Rhapsodizing with Rick Wakeman

Legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman is perhaps best known for his work with Yes, a group he has joined and quit at least five times since the early ’90s. But the classically-trained musician also has a staggeringly large catalog of solo albums. Beginning with his debut release (1973’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and continuing across more than 90(!) albums, Wakeman has showcased his deeply textured work on piano, organ and all manner of synthesizers.

He’s also very well known in his native England as a raconteur and standup comic; he was a popular fixture of the BBC program Grumpy Old Men, among others. His 2019 U.S. tour combined both his keyboard prowess and his skills as a storytelling comic. With more than two dozen dates in North America, the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” tour launched in September and ran through October. Ahead of the run of solo dates, I spoke with Wakeman about his winning combination of music and comedy. And I couldn’t avoid inquiring about Yes.

You’ve famously long since reined in some of your indulgent behaviors that were affecting your health, but your wicked sense of humor has remained intact. Does connecting with the audience through humor scratch a different itch for you than does playing music?

Well, I’ve done comedy in the UK for, crikey, nearly 40 years now. I hosted my own standup show on terrestrial TV here for quite a few years, and I’m as much known in the UK for my standup as I am for the music. But it’s a different; it’s anecdotal standup that I do, and it was just really that, when I was going out – especially doing the piano concerts – when people said, “Tell some of the great stories.”

So, I started, and that’s become an integral part of the show now, which is great. They’re all linked together, and it’s fun. The point is, I think when people come to a concert, especially if it’s a solo concert like the one I do, you want people to go away having experienced everything: laughter, sadness, happiness, thoughtfulness. You want to try to get through as many emotions as you possibly can.

Humor is very important to me. My father once said to me, he said, “You can’t be miserable if you’re laughing.”

The upcoming tour is being billed as “music and witty stories.” And you certainly do have a reputation for telling good dirty jokes. Would you be willing to share one right now?

Nope. I don’t do any except on the stage. I get asked that all the time. I did it once, and people start to say, “Oh, we heard that. We saw that.” No, I don’t tell any of the stories that I tell on stage and I do in the shows. Mainly because I change them around all the time.

When I do the show, I will have a plan, because they all follow a pattern. They’re all linking together one after the other. So, sometimes, I’ll be in a place – and I may have been there before – and something will remind me of something [else] and I’ll go off on a completely different direction. That’s something you can do when you’re on your own. You haven’t got to worry about a band guy: “What the bloody hell is he doing?” You can actually do what you like, which is great fun.

But the stories, people always ask. And I say, “Wanna hear the stories? Well, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to come along.”

This tour is truly a solo run; you’re not going to have any musical accompaniment at all?

No. I’ve been doing it around Europe for quite a few years now, this show. It has been incredibly successful around the UK. I’ve also done it in Australia. I’ve done it all around Europe. My agents who were in the UK, they saw one and said, “You have to bring this to America!” And I said, “Well, okay. Book it and I’ll come,” and that’s basically what’s happened.

I will adapt some stories to where I am. I won’t do the same show I’m doing in the UK. So, out of the plethora of stories I’ve got, I will gear it very much to the USA.

In addition to your solo tours, you’ve also been performing the last few years with Jon Anderson and Trevor Ravin, first as ARW and more recently billed as Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman. Can you tell me anything at all about the possibility or the prospect of any future studio releases from that group?

At the moment, we have got some stuff that we’re reasonably happy with, but it’s nowhere near finished. We all decided that we would only release stuff if we were 100% all of us agreed that this was something that was special. We didn’t wanna just churn something out for the sake of churning it out.

We’re getting together next year to do probably the last AWR tour, and it’ll be during that time, I think, that we’ll analyze what we’ve done, what we’ve got, and go, “Okay, can we finish this? Can we make something as a last and living legacy to AWR?” I would like to think we can, but I won’t say for definitely because if it doesn’t turn out to the satisfaction that we all want, then we’re not gonna put something out second rate.

For years and years now, Pete Frame has done those Rock Family Trees to help fans understand who has been in various groups, where they’ve come from and that kind of thing. You certainly made his job difficult by joining and leaving Yes more times than anyone else. And that’s saying something. Is there something deeply irresistible about Yes that keeps bringing you back?

You know, in a strange way, there probably is. Somebody once wrote my relationship with Yes was the equivalent of “Richard Taylor”: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They couldn’t live with each other, but couldn’t live without each other. And there’s an element of truth in that.

I thoroughly enjoy working with Yes with the different lineups that I’ve been in. But I think what’s healthy sometimes is to go away. Because every time I’ve gone away, I’ve done things either on my own or with other people, worked with other artists, different producers. And when I’ve come back, I’ve got something to bring back because I’ve got some new ideas, some new tools.

Jon Anderson does the same. He’s very good at that, and to be honest, Trev Rabin has done very much that as well before we all got together. We were all bringing things that we didn’t bring the previous times. And I think that’s very healthy because you’re bringing in like, “Yes, I worked on this. This I did. This is a good…” And you can throw that into the mix.

Otherwise, I think that’s sometimes why, certainly, music from bands can get a little stale because it has nothing to do with playing the same pieces sometimes. Because it’s just a matter of playing them the same. And that’s where the danger lies.