February 27, 2023

Photos: Paul Whimpenny

The London Palladium is surely the most iconic of London’s old theatres. Its neo-classical façade stands out amidst the concrete anonymity of the buildings that surround it. Once inside, one feels cocooned by its old-world glamour of plush red carpets and elaborate baroque decoration. It’s a perfect location for music, and its wide and deep theatre stage makes it ideal to host the large number of performers for these two nights. Rick Wakeman often shares the stage only with his piano but this time we were treated to the additional company of a backing band and a sizeable choir of around thirty souls. 

Wakeman has of course just released his latest studio album, A Gallery Of The Imagination, and yet remarkably he didn’t play a single note from it over these two nights. But in many ways these two concerts did constitute a quite extraordinary gallery of the imagination, full of heroic and tragic characters from history, legend and fiction. Those images came from Wakeman’s first three solo albums (all of which were concept albums) that he played in their entirety. They formed three of the four acts over the two nights, with the fourth being a selection of music written and performed with Yes. So, for Wakeman fans these two nights were an unmissable trip down memory lane, and they had come in their droves from all around the world to experience this special occasion. 

Colquhoun and Adam Wakeman

There was no safety curtain in the Palladium which meant there was no possibility of a dramatic curtain-raising entrance. Instead, Wakeman sauntered out rather nonchalantly on his own with a microphone in his hand, as it if were perfectly normal to be strolling around wearing a luminous bright red cape shot through with blue and gold! Just the sight of him generated a huge wave of applause from the audience, and being something of a comedian, he immediately quipped ‘My God, I hope you do that at the end!’ Wakeman introduced the band, and as he would do with each of the three albums, he gave a little bit of background information. It had never struck me that the six tracks on The Six Wives Of Henry VIII album, each named after a wife, were not in chronological order, and it was fascinating to hear that the constraint of balancing the lengths of two sides of old vinyl recordings prevented this back in 1973. Wakeman announced that they were going to now ‘do them in chronological order’, jokingly adding ‘as indeed did Henry’.

Wakeman took his place, not surprisingly centre stage, totally surrounded by banks of keyboards and launched into the first notes of Catherine Of Aragon. To his left were the rhythm unit of Adam Falkner (drums) and Lee Pomeroy (bass), and to his right were guitarist Dave Colquhoun and Rick’s son Adam on keyboards, with The English Chamber Choir at the back of the stage. Wakeman’s keyboard wizardry remains as potent as ever despite his years (he is now 73), and his magnetic stage presence has not waned either. From my seat, I could see the concentration etched on his face. I couldn’t see his hands, but they were certainly flying most of the time. Having Adam on stage certainly helped reproduce the original keyboard-heavy sound of this album but what surprised me was the important role of the guitar, bass and drums. They were mixed very low in the original album release, but in the live environment that ‘fault’ was rectified and the album was revealed as a much more powerful and energetic slab of rock music. There was, for example, some lovely funky bass playing in Anne Boleyn, and excellent duetting between Wakeman and Colquhoun in Anne Of Cleves. There were calmer moments such as the lovely piano introduction to Catherine Howard and the overall impression on hearing this music for the first time in many years was how amazingly rich in musical ideas it is. Additional parts had been written for the choir but sadly in this segment of the show they were slightly drowned out.

Hayley Sanderson

For the second act, Wakeman performed The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights of the Round Table. Here of course Wakeman did need a singer and he chose to bring in Hayley Sanderson who had previously contributed outstandingly to the re-recording and subsequent live performances of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth as well as the A Gallery Of The Imagination album. From the opening spoken words to the last notes, this was a majestic performance. There was no orchestra of course, but the double-keyboards more than made up for that, also avoiding some of the bombastic feel of the original orchestration. The choir came into their own both in the moving a cappella Lady Of The Lake and the more dramatic moments such as the repetition of the word ‘fight’ in Sir Lancelot And The Black Knight. The male vocals on the original recording were a little monotonous but Sanderson mixed things up nicely, adding a bluesy tinge to Sir Lancelot And The Black Knight, and a soulful emotional feel to The Last Battle. Sanderson also had a strong stage presence to go with the voice and you could imagine her fronting her own rock band in future. Despite the epic nature of the Arthurian concept, Wakeman’s humour could still shine through: at a certain point, the choir sang ‘save this land’ dramatically and Wakeman appeared to mime ‘save this band’ before grinning knowingly at son, Adam.

While Wakeman had earlier done the politically correct thing by reordering the six wives, here he changed the order by dropping out Merlin The Magician. Well, savvy fans would have realised immediately that it was only deferred since it was simply being saved for the encore. The more recent version with lyrics was used, which worked well, and the long instrumental allowed both Wakemans to get their keytars out, delighting the audience as they came to the front of the stage at last and jammed away with Colquhoun. And for the final flourish, (Rick) Wakeman passed the keytar to Sanderson who held it flat, and Wakeman proceeded to play the ridiculously fast final section on it as if it were a piano. What a brilliant conclusion that was!

The punters certainly went home very happy after that first night, so could they reproduce it for night number two? The answer was undoubtedly yes, even if Journey To The Centre Of The Earth was the one album that he has recorded recently with this type of ensemble and therefore had no surprises to offer. I had thought Wakeman might open with that album and then conclude with the feast of Yes music, but he chose to go first with the Yes set.  Part of the fun for the Yes fans in the house (probably 100% of the audience) was guessing which tracks he would select to play. Two that probably everyone would have predicted opened and closed the set: Roundabout and And You And I. The former was a rousing version, full of energy, and with Sanderson’s voice not sounding in any way inferior to Anderson’s. The reverse I felt was true for And You And I, where Anderson’s tones seem to be such an integral part of the song. It remained an excellent version though, thanks also to Adam who played the second acoustic guitar in the introduction and then switched to keyboards to help create an amazing wall of sound with his father during the famous synth theme.  

The caped crusader with his keytar

The highlight of the Yes set was the extraordinary rendition of South Side Of The Sky, performed so aggressively that it could be filed under prog-metal.  Both Colquhoun and Adam Wakeman stood out with excellent solos in that one. Wonderous Stories was another more predictable choice, although performed a little heavy-handedly and losing some of its delicate magic as a result. The one song that not many fans would have expected to hear was the excellent The Meeting from the ABWH iteration of the band, first sung by choir and then Sanderson.  Five songs were all we got (forty-five minutes of music) but this was a good and varied selection, and it was striking how much energy there was on stage. If Yes were looking on, then they should take note.

Wakeman came out for Journey To The Centre Of The Earth in his fourth costume, a striking black affair (but my own favourite was the green one with the sword embroidered on the back from the King Arthur set). Here the audience were on more familiar territory since this piece has been played live frequently, including the relatively recent live version with Sanderson on vocals and the two newly rediscovered songs. It was this longer version that was played, with Echoes of the new songs standing out. Again, the two sets of keyboards helped to fill out the sound and one didn’t sense the absence of the orchestra. Overall, it was another fine performance, although perhaps lacking the drama of the first night.

And to close things off in spectacular style, Wakeman reverted to Yes for the encore with an exhilarating twenty-minute version of Starship Trooper. It seemed to go on and on and nobody wanted it to stop, apart from maybe the members of the choir who must have been hoarse after belting out the vocalising theme of Wurm for such a long time. It might have gone on longer than it did but when the keytars came out, Adam’s didn’t work. But it was a minor glitch during a stunning two-night performance.

At 73 years of age, one wonders how many more of this type of show Wakeman will be able to perform. As such, it felt like a privilege to be at such an event. One can only hope they recorded it so that we’ll be able to listen to it once again and recall these memorable two nights.

The full band, barely fitting on the Palladium stage