Wigmore Hall, London
21 July 2023
I always thought I would come to Wigmore Hall one day, but honestly I expected it would be for a violin recital or something. I didn't kow they also hosted rock gigs.
The hall lives up to my expectations. It's a beautiful art deco interior, a perfect acoustic, and a nice, compact size. Perfect for this gig.
And of course, this isn't a rock gig.
Rick Wakeman has a number of "standard" shows, so you generally know what you're going to get. There's the rock band show, the solo piano show, and the stand-up comedy Christmas show. And, if you're very lucky, there's Rick with an orchestra.
Well, tonight wasn't any of those. Tonight, it's Rick at the piano, backed by his son Adam on a second keyboard and Hayley Sanderson singing. And when he came on stage to tell us he was going to play some things we probably wouldn't know, I thought of my dozens of Wakeman albums and 20 live shows and thought, unlikely. And then he played some things I didn't know. His back catalogue is vast, and encompasses so many different types of project, and he's dug deeply into it to build a set list which works perfectly for this trio of musicians.
He starts with a solo piano piece from his latest album, before bringing the other two onto the stage. Then he goes back to his early session days for Morning has Broken and Amazing Grace. He's in good storytelling form, so we get anecdotes about the originals of each.
Surprisingly very little from his "classic" albums. Two pieces from King Arthur, obviously heavily rearranged for this format, and that's all.
Hayley Sanderson is an inspired choice of singer. The original singers of these songs covered every part of the stylistic spectrum, but she finds a way to fit her own style to them, and makes them all sound beautiful. She can't bellow out lines like Ashley Holt—well, let's be honest, I don't think anyone can—but when she sings his parts on The Last Battle or Make Me a Woman, not trying to power through them but just emphasising the beautiful melodies, you think ... yes, this is how these songs ought to sound.
Adam Wakeman is a world-class keyboard player in his own right, but here he's content to take a back seat, just filling in ambient sounds behind Rick's piano playing. But there are two points where the others leave the stage, letting him take the piano for a solo spot. One is a tune of his own that I don't know, the other is an astonishing jazz version of Iron Man, which just makes me all the more determined to see his Jazz Sabbath band live. He also shows that he's just as a good a storyteller and comedian as his father. The two spark off one another well, trading insults and banter and arguing over the set list (they each have a different version printed out, and I don't know if that's deliberate for the jokes or a genuine mistake, but it makes some genuinely funny moments).
After two hours of music and humour, the set ends with one of the finest songs Rick ever played on, one of the finest songs ever written: Life on Mars, with Hayley doing a fantastic job on the vocal.
For the encore, I can't see what he's got left that would suit the occasion and top what has come before. There's no way he can do a piano version of Starship Trooper, is there?
Well, no he doesn't. Instead, we get something even more mind boggling: a piano duet of Elenor Rigby arranged in the style of Prokofiev, with ferociously fast and complex playing from both pianists, and, remarkably, Hayley Sanderson managing to sing it without breaking the illusion that Prokofiev wrote it.
Truely a unique concert. Though Rick hinted that he enjoyed it so much that they might do it again. We can only dream...