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Concert Preview: YES Keyboardist, Raconteur Rick Wakeman Returning To Ridgefield



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RIDGEFIELD — As a much sought after session musician in the late '60s and early '70s, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Rick Wakeman played on more than 2,000 records, including such hits as Cat Stevens’ "Morning Has Broken" and David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" and "Life on Mars."

He also worked with an eclectic mixture of other notable artistes, such as Donovan, Cilla Black, Marc Bolan, Black Sabbath, Lou Reed, Mary Hopkin, Dana, Al Stewart, Elton John and John Williams. A year and a half after joining the Strawbs and contributing to their early folk rock project, Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios, he was recruited into the prog-rock super group YES in 1971.

His contributions to YES both on record and on stage brought him the level of notoriety that enabled Wakeman to broker his own solo career, and as a solo artist and with YES, he has sold more than 50,000,000 albums. (That is correct, fifty million!)

Along the way he developed two film scores for Ken Russell (Lisztomania and Crimes of Passion), two scores for Harry Palmer films starring Michael Caine (Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St Petersburg), and the award-winning White Rock, as well as Gole, Hero, A Day After The Fair and two horror films, Creepshow 2 and The Burning.

On British television, Wakeman has carved out quite a career, appearing on every single episode of the Grumpy Old Men series and on Countdown just shy of 100 times. He has appeared on numerous other popular BBC programs; and on Great Britain's Radio 4, he is regularly heard on The News Quiz, Just a Minute, and It’s Your Round.

In March 2012, Prince Charles presented him with his Fellowship of the London College of Music, where the distinguished alumnus who earned a full scholarship in his younger days was made a Professor. Wakeman additionally has two books to his credit — Grumpy Old Rockstar and Further Adventures of a Grumpy Old Rockstar — both of which made the bestsellers list, and the third in the series is due for release shortly.

In January 2017, Rick made UK chart history when his album Piano Portraits, inspired by the unprecedented public reaction to his cover of "Life On Mars," performed live on BBC Radio 2 following the news of David Bowie’s death a year earlier, became the first solo piano album to enter the Top 10 on release, eventually reaching No. 6.

It was a feat he repeated in 2018 with the follow-up album, Piano Odyssey.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wakeman still found time each year to perform concerts around the world, including his extremely popular one-man show which previously landed at the Ridgefield Playhouse. Now, after many months on lockdown in the UK, he is finally back on the road after his long-delayed follow up to 2019’s sold out The Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour with The Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour.

Wakeman had an additional special reason to celebrate the easing of lockdown post-pandemic in June 2021 when his outstanding career in music was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II, who named him a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to music. So he is finishing out the year returning to the USA with his Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour, and fans can see the prog rock legend on stage at The Playhouse on Saturday, October 30, at 8 pm.

Ahead of his return to Connecticut, Wakeman settled in for a stimulating, but all too brief interview with The Newtown Bee that opened up focusing on why such a successful, gregarious, and globally popular fellow was so attached to a brand that plainly classified him successively as grumpy, and then grumpier.

The Newtown Bee: You are so optimistic and affable. So how did the grumpy and grumpier handle get stuck on you?

Rick Wakeman: There was a wonderful guy Stuart Prebble, a brilliant producer, director and ideas man in television, and back in 2002 he came up with this idea for a show called "Grumpy Old Men." So I was having lunch with him and asked how he saw the program developing. And he said he saw a bunch of middle aged men sitting around moaning. And I said that I didn't see that as a rating winner. And he said "trust me."

So he picked on certain people, and put you in front of the camera and say things like "women drivers" and you'd have to riff on about whatever he suggested. So he did this for about an hour and a half with a few people, me included. Then he brilliantly collected little snippets and wrote a complete script around it.

Then I proceeded to head off to America to tour with YES, and after about six weeks during which the program came out. So I get back and I'm walking down the corridor at Gatwick Airport as a lot of people are walking the other way, and I'm tired from the touring and the flight, but I hear comments from the people walking the other way like, "he still looks grumpy, doesn't he?" Then I got to passport control and the officer said, "you should have the occupation grumpy old man on here." Then I got in a taxi, and the driver turns and says, "I'll give out something to be grumpy about."

I was really wondering what was going on here. So I went to my daughter's to pick up my car and as she was making me a cup of tea I asked her about it and she said, "Dad, your program is huge — the number one program in England — and you are on every program." So then Random House called me up and asked me to do a book and then another which I was stunned to learn were best sellers around here.

The Bee: So basically you're getting a lot of mileage out of the idea you might actually be grumpy.

Wakeman: The great thing about being grumpy, as I was advised by Start Prebble, is there's a fine line between being grumpy and angry. Pure grumpy is when somebody moans about something. But people laugh because it's absolutely true, but angry is not funny. And Prebble said it's about things we put up with — we have a moan and then get about with our daily lives.

The Bee: Well, I'm pretty grumpy that we only have a few more minutes to chat, so tell me a little about what fans and friends will see from you when you get to the Ridgefield Playhouse.

Wakeman: Well, it's going to be just me on piano and a couple of other keyboards so I can do some of the organ and synthesizer pieces I've written over the years — "Jane Seymour" and "Judas Iscariot," which I could play on piano, but they work better on a keyboard that plays organ. I'm also putting together some pieces I haven't played before that I'm adapting for piano. So it will be a mix of music — some of which people will know and some they may not know — and some they wish they never knew.

They'll be mixed with some very surly stories and some serious ones as well. We've been through a lot these past couple of years, so I hope it will be an evening that gives people something to think about, maybe have a few good laughs, maybe almost bring a tear to the eye, and hopefully send everyone home happy and wanting to come again.

The Bee: Do you have an inventory of songs so maybe each stop will be a little different?

Wakeman: It always happens. I do have a set list, and what I call a stepping stone plan for every show — otherwise you fall apart — but what happens, when I arrive, someone at a meet and greet or at the hotel will remind me that the last time I was in town, such and such happened, and I had forgotten about it but start thinking I could use that tonight. And they tell me I'd played a very special piece, and I think maybe I'll throw that in again tonight. That's the great advantage of being out on your own, you're very adaptable versus when you're with a band. The other thing when you do that is you keep the evening fresh.

The Bee: Speaking of keeping things fresh, I read the recent Vanity Fair feature about you and it did present a thrilling prospect to think of you taking your King Arthur (The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) project out like a medieval musical Ice Capades. Do you believe you can make that happen? I think every show would sell out.

Wakeman: I loved doing it when we did those three nights at the ice stadium in London back in 1975, and the things you could do back then with special effects is nothing like what you could do now. And back then ice skating wasn't popular at all, but I loved it. Those shows were great fun, so when you think of what we could do with that now, it could be just phenomenal. You know I spoke with the Olympic Gold Medalist Robin Cousins and he said I should really do it. It would be a dream come true if I could pull it off.

The Bee: You should get in touch with the people from Disney.

Wakeman: I'm not sure the people from Disney would entertain an aging old fart like me.

The Bee: Oh, they like money, Rick.

Wakeman: It would be something, and I think with a clever designer and clever producer it could be a spectacle.

The Bee: I know your latest recording is The Red Planet, but have you had time to begin work on a new project?

Wakeman: The Red Planet was a true and good old prog rock album in every respect, and we wanted to tour it but COVID put a stop to that. We'll probably tour with it next year because the band played fantastically.

But I'm working on something now that will be really different. It will probably get finished in November. I'm very interested to see what people make of it.

The Bee: What is its thematic construct?

Wakeman: It's a mixture of very different pieces, some prog rock, some solo piano, there's some practical type songs, but the album is called A Gallery of the Imagination, and what it's about is, I had a piano teacher, the same one from when I was very young. And she used to tell me that when I learn to play music, and once I learned a piece, she wanted me to put the music to one side and play it with my eyes closed. And once my eyes were closed, she said to me "paint pictures to the music." So I did that and still do it to this day. People often ask why I spend 90 percent of my time on stage with my eyes closed — and it's because I'm painting pictures.

I often thought how much I enjoyed that, and it occurred to me when I was talking with my engineer, do people hear something and paint the same pictures or different ones. And I believe people do paint different pictures. So the idea behind A Gallery of the Imagination is, and what we're going to do is invite people to paint or create pictures, and we're going to have a special website and various exhibitions where people can go on or hear the music and look at how different people view the various pieces of music.

The Bee: On another subject, I also heard you have quite a collection of refugee animals around your house.

Wakeman: We have two rescue dogs from Sarajevo from the war zone, which we love — one's ten and one is seven — and we recently took collection of a little Labrador from China where she was in the meat market. Seriously, she was on her way to the butcher before we got hold of her. And it took us six months to get her here but now she's here and really lovely. I'm just feeding her a little too much. And we have three rescue cats.

We tend to take in animals that nobody wants. My wife says she got started when she took me in...

For more information or to purchase touchless print at home tickets for Rick Wakeman ($80-$90, Meet & Greet Upgrade $150) go to ridgefieldplayhouse.org or visit or call the box office: 203-438-5795. The Ridgefield Playhouse is a non-profit performing arts center located at 80 East Ridge, parallel to Main Street, Ridgefield.

Check out the video of Rick Wakeman interpreting The Beatles "Elenor Rigby":

In this vintage clip Rick Wakeman showcases the title track from The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table:

Editor John Voket can be reached at john@thebee.com.

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