Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Royal Festival Hall, London

13 July 2019

Rick opens the evening by walking on to the stage in a cape.

I guess you have to be a Rick Wakeman fan to get the significance. But, honestly, Rick in a cape, tells you straight away that this will be the best concert you have ever seen.

He introduces the Orion Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir (already seated) then his band as they walk on, then Guy Protheroe the conductor and Robert Powell the narrator, all in typical Rick fashion that has us laughing already. Then he clambers around the stage to reach his keyboards, a massive set-up on a high podium behind the orchestra—which works so much better than trying to cram them into the space at the front of the stage or try to arrange the orchestra around him: it means you can see everything, while he's still the clear focus and master of ceremonies. He has his typical big rig, including the vintage synths he needs to make the Journey sounds. The band is on his left, the choir in high choir stalls behind him, and Robert Powell sits in a huge throne-like chair on his right. The stage is lit like a rock gig, and the whole set-up is spectacular, perfect staging in a beautiful and acoustically perfect hall.

If you know Rick's Journey to the Centre of the Earth you know that the narration starts it, and Robert Powell proves to be a perfect choice (obviously, the man's a legend) to carry the weight of the story. And then, with a crash ...

... The opening brass fanfare of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the whole orchestral overture, both themes, is one of the best openings in rock or classical music. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, and already, before any of the band have even played a note, this concert rocks like anything.

And when the band does enter, even the strings are headbanging.

In fact, I don't think I've ever seen an orchestra visibly enjoying themselves as much as this one does, not just when they are playing the music, but when they're listening to it too.

The original Journey to the Centre of the Earth was less than 40 minutes long, but tonight's version has been extended to more than an hour and a half by including not only the extra parts that the length of an LP didn't let him include in 1974 but also selected pieces from Return to the Centre of the Earth. The extra sections fit perfectly and it still feels like a single coherent piece of music. And while I still love the perfectly paced, concise original, this expanded version is just phenomenal. And anyway, it gives us The Dance of a Thousand Lights from Return, one of the very best pieces he's ever written.

The three vocalists stay off stage and walk on, singly or together, only when needed.

Hayley Sanderson sounds perfect singing Gary Pickford Hopkins' songs, which on paper sounds ridiculous but when you hear it you think the songs must have been written for her. Ashley Holt just ... does what Ashley Holt does best. The years appear to have done nothing to diminish his ability to bellow out the same notes he was 45 years ago.

"Special guest" Alfie Boe is a revelation. I mean, I knew he was good at what he did, but I didn't realise he did this. He gets to sing the Return to the Centre of the Earth song Never is a Long, Long Time, and roars it out like a proper rock singer, a far more powerful take than Trevor Rabin's, and a highlight of the show, an instant crowd pleaser. He's astonishing, and not at all what I was expecting.

It's pretty obvious from the ovation after the finale that they will have to come back for an encore, but not at all obvious what they could do that will fit the rest of the concert.

So the encore is actually the bits of Return to the Centre of the Earth that don't fit into the main narrative, such as Ride of Your Life, with everyone on stage having far too much fun. And then they finish with a second "finale" which repeats the original finale but this time massively stretched out to give each member of the band a solo, and one of the best moments of the whole gig is Rick and Adam Wakeman standing on a podium and duetting on keytars, and that's just ... well, honestly, how must they have felt in that moment? And while the orchestra and band keep playing, Rick takes his keytar and wanders around the whole hall. The encore goes on forever and still isn't long enough, it's just bonkers and brilliant and beautiful and the best concert I've ever seen.

I'll probably never see anything like this again. It's one of my all-time favourite pieces of music and it's being played with so much joy and energy, this is why I love rock concerts and I wish I could see this every night.