc I’ve found myself returning to numerous times. I’d even go as far as to say I gained a new appreciation for an album I already know very, very well. Now that’s really saying something.

Disc two sees a complete performance of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Rick mostly maintains the original arrangement of this famous album, omitting much of the additional, less familiar material slotted in to the 2016 expanded re-recording (retaining only some brief choral interludes). There are some sparkling moments throughout this set, and I must say when the Moog solo in the middle of Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight kicked in, I was sat, mouth agape, bathed in that unmistakable Wakeman grandeur.

The main difference with this performance is that fan favourite Merlin the Magician was plucked from the album sequence and saved for the show’s encore, rolling out the carpet to incorporate Wakeman father & son keytar battles with Colquhoun, a rollicking addition which proves to be a highlight of the set. Initially I thought I’d prefer the track in its original placement, but that raises more questions: What would be used as an encore instead? An unrelated piece tacked on for longer running time? No encore at all? Making The Last Battle the encore? No, perhaps Merlin was the right choice after all. Either way, it’s a strong live showing for this album with impressive performances by all concerned.

Disc three is devoted to renditions of classic Yes material which began the second night’s concert. This hour-long disc kicks off with, perhaps predictably, Roundabout. Now, as a longtime live Yes show collector stretching back to the days of pre-internet tape-trading, I can honestly say I’ve heard hundreds of renditions of this piece, and it long ago fell victim to Stairway to Heaven/Aqualung syndrome for me (familiarity, contempt, et al.) But I have to say, this version sounds fresh and lively, with less of a going-through-the-motions flavour than I’d been used to (to be fair, it’s unlikely that Yes ever actually were going through the motions; I suspect my own fatigue of the song was to blame).

A nifty and newly-constructed medley is next, opening with The Meeting (from the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album) performed as an extended piece with the choir taking the first section before transitioning into the more familiar piano/vocal arrangement. Next, a new and peppy vibe is given to Wondrous Stories, eschewing the more typically celestial flavour we are accustomed to. After a time, Rick introduces South Side of the Sky with the piano line from that song’s middle section, and the band launches into the vintage piece with fervour, each member nailing their part beautifully. I imagine this piece must take some serious rehearsal… well, it paid off here. Always a favourite of mine, this came across as the centrepiece of this Yes-themed disc.

Even more classic material arrives with the closing pair of tracks. And You And I is always welcome, and played here fairly conventionally, with the right amount of reverence for those majestic, hair-raising themes. Finishing the disc – though in actuality played as the final concert encore – the old warhorse Starship Trooper balloons into an expanded 17 minute stage frenzy, with Rick splashing out new synth lines left, right, and center. The middle ‘Disillusion’ section is perhaps the weak moment here, played with a misplaced rockier focus in comparison with the original guitar picking, and with lead & backing vocals sounding somewhat sloppy and unaligned (if there’s one thing you can say about Anderson & Squire’s dual vocals, it’s that they were pretty much always impeccable). All a matter of taste, I suppose, but to me this section sounded jarring.

Speaking of personal tastes, I am a rare breed in that I have never heard a live version of Starship Trooper that I preferred to the original studio cut on The Yes Album. I realize that the closing Würm section naturally lends itself to the kind of extnded live jamming and solo tradeoffs we have become accustomed to ever since 1973’s Yessongs album, but to me there’s a claustrophobic magic to the sound of the studio cut, with Steve Howe’s relentless riff floating through the silence, gradually crescendoing and exploding into a climactic solo darting between the channels, as though a lone spacecraft is being sucked into a black hole. Over the years, this section has become something that gets played around with a lot on stage, with Howe changing the rhythm and style of those chords, Wakeman coming in first with a keyboard solo, and drums coming in almost straight away, completely altering the spellbinding atmosphere of the original. Again, I can easily see why so many people like the live versions better – including the band who must have grown quickly tired of playing it straight – but I am in a tiny minority who find the live renditions a tad disappointing sometimes.

All that (phew!) said, if Würm has to become a wildly adapted vamp, the English Rock Ensemble do a bang-up job of it here. Pomeroy in particular is a beast on the bass, and Rick of course provides endless layers of glittering synth lines before being joined by Adam for delicious dual keyboard overload. Some expanded renditions can go on too long, but this one doesn’t feel like that. I found it immensely enjoyable, much to my own pleasant surprise. I imagine most listeners will also love it (and be much less surprised in the process).

Photo by Paul Whimpenny

Finally, disc four features what might be the most classic of them all, the celebrated Journey to the Centre of the Earth, in all its unabashed, overblown theatrical magnificence. In fact, unlike with King Arthur, this one is the expanded version (about one third longer) with all of the restored snippets that first saw the light of day on the re-recorded 2012 version. So, not the first live outing for this one, but always good fun and this is a pretty swell performance. Moody, ambient, and dramatic movements are all played respectfully and to great effect, and again the band does an impressive job tackling their third complete album in two nights. I’ll never really tire of going on this particular… journey. It’s always been a lot of fun in any version I’ve heard, between the story itself and the various zany sections of music. And while these 50-year-old works can scarcely be expected to sound identical to their original versions, we don’t really want that, do we? Nonetheless, most fans should be pleased with the degree of faithfulness with which these are played.

This comprehensive set provides three and a half hours of quintessential Wakeman; performed brilliantly, recorded well, arranged sensibly and presented in a lovely, compact boxed set with a photographic booklet featuring notes from the Caped Crusader himself. I’m happy to report that at his advanced age, Rick plays with evergreen skill, matching his younger bandmates and feeding off the live energy this bounty of music exudes. Nothing maudlin intended here, but when it comes to live concert tours, we are surely reaching the end of the line for so many of these favourite musicians of ours, as the merciless hands of time march onward. Each new release can and should be considered a godsend – particularly those with this level of quality and joy contained within. In the futuristic-sounding year 2024, this music remains as flashy, exuberant, and towering as the caped Englishman who created it, and that gives me a smile from ear to ear.