Concert review: Rick Wakeman – a piano recital mixed with stand-up comedy

Keyboardist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman provides Tel Aviv fans with an intimate evening of song as well as humorous personal stories.

Rick Wakeman. (photo credit: MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS)
Rick Wakeman.

Musicians often tell stories between their songs on stage, and audiences invariably respond over-enthusiastically, as if that little tidbit about the guitarist’s strings coming undone is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Or at least the funniest thing coming from a genuine rock star for whom they have just paid hundreds of shekels to go see.

In Rick Wakeman’s case, though, the jokes really are a hoot.
Which is a good thing, because Wakeman, keyboardist extraordinaire whose most famous gig was with the seminal ‘70s progressive band Yes, doesn’t do anything else with his voice. He doesn’t sing. And, in his appearance Monday night at Tel Aviv’s Reading 3 club, he didn’t even come with a band: it was just the artist at a grand piano, alone, as if playing in a very large living room for a group of close friends.
That the stories were both charming and at times self-deprecating is not surprising from a musician who, in addition to his multi-year collaborations with Yes, has recorded with a who’s who of British pop and rock artists, from David Bowie (Wakeman played the piano on Bowie’s “Life on Mars”) to Cat Stevens. The latter proved to be the source of one of Wakeman’s best yarns of the night.
Stevens called Wakeman in 1971 to help him flesh out what would become one of the folk singer’s biggest hits, “Morning Has Broken.” The problem was that the original tune, based on a Christian hymn from the 1930s, was only 45 seconds long, far too short for a pop song. Wakeman riffed on the source material, added what he called some “twiddly bits,” and the song made it to the top 10 on the US pop charts.
Stevens then neglected (or forgot) to pay Wakeman, who nursed a good-natured grudge (and some well placed publicity) for 30 years until Stevens finally ponied up.
Wakeman mixed it up with a half dozen crowd-pleasing styles, including a medley of progressive songs from his Yes years (“And You and I” with “Wondrous Stories”); two from the first of his tens of studio albums as a solo artist, The Six Wives of Henry the 8th (which prompted a ribald story about Wakeman’s own multiple wives); a set from King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable (which was notably staged in 1975 with ice skating knights because, as Wakeman recalled, the theater he wanted has already been booked for an upcoming “ice follies” show); and even a couple of Beatles covers (“Help” and “Eleanor Rigby”).
Wakeman is now 64 but on stage appears every bit the flamboyant keyboardist of his stadium rock years, only now he’s traded his trademark sequined cape for a long black trench coat buttoned at the waist that wouldn’t entirely look out of place in nearby Bnei Brak. His shoulder-length dirty blond hair, however, betrayed any momentary speculation that he would be trading in his virtuoso piano stylings for Hassidic nigunim any time soon.
The classically-trained, ever-prolific Wakeman broke with the solo piano motif twice during the evening, when he was accompanied by taped recordings from the London Symphony Orchestra, first during the opening number of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and later, in the second half of the nearly threehour concert, as part of a “karaoke” version of “The Dance of a Thousand Lights,” originally composed as part of Wakemen’s 1974 Journey to the Centre of the Earth musical reworking of the beloved Jules Verne novel.
The standing room-only show attracted an eclectic audience.
Heavily represented were Israeli baby boomers who were undoubtedly grooving with Wakeman during his early years and relished the chance to catch their hero in what might be best described as a piano recital with liberal doses of stand-up comedy.