Don’t expect Rick Wakeman to be joining his old band mates in Yes any time soon. Following a triumphant reunion tour that traversed 2002 to 2005, the flashy keyboardist -- who accompanied the British progressive rockers on their first major foray to stardom on albums such as Fragile and Close to the Edge in the early 1970's -- is content to let those good memories remain as a testament to the band’s enduring music.
“During that long tour, I came to the conclusion that this was the finest that the band ever performed together,” said the 64-year-old Wakeman recently from his country home in Norfolk in eastern England. “It couldn't get better if you had tried.
Everyone was playing at his peak within the Yes environment,” he added, referring to bandmates Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White.
Yes, which was nominated for entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, went on to greater commercial success after Wakeman’s departure with the streamlined, more pop-oriented 1983 album 90125 and its massive hit single “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” However, the early 1970s lineup with Wakeman returned in its full glory for the aforementioned early 2000s reunion run.
“After that, Jon was quite ill for a while, and I realized that things could never be the same,” said Wakeman. “I didn’t want to be with the band as things went down the other side of the mountain. I want to have the great memories of the band playing the best it ever did.”
However, there’s no worry that Wakeman’s retirement from Yes left his with idle time. With musical projects and forays as an author and TV show host, Wakeman has barely slowed down from the time he originally departed from Yes in 1974 due to being overextended. Back then, he already had a thriving solo career, based on dense, symphonic theme highlights events movies television radio dining albums such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that took cape-twirling classical-rock mutation to its outer limits.
In addition to performing a “music and talk” intimate solo piano show, which he’s bringing on Monday night to Reading 3 in Tel Aviv, Wakeman is also gearing up for a gala 30th anniversary orchestra tour of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
“I haven’t actually performed it since the mid- 70's,” said Wakeman. “Back when we first recorded it, there was a lot of music that never went on the record because 36 minutes or so was all you could fit on an album. So we've rerecorded it with the missing music, and the full version is now over 70 minutes.”
It’s very exciting, he says, “because the new music was actually missing for many years, and only when an old conductor’s score turned up did I realize that we could complete the work.”
Wakeman is planning to take the piece on the road in 2015, performing with symphony orchestras around the world. And he’s eyeing an Israel show with the Haifa Symphony, with which he last performed in 1988 at the Caesarea Amphitheater.
“They were absolutely wonderful people and musicians, and it was stunning to perform with them at Caesarea. I've been trying to get back to Israel ever since,” said Wakeman, adding that his show next week provided a timely opportunity to stage his music in a low key style and intimate setting.
“I've done this a few times, and it’s really great fun,” he said. “Everything I've ever written has been on the piano – that was advice from [David] Bowie, who said, ‘If it works on the piano, it will work on anything.’ So it’s wonderful to take the pieces back to the way they were at the time of their birth. In between, I tell some ridiculously stupid stories of how some of the pieces came about and other bits and pieces of what’s happened to me over the years… It’s like having everybody in your front room sitting around the piano.”
It’s a far cry from when Wakeman, surrounded by a battery of keyboards and synthesizers, created an other-worldly landscape of sounds. Only Keith Emerson of the same period’s Emerson Lake and Palmer rivaled Wakeman for flashy classical-rock synthesis. Because both keyboardists behaved like high-profile lead guitarists, there was a natural assumption that they were trying to outgun each other for the title of fastest hands in music. However, Wakeman said that he and Emerson were actually great friends, who remain still close.
“We were so completely different musically – it’s like saying who’s better, the goalkeeper or the goal scorer?” he said. “The press had a great time writing that we were rivals and used to say things about each other, but in reality we used to phone each other up and laugh, ‘Did you see what they wrote this time?’” He added, “We were having lunch a couple years ago in England, and a couple came over and said, ‘It’s so nice that the two of you have made up and are finally friends.’ We just chuckled. I've often said that I’d like to have Keith’s left hand, and he’s said he’d like to have my right hand. Then we’d have something interesting.”
Even with his own two hands on the keyboards, Wakeman is sure to provide a spellbinding evening of music on Monday night.