A really interesting and long review of this big and very ambitious undertaking from Mr. Wakeman.
Have fun and read on!
Ice cool Rick!
Mick Brown reports on Rick Wakeman`s concert on ice at the Empire Pool Wembley
In Camelot, nature calls. “These bloody costumes are so authentic they don`t even put flies in them”, grimaces a knight, patting his chain mail in frustration. “They`d just piss `emselves in the Middle Ages. That`s why they smelt so awful…”
His friend stubs out a cigarette, pulls on his helmet and attempts to struggle into his horse – a heavy frame, suspended on straps from his shoulders. “Fall over in this, love, and there`s no way you`ll be able to get up again. That`s what I`m dreading…”
On stage Rick Wakeman is picking his nose for the benefit of a French television crew. The stage is a large, cumbersome tub afloat a sea of ice, its cardboard-battlement sides bursting at the seams with musicians and singers. Wakeman`s keyboards are ranged on a raised dais centre-stage, 14 in number, some £20,000 worth of the most sophisticated wires, patches and circuitry available. Speakers, slung from gantries above the stage, give off a predatory buzz.
“We can`t hear the choir”, says Wakeman. “Can you turn off the buzz please. Can you just… please… bloody hell, TURN IT OFF. Thank you. And these lights. It`s the Empire Pool, not the Empire Stadium. A concert, not a bloody football match.” The lights blink out.
Wakeman turns to his keyboards. David Measham, conductor of the New World Symphony Orchestra, raises his baton. The two vocalists from Wakeman`s English Rock Ensemble step to their microphones. The English Chamber Choir and the Nottingham Festival Group shuffle expectantly in their seats. The music swells into force, rumbling up into the rafters, rippling around the empty stadium. A handful of knights step onto the ice and trace elegant circles around the stage. One scoots the breadth of the arena, executing a series of subtle twists and turns which culminate in an ignominious prat-fall. Oh, bloody hell…
“It`s very dodgy”, Rick allows, “because one man`s meat is another man`s poison. There are people who just want to go along to see a band, hear their songs, clap their hands and go home. I can understand that. And that`s all some performers like to give their audience. There`s others who try to bring, for want of a better word, entertainment into it; the theatrical side of things, but without over-riding the music – which is what we`re trying to do. I want people to leave thinking `we`ve had a nice time, some nice music, a bit of a laugh, a few serious bits`… I want the show to embrace as many emotions as possible, like a film.
“Everybody thinks I`m crackers, and that what we`re doing has nothing to do with music at all. To me it has. It`s like if you play a record on really good equipment and then play it on shitty equipment, you can`t tell me it`s going to sound better on the shitty equipment. The presentation is all important. If something is presented in what you feel is an appropriate way it can only help you to perform the music better.
“What upsets me is that it`s been reviewed by people before they`ve even seen it. It`s been knocked really hard by so many people who`ve already decided it`s a huge joke. I just hope that if some of the sceptics who are coming along really do enjoy it that they`ll have the balls to lay it on the line and say so. Because if it doesn`t work I`ll be the first to own up…”
As it happened, both Wakeman and the sceptics have a bit of owning up to do. For while the show vindicated Rick`s contention that rock on ice is not as incongruous as it may seem, the experiment was far from being an unqualified success.
Wakeman is perhaps the finest exponent of keyboard music in this country. As a composer he has incredible vision and scope, and the technical skills to weave rock, classical and avant-garde themes and ideas into a meaningful fabric. But in his eagerness to equate `entertainment` with `ambitiousness` Rick is in danger of forgetting that the essence of music is its simplicity.
He opened the show with a selection from `The Six Wives Of Henry The Eight` and material from the new Ken Russell movie `Lisztomania` and from the outset it was apparent that the taste of the icing threatened to drown the flavour of the cake. With everybody on stage trying to assert themselves the more subtle nuances of Rick`s music all but vanished in an excess of sound. Only when Rick`s keyboards soared free could his virtuosity be truly appreciated particularly during the quieter, more reflective passages of `Catherine Howard`.
The sound-mix had a lot to do with it; the Rock Ensemble`s rhythm section battered virtually everybody else into a fuzzy mid-distance on occasions, so that half the choir could have taken off for a quick skate around the arena without being missed, and the two vocalists, Ashley Holt and Gary Pickford Hopkins appeared to be projecting their voices from inside a cardboard box.
They are the sort of problems that were doubtless ironed out for the second and third nights, and indeed the sound had improved considerably by the start of the second half. The first came to an amusing conclusion with Rick announcing something `sweet and gentil` – a swirling Wagnerian vignette which capsized into an electric honky-tonk version of the Charleston, complete with ice-skating flappers. The piece de resistance was saved for the second half.
After a short declamation of people who review shows before they`ve seen them (obviously a sensitive topic that), and a quick joust with his sequined cape (which wouldn`t stay on) Rick launched into `The Legends Of King Arthur`. Let it be said immediately that it was the ice-skaters who stole the show: the duelling sequences were skillfully executed (so was the Black Knight); Guinevere looked appropriately ethereal as she gracefully navigated the arena, while Holt and Pickford Jones sang a particularly soppy ode in her honour; and nobody fell over.
It quite took me back to my childhood, in fact; a feeling reinforced by the fact that I found the plot totally incomprehensible (is there a plot?). For `Merlin The Magician` the skaters moved aside for a movie, shot at Rick`s house in Buckinghamshire presumably, which was derivative in equal parts of Monty Python`s Search for the Holy Grail and Silvikrin Shampoo`s Search for the Ideal Head of Hair (Wakeman`s of course). All of which tended to reduce the actual music to the status of a tricky but forgettable soundtrack.
Rick`s keyboards trilled effectively enough, the Orchestra and band pumped away with great gusto and the choirs were in fine voice, but somehow the sum never fulfilled the promise of all the parts. In fact, only at the climax of the piece did I feel that the music was invested with anything close to spirit – a stirring crescendo of sound which all but drowned narrator Terry Taplin`s valediction to King Arthur and his Knights, and which seemed almost capable of bringing them back from the dead.
`Journey To The Centre Of The Earth` followed. Taplin reading the text as if it were the Ten Commandments and Wakeman performing as if he were the guy who wrote them. No ice-skaters or home movies (not even an inflatable dinosaur which had been pumped up during afternoon rehearsals); just the score, which contains perhaps some of the best material Rick has ever composed, but which, again, suffered from a collective over-indulgence; a howitzer opening a can of beans. By the end of the evening – after three hours music – the energy was beginning to pale somewhat. At its quietest the music was just soporific, and at its loudest and lustiest it could barely stimulate awakeness, let alone emotion.
But the company left the stage to rapturous applause which suggested that the full-house Wembley crowd were more than happy with the evening`s entertainment. Rick himself strode off beaming. Obviously the show had been all that he had hoped for too. I`ve still got reservations about the idea – especially as he now apparently plans to write an album around the concept of Mythological Gods. But isn`t it about time for him to lay such ideas in a peaceful grave, drop the orchestra, chorus, choir and Ensemble and get down to recording the definitive keyboard album? Solo.