I’ve seen Rick Wakeman perform live a number of times over the years; doing solo shows, with the English Rock Ensemble, as a duo with Jon Anderson, and with Yes. The quality of his output varies but I’m most interested in his contribution to Yes and some of his early solo work because that’s what I believe to be his best material. It’s his performances on Fragile and Close to the Edge that enabled Yes to become a truly successful band and Close to the Edge the definitive prog album. I never owned a copy of Journey to the Centre of the Earth on vinyl and only got the music on CD when I bought Voyage, a compilation from Wakeman’s years at A&M but I did buy the Classic Rock Rick Wakeman special edition with the new studio recording of the piece, in 2012, and was happy to sign up to see him perform it in its entirety for the first time since the 1974 tour, at the Royal Albert Hall.
I did my homework the week before the concert. The weekend immediately before the show was spent in Belgium watching an eclectic mix of prog and psyche acts at the Prog Résiste festival so the preceding week was the only time I could find to listen to the new studio version of Journey and it got me thinking: Is Journey really progressive rock music?
After sitting through the opening set at the RAH my hypothesis was turning into a theory. This part of the concert was Wakeman as raconteur, something I’d been vaguely aware was going to happen, telling the story, illustrated with musical interludes, of how Journey came to be made and how a number of people gave him indispensible advice that ensured it did happen. The first of these was the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens and at this point Wakeman played Morning has Broken. To my mind, this was a better indication of how Anne Boleyn from Six Wives came about, because the piano trills he used for Morning has Broken were repeated in The Day Thou Gavest, Lord has Ended which is rather neatly appended to Anne Boleyn. Wakeman has previously acknowledged the guidance of David Bowie and to illustrate that portion of his life he invited onstage not Bowie but Hayley Sanderson, a vocalist from Strictly Come Dancing and Wakeman appeared on one of her albums. She reciprocated by adding vocals to the 2012 studio version of Journey and would reappear later with the English Rock Ensemble for the evening’s main event but at this point in the proceedings she sang Life on Mars, confirming my opinion that she doesn’t have the voice for singing rock. The third piece he played was Summertime, accompanied by Ashley Holt which was passable, if a bit naff, and then he explained that one of this assignments when he was a student at the RCM, over the road from the Albert Hall, he had to play music by one composer in the style of another. He chose Eleanor Rigby in the style of Prokofiev. This was quite amusing though it went on a bit too long so that the original good idea was lost but it was quite possible to pick out short sections that would appear on Six Wives.
The second half was a performance of the extended Journey, further expanded by the inclusion of The Dance of a Thousand Lights section from Return to the Centre of the Earth. From where I was sitting the sound was pretty good, though some of the keyboards seemed a little low down in the mix at times, something I attributed to a consequence of playing with the Orion Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir. His golden cape wasn’t the only blast from the past. His moog sounds were spot on and though I didn’t pick up any mistakes from the keyboards, there were a couple of instances where a section of the orchestra seemed slightly off-key and Ashley Holt forgot his lines. I quite like the orchestration of the piece and, in general, the musical sections were enjoyable. What detracts from the quality of the piece is the standard of the lyrics and the singing, exemplified by the 2012 addition Quaternary Man which continues to make me cringe. The choice of Sanderson as singer is perfectly fitted to this track with her background as a singer for a TV programme that celebrates celebrity, which in my mind equates to pop shows such as The Voice and others that invite contestants to audition for the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.
On the balance of things, I was happy to applaud the performance. There were more good moments than bad. What proved to be very disappointing was the encore, a rehash of the last sections of Journey interspersed with parts of Return. During the encore, Wakeman donned a keytar and duelled with guitarist Dave Colquhoun while walking around the stage, up past the orchestra and choir and back down to the stage again. This might have been rock ‘n’ roll showmanship but the trading riffs did hint at Mahavishnu guitar, keyboard and violin alternating leads and was the highlight of what was really an unsatisfactory part of the show. The crowd gave the performers a standing ovation and when the band, choir and orchestra left the stage the house lights remained dimmed. I thought this might indicate a second encore, something from Arthur or Six Wives perhaps, but the crowd started to filter out of the hall instead of encouraging a more agreeable end to the evening.
The overwhelming feeling was one of deflation. I’d been looking forward to the concert because of its significance in the prog canon but I felt somehow short-changed. The event turned out to be more of a piece of musical theatre than a gig, and certainly not a prog gig. The original Journey may have epitomised progressive rock but the revisited piece, though better sounding with the benefit of studio production, seems out of date and out of genre. I didn’t go to the show to be entertained, I went to reclaim a lost past, and failed.