This month Rick Wakeman returned to The Stables at Wavendon hot-on-the-heels of two nights at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Forty-five years after its live debut on the same London stage, Rick will return to his prog-rock roots when he delivers the last ever UK performances of his multi-million selling epic, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.
“It’s my birthday present to myself,” the keyboardist explains, “I thought shall I have a party? No. What I’ll do is treat myself to a concert.”
And this is quite some affair we’re talking about; with a big orchestra, a choir, a guest spot from Alfie Boe, and Robert Powell in place as the narrator.
It’s taken a lot of work to get this musical party ready, and Rick was still buzzing from those shows when he arrived in Wavendon a few days later. Luckily, he’s a fan of MK’s long-running musical haunt: “It’s lovely, beautifully designed, and well-appointed – there isn’t a bad seat in the house. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve played there.
“There are some silly things that make it great as well. It sounds daft, but parking is one.
“There’s nothing better than being able to park your car and walk straight into the venue…”
With an amazing back catalogue to pull from, even the most die-hard Wakeman fans had the odd surprise in his set. Although some things came as standard.
“There’s the odd piece of music that is the same, because if you don’t do it, people moan,” Rick says, “I always use the analogy that if Sinatra was alive and you went to a concert and he didn’t do My Way, you’d come away very unhappy.”
His raconteur abilities surfaced too: “I always tell loads of ludicrous anecdotes and stories that have a semblance of truth.”
When you add the sum total of his record sales with prog-rock leaders Yes, with his solo work, Rick has shifted in excess of 50 million records. And the public still have an insatiable appetite for his music: In 2017 he made history with his Piano Portraits album, which became the first solo piano album to enter the Top 10 upon release. He repeated the success in 2018 with Piano Odyssey.
And then there is the estimated 2000 releases Rick appeared on during his time as a session musician?
Over a six or seven year period until he joined Yes in 1971, Rick was a player for hire,’…for the massive sum of £9 a session,” he says, “But it was a big part of the apprenticeship, because you got to play all different sorts of music.”
Surely you can’t remember half of those you played on?
“You are quite right, a lot of them you can’t remember,” he agrees, “They weren’t all singles or album tracks, a lot of them were for films, TV programmes – I was on the Avengers, Professionals, all the sessions for those…”
Rick famously played on hits for Cat Stevens and David Bowie, and worked with everyone from Cilla Black to Marc Bolan, and Elton John and Black Sabbath.
He’s a social media fan and regularly tweets silly stuff from his day. His twitter handle is @GrumpyOldRick giving a nod to his time as a contributor to the hit show, Grumpy Old Men. It’s well over a decade since it aired on our screens but is still missed in these parts.
We’re a nation of whingers, after all.
“It’s a well-known fact that governments like protests, they love marches to Westminster.
“People get to vent their feelings, have a good shout and a rant, have a bit of a party, and a few drinks. They’ll hand in their petitions to No.10 then go home, going ‘Look what we’ve done.’”
“The time people worry is when there isn’t a protest…”
Rick knows this because he has friends in Westminster who have told him so.
You might think the architect of so much marvellous music and a life well lived would be feeling his 70 years, but Rick isn’t slowing down any – and still kicks off the bedsheets at 5:30am every day.
“I’ve got my morning rituals that I do, like feeding the cat, then I’ll come into my office and go through stuff before the phone starts ringing,” he says.
Rick might still be as busy as ever, but these days he’s choosier about what he commits to.
“I decided a few years ago that I’m only going to do what I enjoy doing, or what I think is going to be a challenge. So I started turning down lots of things…”
Turning down the stuff that doesn’t appeal means more time to do the things that still excite him creatively, and personally.
Rick is actively involved in trying to bring an end to the dog meat trade, “…which is just sickening, and I’m an ambassador for Animals Asia for the Moon Bears.”
The bears are held captive on farms and have their bile extracted from their gall bladders. Often their cages are so small they can’t even stand or turn around. Many of the animals are starved, dehydrated and suffering from diseases.
Actor Peter Egan introduced him to the plight of these beautiful animals and Rick now raises awareness of the charity however he can.
“One of the main sanctuaries is in Chengdu and I want to go out and do a concert for the bears…” he says seriously, “It will have to be just outside the compound for obvious reasons,” he laughs, “They might look wonderfully playful, but they are wild creatures.”
The idea is to get TV coverage and ensure more people learn about the terrible plight of these beautiful creatures: “It’s awareness isn’t it?”
But before the curtain falls on 2019, Rick will have toured stateside with a 30-date stint through September and October. In a nod to his contributions on Grumpy Old Men, the tour is called Grumpy Old Rock Star. It’s his first time touring the other side of the Atlantic for years.
“I enjoy playing, but the touring thing is hard, it’s the travelling that kills you,” he admits.
“I have decided I’m going to do two more years of touring, and then in 2022 I will still play, but it’ll be one-off concerts, and things here and there.
“I’ve got a big family, my wife, I’ve got six kids, and grandchildren who I hardly see.
“There will be no more packing the suitcase and away I go…”
For more about the work of Animals Asia visit: www.animalsasia.org/uk/