Rick Wakeman - Video Vault Review

by Kevin Wierzbicki

Wakeman burst onto the prog-rock scene in 1970 as a member of the Strawbs, a group he would soon leave so that he could join up with Yes. His relationship with Yes would be on-again, off-again and include a stint with the quasi-Yes outfit Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe. In between and adjacent to working with the various bands the keyboardist/composer has done a tremendous amount of work as a solo artist and he's in the midst of making an effort to get this stuff on the market. If you go to the website for this video collection you can view a short interview piece with Wakeman where he says of the 35 years-worth of material he's accumulated that he's "cleaning out his closet." Indeed he's had some oddities released lately like his "comedy" story-telling DVD The Other Side of Rick Wakeman and a re-release of the soundtrack to the film The Burning. In early 2008 his trilogy of New Age albums from 1991---Aspirant Sunrise, Aspirant Sunshadows and Aspirant Sunset---will be re-released. And there's no telling how much videotape is in that closet; this 6-disc limited edition DVD box set is probably just the beginning. The set is put together nicely but not fancily; it comes in a simple cardboard slipcase that holds the six discs in individual packages. The programs do not include any extras and there are no booklets although Wakeman does pen a short commentary to accompany each disc.

Live at the Empire Pool---King Arthur on Ice (1975)
In his liner notes Wakeman calls this performance one of the highlights of his musical career but his concept of adding choreographed ice skating to a performance of Myths & Legends of King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table was a bad idea---it was universally panned and thus only performed three times. The critics must have had their beef with the multi-media aspect of things as the music is performed flawlessly. Completely surrounded by an impressive array of keyboards of all sorts, Wakeman begins the show with the instrumental "Free Song" before launching into a few songs from his The Six Wives of Henry the VIII album. After that is when the skating begins as a group of female skaters dressed as old-time showgirls come out and ice dance to "Rick's Charleston." The stage is set up so that it's surrounded on three sides by ice so the audience and the cameras have unobstructed views of the skating action. After the icy can-can the band performs the King Arthur album in its entirety with skaters acting out about half of the songs. The highlight comes when male skaters enter, dressed as knights on horseback, to swordfight to "Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight." The spectacle is fun but it's also funny; it's hard not to laugh at the inherent cheesiness. But viewers should look at the skating here as a rare bonus; a novelty that won't be repeated. A full symphony choir and the Nottingham Festival Singers augment the sound throughout.

Live at the Maltings (1976)
This concert was recorded for the English television show The Old Grey Whistle Test before a relatively small audience of about 500. The show clocks in at a little under an hour with a set list mostly comprised of cuts from King Arthur, Henry VIII and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Wakeman is in a playful mood throughout, joking with the audience and teasing the BBC as he pretends he doesn't know the name of the show he's on. With the show being structured to fit the constraints of a television taping, Wakeman has to abbreviate some of the arrangements or play medleys in order to get in seven songs, two of which ("The Realisation" and "The Prisoner") come from the album that was his latest at the time, No Earthly Connection. Wakeman seems surprised when his time is up and is standing dumbfounded as the credits roll but quickly tosses the spotlight to his bass player who improvises a parody of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." With the taping over Wakeman treats the audience to an extended version of "Merlin the Magician" before he leaves the stage, turning the ending into a full-blown ragtime rave-up.

Swedish Television Special (1980)
Recorded for Swedish television, this concert was part of the anniversary celebration of the Baltic Sea town of Carlscrona. An emcee does a rather lengthy introduction in Swedish before cueing Wakeman who starts the show with "Catherine Parr" before launching into a medley of songs from No Earthly Connection. The band is very noticeably in the mood to rock and Wakeman reins in his penchant for noodling a bit, allowing the band to punch things up and let off some steam. The set list contains favorites from the three main albums but the show's highlight comes about mid-concert when the band absolutely tears the roof off with a twist on "Happy Birthday," serenading the historic city with a forceful rocker called "Happy Birthday Karls Krona." The energy level stays high through the set closer "Journey to the Center of the Earth Medley" with the frenzied audience demanding but not getting an encore. In the liner notes for this show Wakeman proudly relates that two of the performers, Ashley Holt and Tony Fernandez are still members of his English Rock Ensemble today (2007).

1984 Live at the Hammersmith Odeon (1981)
Wakeman teamed up with Tim Rice to write the 1984 album, a musical adaptation of George Orwell's book of the same name. The project was a flop for a couple of reasons; critics panned it because Rice's lyrics tried to give the adaptation an upbeat ending, something the book did not have. Secondly, when Wakeman wanted to tour the production in the U.S. Orwell's estate would not give clearance. The show was performed in the U.K. though and this concert features the opening overture and scattered later in the program, "Julia" and "The Proles." The show overall is a mish-mash featuring "Sea Horses" from the Rhapsodies album and then proven crowd pleasers from King Arthur, Henry VIII and Journey. In the liner notes Wakeman says that he was at a low point in his career when this show was taped; his father had just died, he was going through a divorce and he was not happy with the line-up of his band. He doesn't single anyone out but the female vocalist here doesn't live up to the work done on the record by Chaka Khan. Still the show has its redeeming values; the arrangements are changed on the familiar stuff from the three main albums and the band tackles the difficult "Catherine of Aragon" and "Anne of Cleaves" for the first time ever live. Wakeman introduces every song, joking that then the audience will have advance notice as to when to go to the bathroom.

Night Music
This is another show done for British television, this time out for A Little Night Music. Wakeman's usual bank of keyboards has been pared down to a grand piano and a double synthesizer and the show's format is a bit more formal than the rowdier Old Grey Whistle Test or Swedish shows. Wearing a tuxedo (albeit a flashy one) Wakeman turns to the camera and introduces each song but this time he leaves out the jokes, simply giving the song's title and perhaps a very brief comment on it. The set list is an odd one, featuring the well-worn "Merlin the Magician" and "Catherine Howard" but also the sedate "Elgin Mansions" and a number with children from the West Heath Infants School, "Bedtime Stories." The show's mood delves further into schizophrenia with Wakeman hopping from a calypso (!) beat on "Gole/Black Pearl" to "Gray's Elegy" narrated by the beloved English actor Robert Powell. The show closes with "After the Ball," a tune that Wakeman originally wrote for use in the ice skating competition of the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976. It's unclear as to the exact year that this show was performed---Wakeman states only that it was in the '80s.

Rarities plus Interviews
The title of this final disc in the box is perhaps backwards as most of the program is an interview that was conducted in 2007. Wakeman is a good interviewee; without rambling-on he gives long and well thought out answers to each question. He addresses such things as the lack of popularity of prog-rock today, the fact that record labels don't really care about preserving all of the aging material in their archives and the extent he's gone to the world over to find and salvage his own live recordings. There is not a lot of reminiscing going on but he does talk about the twin debacles of the King Arthur on Ice idea and the 1984 concept album. In the end though he has no regrets, as he shouldn't, saying merely that the people who enjoyed these efforts rightfully looked at the presentations as events; they weren't into dissecting every moment. The final segment is a brief interview conducted by British television host Barry Norman flanked by performances of "The Overture from 1984" and "Elgin Mansions."

Video Vault is clearly not meant as a starting place for new Rick Wakeman fans. Its inconsistencies are many and that could be very off-putting to the novice listener. But therein also lies the charm. After seeing this entire set the viewer will no longer picture Wakeman as just a keyboard wizard; instead these insights reveal an extremely talented composer who's also a warm and funny guy that gives the impression that he'd be happy to sit down at a piano in your living room and lead a sing-along. It's obvious that Wakeman has always sought to make a connection that goes deeper than the music; with this collection the connection is made.

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