Grumpy old rock star Rick Wakeman details stripped-back 'concert of emotions' coming to Clearwater

He’s at Capitol Theatre on October 26.

click to enlarge Grumpy old rock star Rick Wakeman details stripped-back 'concert of emotions' coming to Clearwater
Photo: © Lee Wilkinson

Whether you realize it or not, there’s a pretty good chance you’re familiar with the music or the playing of keyboardist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman. The tall, multi-talented musician who turned 70 years old this year has enjoyed stints with leading British progressive rock band Yes as well as with another U.K. rock band, Strawbs.

Besides a string of solo releases, Wakeman has also made appearances on recordings by David Bowie, Black Sabbath and Lou Reed, to name a few.

Rick Wakeman
Sat. Oct. 26, 8 p.m. $49-$65.
Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, Clearwater.

In between his jam-packed schedule, Wakeman is currently in the midst of another one of his solo jaunts around the globe. Apart from showing off his undeniable musical prowess, the well-rounded figure who has earned a reputation of sorts in his home country as a comedian and ace storyteller, will be showcasing his funny side during his current round of solo appearances, which includes a stop at Clearwater’s Bilheimer Capitol Theatre on October 26.

Humorously dubbed the “Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour,” Wakeman was anything but grumpy when taking time out of his schedule to speak to me recently. 

Looking at your tour schedule, it looks like you’re in Pennsylvania right now. It that correct? 

I am indeed; I’m in Philadelphia right now. As soon as I’m done talking to you, we’re jumping in a car and then heading to the station and taking a train to New York. I’ve got some stuff to do in New York and then I come back here and then we drive to Annapolis. 

You’ve got a busy week!

It is busy but I like being busy. I'd rather be busy then sort of not if you know what I mean.

You’ve certainly proven that with your enormous body of work. You most definitely like to stay busy!

You know, to the best of my knowledge we're only here once. It’s nice to make the most of it.

Agreed. I see you're going to be here on Saturday, October 26 at the Capitol Theater in Clearwater which is a beautiful, nice, intimate theater. I want to know a little bit about the name of the tour; it's the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” tour. How did that name come about? 

That comes about because, in England, apart from music, in the U.K., I do a lot of comedy stuff and a lot of television.  I was part of a of a series that’s been around for six years called Grumpy Old Men and it was a massively huge popular show in the U. K. and I was on all of the series.  I suppose, because I was the only musician on it, I got sort of called grumpy old man but then someone mentioned the term “grumpy old rock star.” I was asked to do a couple of books for a big publishing company and I did one book, Grumpy Old Rock Star and one called Further Adventures of a Grumpy Old Rock Star which did really, really well  and the name sort of stuck. I do a lot of comedy in the U.K. among everything else and I’ve been doing these shows in the U.K. for twenty-odd years.  My agent Larry said ‘You’ve got to bring this to America’ and he told me I should call it the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” tour. I said that sounds good to me so hence, here we are with the the grumpy old rock star tour.

And you're okay with that title? 

Oh yeah, absolutely.  It's a mixture of music and I tell lots of ludicrous stories in between the pieces you know which are fun. It's a real mixture of ludicrous stand up stories and this music from various people that I've worked with through the years including, obviously, my own stuff plus some Yes, some David Bowie, Cat Stevens and some Lennon and McCartney stuff and it’s a real mixture of different kinds of music as I say it intertwined with stories of the quite unbelievable.

So this is a one man show that you do? 

Yeah it's just me and a piano, a microphone and lots of silly stories. It’s great fun to do. It’s a bit like having everybody over in your own front room.

Is that awkward? Being the only one on stage after being used to appearing with a band? 

When you’re on your own on stage, then it is difficult.  But, more importantly, when you’re with a band there’s lots of points when you can sort of semi-relax because the focal point will be on the guitar or the singer or the drummer. So you got time but when you’re on your own, you don’t have that so you have to be on your toes all of the time. But there are advantages. For example, I have a lot of music I can choose from and a lot of stories I could choose from, so I can actually change the story or change the piece of music. It's not uncommon for one day to the next to have 20, 25, 30 percent different music and 25, 30 percent different stories because you don't have to rely on other musicians going “What the hell are you doing now?” which is great.  So there are good advantages to it.

So is this the type of show that you would, in the conventional sense, put together a set list or an outline for?

Well I do, in the conventional sense, put a set list together.  It's like when I do my radio shows or the TV shows, yeah, I put together a script and then often or not it'll get ignored if it goes off on a tangent.  But if you don't have that, then you can’t start with nothing. You have to start with a plan but be prepared to change it if situations sort of dictate you change it, you know? 

Do you find yourself telling stories that are relevant to the location where you’re playing? For example, if you’re playing in New York, might you recall something memorable that might have happened to you in that city at one time?

Yeah, it could happen. And also, I’ve got a lot of friends that I’ll see during the tour that I’ve met and made over the last close on 50 years and often or not, they will say something like “Hey, do you remember when you were here back in so and so,” and I’ll say “I’d forgotten all about that!” and that can often come up so, yeah, there are a lot of things that trigger other things, absolutely.

Is there anything that anybody tells you that makes you say “Absolutely not; I don't remember any of that at all”?

Yes there’s quite a lot of that (laughs) “Oh, really? No, no don't remember that absolutely not, no, not me!”  Yeah it does happen.

So, during the show, is it strictly piano you’re playing? Or are you also playing organ or keyboards?

It’s strictly piano. What I do is stripping it down because nearly everything I write, I write on the piano. A lot of the sessions of people I work with involve the piano heavily so it's taking a lot of the music back to as it was originally written or as it was originally recorded.

That’s got to be kind of refreshing for you because it's going back to the origins of it 

It is.  It's really nice.  It's an interesting exercise all around and you’re quite right, it is really quite refreshing. I've heard a lot of people over the years and I've heard them say, “You know what? We really get the get that piece now. With everything that was involved with it before, we liked but now we really get it” which is really very nice.

I read that, in Europe, you incorporated a live performance of [1974 symphonic rock classic] Journey to the Centre of the Earth within your shows?  How did that come about? 

Well I did Journey to the Centre of the Earth just a few weeks ago at the Royal Festival Hall in London and I did two nights with a symphony orchestra and a choir and three singers and a writer and a kitchen sink and everything that was possible.  And they were huge shows to do and they’re great but they’re a different mindset to do than the one-man show because you've got 120 to 130 people on stage and somehow it all has to work together so it's a different mindset.

But they're great fun to do. One of the nice things is because I do so many different kinds of shows there’s, obviously the ARW shows where we do the Yes music which is great and then I've got my own band, the English Rock Ensemble, and we go out do stuff. I do a piano show just with an orchestra and choir and then of course there are the piano-only shows which are the ones I’m doing here. So the nice thing is there are so many different kinds of shows to do, so you never get bored.  And it’s a different mindset for every one. 

I was just gonna say that having that variety has got to keep it interesting and keep it just constantly evolving for you 

It does. It also keeps you very fresh because a lot of the arrangements I do, the pieces are different. For example, the band arrangements I do for some pieces are different from those that I do with the piano which is different from those that I do with the orchestra so you you've actually got to concentrate and say “Okay, I've got to be really careful on what version I’m doing” but sometimes I've changed stuff on stage as well even though it's a piece that I've played and I know well ,something will happen and it'll go off the and the arrangement will become something completely different which is which is great.  It is when you're on your own there are no rules.

I can imagine you get a little more freedom to improvise a bit more 

Absolutely right.

From your perspective, I’m curious if you were to describe this type of show to somebody who was thinking about coming to see it, how would you describe it in your own words

It's a concert of emotions.  I mean, I like to try to, you want people to listen, to enjoy, to laugh sometimes to feel, not miserable, but sadness.  But it's a journey of as many emotions as humanly possible. You really well more than anything else is you want people to go away going “We’ve just had a great night.” It's a concert put together to, in the old sense of the word, as an entertainment night. I really enjoy doing it. The best way I can describe it is, earlier this year when I was doing these shows in England, a lady asked me, she said “I’m going to ask you a question but I want you to answer me straight away” and I said “okay.”  She said “If you weren’t here playing the piano tonight and not on stage, what would you be doing?” and I said “Well, I’d be at home playing the piano.” She then said that's what she hoped I’d say and that really sums it up, because I would be. So it's like a continuation of what I'd be doing anyway it's just that there are people who've come to hear it and enjoy it and be a part of it. 

Do you find that this type of show maybe sheds light on another side of you that people may not be used to or may not recognize?

Certainly over here, yes. Well it's not in the U. K. now because I've been doing the comedy and the stories and the other bits and pieces I’ve been working with lots of other artists for, crikey, 50 years but certainly over here I think they'll probably be a few things that make people go “Oh! I didn’t know that!”

That would be interesting to kind of poll some people and ask “Did you know this was going to be this kind of show?” or “Did you know Rick Wakeman had this in him?”

I just want people to enjoy themselves because that would be great.  If people walk away and say “I really enjoyed that,” that really is what you hope for all the time because I’ll enjoy it, so if I can enjoy it, I just hope other people can.

And that shows. I mean, when the performer’s enjoying themselves it's easy to tell. People can pick up on that. An audience recognizes that I think. 

If the day ever came, and it won’t, when I didn't enjoy it anymore, I’d shut the piano lid. 

That's what I often find. Most performers say that it if it wasn't fun anymore I just wouldn't do it.  You mentioned ARW earlier; I went to the last couple of shows that you all played when you were here in the area and they were fantastic. What I noticed was that when everyone in the band was introduced, the reaction you got was just astounding.  I mean it was just magnificent. Do you think that it's because t the audience was just really happy to see you back with that outfit and playing that music?

Yeah I think it was that. Probably because people said it was just nice to see me back doing the music that I've been associated with years.  It was unbelievably heartwarming, I can’t tell you. It did mean a lot. It meant an awful lot because it was almost like, oh gosh, I'm doing the right thing here you know. It was really really nice. I mean the reception I got was just really heartwarming.

It was remarkable. It was very obvious. The roar was pretty intense when you got introduced so that made me feel good that people were very satisfied to see you on that stage playing that music like you said that you've been associated with for so long so I think you made a lot of people really happy, too.

That’s kind. Thank you.

You mentioned the music you do on this tour is a mixture; you said you're doing some solo stuff and Yes stuff, some Lennon/McCartney stuff. What's the process for selecting what you want to play? Is it based on the venue, the audience, the city? You have so much music to choose from.  How do you determine what to play? 

Well there are certain pieces that, I know from concerts that I do, that are popular. People like them and a lot of them have connected stories so it's good to keep those for the connected stories but, as I said, I often change what I'm gonna do and I surprise myself sometimes.  I mean I have actually in the past found myself introducing a piece of music I haven’t played for ages because something has triggered me doing it and as I'm walking back to the piano going “Ah, shit! I haven’t played this for years!” and then you sort of start going into what I call the bubble trance and playing it and it's quite interesting but I like to try to do a variety of music if it mixes well with the stories. It does tend to be a nucleus of about 12 to 15 pieces that I will always draw from but having said that, there’s another 12 or 15 that are sitting on the bench that I could draw from as well.

You mentioned some Lennon/McCartney tunes. When you select those, are those personal favorites or are those ones that mean something to you?  How do you pinpoint which ones from that catalog you want to play? 

Basically I pinpoint the ones that have a great melody that you can play around with. What I do is I sit down at the piano and I'll start playing around with the melodies. It's no different from how it used to work in the early Yes days when we were all in a rehearsal room together. We would have a theme or an idea and then we would just play around. I would play around in particular trying to find as many different ways of playing it as possible. There are certain melodies that work better than others and those are the ones you find and you know when you start playing around and you're working in the music room putting together there are certain things that you go “Oh hold on, this is gonna work great.” And you know that and there are others that you think it might work quite nice but it comes back pretty much almost like a piano version of the original and that's not what we’re after. We’re always after variations so it's the melody and the piece of music that actually decides what’s going to happen.

You mentioned Bowie and I know last time we spoke, you told me about knowing him personally and that you were  friends and I have to say, I got a little emotional after that call because I had never spoken to anyone who knew him as well as you did. I’d imagine you're more than likely going to play “Life on Mars” during these shows 

Yeah, “Life on Mars” has become one of those things, certainly since David passed away, that if I do a piano concert and I don’t play it, then the complaints pour in the following day.  But it's not a problem because I love playing it. I’m very proud to be part of it so I would feel that there was something missing if I didn’t play it.

I agree. It's such a beautiful song too. It's not just because I'm speaking to you but the piano parts just add so much to that song.

Well David gave me complete freedom [during the recording sessions]. He said “Play what you like” and I said “Well, how do you want me to play?”  He said “Play what you like’ and I said “How do I know what you want?” and so I played it through on the piano at his house and he said “That's what I like!” and I said “Okay!” 

Of the bands that you’re covering, the music that you're touching on in the show, it seems that, these bands, while they were in their heyday or active, they were working a lot faster than bands do now. Why do you think that is? Bands were putting out records so rapidly then. Singles and albums at such a fast pace and now that seems to have kind of gone away

Well the industry has changed as you know.  The record companies changed a lot although, interesting enough, with the situation of vinyl now with it becoming bigger than CDs and with people discovering all the things that went with the music, you know with the covers, the information the tactile nature of being able to put the stylus on the record and all of that, may improve things quite a lot.  Certainly back then that’s all you thought about. If you were full of music you wanted to get it out and basically all of us musicians, we wanted to be the best we could at what we did and get our music out there as much as possible. You would never hear a musician back then say for example what you hear all the time now on programs like “Britain's Got Talent” to “America's Got Talent” or “The X Factor” which is, when they’re asked what do you want, they say “I want to be famous.” You would never hear that back then.  We just wanted to be the best of what we could do and if by chance you got some rewards at the end of it, how bad was that.

It was a totally different concept.

It was a totally different concept, a totally different mindset.  And also, we now live in the world that’s instant; everybody wants everything now and back then, when we were recording, it took time to record because we didn't have the technology. We didn't have a lot of things we've got now so you got to spend hours, sometimes days if not weeks, creating the sounds that you wanted to create and now it's all instant and I think a lot of that is because, if you make an analogy to letters, at one time you’d receive a letter at home, you’d read it, you’d digest it, you’d reply, post it and send one back.  Now you get an e-mail and 10 minutes later you get an e-mail saying “Did you get the e-mail I just sent you?” There’s no time to digest anything anymore. We had the time to digest the music which is why we poured out so much because it took time to do all of that and that's gone now. There's no patience left in the world and music requires patience and understanding.

It’s instant gratification, I think.  I read years ago where Joni Mitchell said it took her several albums to kind of get into her own but, she said if it would have been now, she would've been dropped immediately because her first records didn’t sell so well

Absolutely right.  She's spot on. Yeah, you're right. Everything has to be now and instantaneous and it's a shame because we don't get the best.

One last question; what's in the future for you? What are your future projects after this tour wraps up?

Well the next year it'll be ARW pretty heavily; probably our farewell tour which might spread into 2021 as a great goodbye and a thank you to all the fans who have supported us over the years. I've got other things I want to do as well but they'll have to fit around the ARW. 

Well I sure hope you all will come back to this area for that.

I hope so. I'm sure we will.

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About The Author

Gabe Echazabal

I was born on a Sunday Morning.I soon received The Gift of loving music.Through music, I Found A Reason for living.It was when I discovered rock and roll that I Was Beginning To See The Light.Because through music, I'm Set Free.It's always helped me keep my Head Held High.When I started dancing to that fine, fine...
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