Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Grumpy, old but as nimble-fingered as ever

I've just got back from an evening with Rick Wakeman and his Grumpy Old Picture Show at the Swan Theatre here in High Wycombe. As you may (or may not) not know, Rick's health has been somewhat up and down over the years (heart attacks, alcoholism, pneumonia etc.) - so he's been forced to give up the big tours and long-haul schedules in favour of smaller venues. And, bless him, he is nearly 60. When I saw him earlier this year in a two-man acoustic show with Jon Anderson, he announced then that he was giving up touring altogether. The fans rebelled. On his website, he therefore posted this:

'I really do take notice of what people say, (with a few notable exceptions of course), and my initial thoughts were that I’d probably taken the 'One Man Show' element as far as I possibly could, but then came a germ of an idea that, although I initially thought would be far too expensive to stage, somehow, has amazingly developed over the last few months, (with tremendous help from Robert Garofalo of Classic Media and the promoter John Hessenthaler), to now becoming a reality. '

I guess that once it's in the blood, it stays there. And he has developed this show which is very clever. On stage he has a grand piano and a deck of keyboards. Then behind him there is a large projected TV screen. The show consists of short film clips projected onto the screen behind him interspersed with live music and his inimitable monologues and memoirs of a lifetime in rock If you've ever heard his radio show - Rick's Place - on Planet Rock, you'll know what I mean). The TV screen also allowed him to play with other musicians. Pre-recorded footage of people like his daughter Jemma, children's choirs and veteran guitar hero Gordon Giltrap accompanied his live playing. At one point, he performed a duet with himself and then, using four pre-recorded pieces of footage, he multi-layered the pianos to create a five piano version of his Birdman of Alcatraz. Audience participation came in too with us providing the 20 second burst of birdsong in the middle. The innovative use of video (which was accompanied by absolutely superb sound quality) was incredibly well set up - I have no idea how it was all synchronised but it was as tight as a trout's chuff.

Still, it was strange to watch him on the small stage at Wycombe and think that this man has played Madison Square Gardens and Wembley Stadium. By contrast, this gig was very intimate - he was standing no more than 20 feet away from us - and felt very personal. The show ended with a spirited rendition of Starship Trooper by Yes, with Rick's band projected on the big screen behind. Great to hear Ashley Holt singing 'live' - and to find that he was in the audience too as he lives locally.

It was an entertaining and clever show and, as always, his keyboard playing was extraordinary. He may have restricted his live performances to just 14 ... but there is still no restriction on his ability to play.

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