Review: Rick Wakeman tickles ivories and funny bones during return to Clearwater

Not once did he mention getting a prostate exam.

click to enlarge Rick Wakeman plays Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on March 8, 2022. - PHOTO BY CAESAR CARBAJAL
Photo by Caesar Carbajal
Rick Wakeman plays Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on March 8, 2022.
“All the stories I tell tonight have some percentage of truth. Some will be 100, some’ll be…eh, 50,” Rick Wakeman said at the very beginning of his first show in Clearwater since 2019.

The 72-year-old former Yes keyboardist is full of anecdotes that could make him the feel-good hit of the season without an instrument in sight. Dressed in a black suit and hulking white Nike sneakers, (“No cape?!” someone in the crowd disappointedly asked) the keyboard legend had a story to tell in between every song, while pacing between the keyboard and grand piano onstage at downtown's Bilheimer Capitol Theatre.

There was the time that some L.A. news anchor who knew nothing about Yes asked Wakeman about his memories of recording “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (at which point he had already left Yes), just to learn that guitarist Trevor Rabin had literally written the song on the toilet. There was also the time Rick heckled his grandchildren’s “LOL and WAP crap,” and came up with his own acronyms to text. In Grandpa Grumpy’s world, “BFF” actually stands for “best friend’s funeral.” “SJF” means “sorry, just farted." And “BTW”? Bring the wheelchair, yo!
Perhaps the highlight of his snark, which came pretty early on, was an anecdote about a self-conscious guy that Wakeman knew. He had a wooden leg, and was as bald as an egg, and every year, he skipped out on a Halloween costume party. One year, Rick convinced him to put aside his self-consciousness for one night, and come to the party in costume. After seeking advice for what to go as, his friend was given a jar of caramel, and was told to dump it on his head, and to literally stick his wooden leg up his ass. Boom: Candy apple. “He won first place that night!” Rick exclaimed. “No, he won second, actually.”

But once Wakeman sat down to play, laughing time was over. The time had instead come to gape at seven-decade old fingers not missing a beat at the ivories. He opened his 11-song set behind a Korg Nautilus Music Workstation, with the upbeat “The Jig,” off of his 1995 circus-sounding record, Cirque Surreal, followed by a more recent cover of Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” for which he moved over to his Steinway & Sons grand piano on stage right. He dedicated “Gone but Not Forgotten” to his late friends, Jon Lord and Keith Emerson, and jabbed at the four times he had been married while opening “Jane Seymour” off of The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

“Oh, you’re the one who bought it!” he called out after one person applauded. Before blaming his bladder for the impending intermission, Wakeman pounded out one we could all agree on: “And You and I,” which was the only Yes cut of the show.
Rick Wakeman plays Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on March 8, 2022. - PHOTO BY CAESAR CARBAJAL
Photo by Caesar Carbajal
Rick Wakeman plays Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on March 8, 2022.
Twenty minutes later, part two opened with “Catherine of Aragon” and “Catherine Howard,” also off of Six Wives. A tour rarity, “Merlin The Magician” was a nice surprise, as was the Beatles double feature of “Help” and “Eleanor Rigby,” the latter being in the style of Sergei Prokofiev. You’re probably thinking, “Really, Rick? You’d play something by a Russian composer right now?”

Indeed, he did.

Wakeman did a thing where the crowd could write down questions on cards available at the merchandise table during intermission, and upon receiving them, he’d answer what he could. One of the most prominent moments of the Q&A was when he was asked if he was going to record anything for ailing Ukrainians. Rest assured, he’s fully in support of Ukraine—having performed there a total of three times—but understands that not every Russian citizen is to blame for the tragedies occurring on the other side of the world right now. As for new music for Ukraine? He’s open to the idea, at least. “It’s after this is all over, they’ll need the help,” he said.

Naturally, the Q&A went back to a humorous—and hopeful—note. We learned that Wakeman apparently sucks at clarinet, is open to another Yes feat. ARW tour, and declares his time recording the iconic piano part on David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” as one of the greatest sessions he’s ever done. During his encore of said rock classic, I couldn’t help but imagine the Starman himself standing centerstage singing his part.

There could have been so much more between the two, but it’s pretty clear that Rick made the right choice in his life, which Bowie told Wakeman to his face.
click to enlarge Rick Wakeman plays Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on March 8, 2022. - PHOTO BY CAESAR CARBAJAL
Photo by Caesar Carbajal
Rick Wakeman plays Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on March 8, 2022.