Rock Café 2000 - Stourbridge 16 May 2002 by Malcolm Jeffrey

Somewhere in Spring 1974, in a grammar school sports ground changing room now somewhere under the "Cricketers' Green" estate in Amblecote, I bought Rick Wakeman's "Journey To The Centre Of The Earth" gatefold LP from (possibly) Simon Bicknell, for gawd knows how much pocket money. Within a week I was thoroughly hooked, bought all Rick's albums up until the mid-eighties when I couldn't afford it anymore, saw him several times live and also as a side-effect found myself listening to and enjoying YES and discovering Chris Squire. Bizarrely, somewhere possibly around 1978, Rick came to Stourbridge to rehearse with King Edward's School Choir for a forthcoming performance of a "Six Wives" piece in (I think) the Albert Hall : all the details are a bit hazy with time but I do remember stopping in my tracks by the Town Clock, seeing what was obviously him walking over the road from the College to "The Mitre" and running in after him in time to pay for his pint (Springfield Bitter in a handle glass) and then embarrassedly mutter something along the lines of "I saw you a couple of years ago in Birmingham on the ‘No Earthly Connection' tour you were bloody great" before continuing on to catch my train. Having continued to see him solo, with YES, and finally catching up with his back catalogue, I certainly owe him big time, influence and enjoyment-wise : and, fast-forwarding to 2002, I am on the bus, circumnavigating the Stourbridge Ring Road and checking out the day-glo posters outside the Rock Café 2000 and there in big letters is an ad for Rick Wakeman and the New English Rock Ensemble. In Stourbridge. Again. Hurray!

It's an essential gig - if Wakeman is paying me the compliment of turning up in a pub gig in my home town, it's the least I can do to attend! Bob, Shirley, Stewart, Clive and Norma concur and the tickets are sorted: come the Thursday night, Bob, Shirley and Stewart are having pre-gig scoff in "The Robin Hood" and I meet them there. there is a birthday party going on in the restaurant and as a result, the food is three-quarters of an hour late arriving - when it's finally come and been eaten, we hastily sort a taxi down to the Rock Café and we are only literally seconds through the door when the house lights go down, a big cheer rises up from the next room, and we have arrived just in time to see big Rick take the stage and his band begin playing a recognisable riff from "Journey To The Centre of the Earth". Phew!

Hasty beer is brought and viewing positions are jostled for, and we get our first look at the band. recent Wakeman stalwarts - left-handed bass player Lee Pomeroy and Rick's son Adam Wakeman on secondary keys - are in place stage left, and familiar, long-term percussionist Tony Fernandez is at the back, presumably steeling himself for a barrage of jokes about Italians from the Big W somewhere in the set. A confident-looking young guitarist stage right will later be introduced to us as Dave Colquhoun, and, seeing as it's early Wakeman material we'll presumably be treated to, a vocalist who can reach Ashley Holt's notes will be needed and one Damian Wilson is stepping up to that particular oche. Quite frankly, Rick Wakeman looks in splendid shape, trim, tall, hunched in concentration over an, er, Wakemanesque bank of keyboards and producing the familiar tunes I bought 28 years ago with aplomb and skill : his fingers are visible as they bounce up high from the keyboard with still surprising speed and accuracy as he plays. As for "Journey To The Centre of the Earth", it's more a 15 minute medley of highlights from all four sections, tricky enough to get both guitarists concentrating and revealing Damian Wilson to have a fine voice, somewhat in the style of Judas Priest's Rob Halford, we thought, and a touch Graham-Bonnet-like too, though clearly not approaching the big G's inimitable abilities. Stourbridge's prog-rock faithful are delighted as Rick brings the huge arrangement to a close and a prolonged round of cheering and applause ensues, followed by general laughter as Rick says "We thought we'd get the ballad out the way first".

One of the diverse pleasures you get from attending a Rick Wakeman gig is the disarming anecdotes and funny chat that Rick entertains you with, and tonight he seems to be in great form. After a few self-deprecating references to his ex-wives (they've got all of his houses), we actually get something contemporary - "Never Is A Long, Long Time" from the recent "Return To The Centre Of The Earth" CD, well-played and sung, and satisfyingly intricate : this is followed by a shortish but feature-packed drum solo from Tony Fernandez. with hardly any gap enough for us to clap in, the band boost straight into another medley, once again 15 minutes or so, from "King Arthur", which sees some sparklingly tricky finger dexterity from Rick and fine supporting playing from son Adam, and we also get some hints as to the upper vocal range of Damian Wilson too. Once again, all these oldies are exactly what the crowd have come to hear and further cheers and appreciative applause erupts : also, my earlier expectations are fulfilled too as Rick introduces Tony Fernandez with the same set of cheerful Greasy Wop/Eye-Tie jokes he used on Tony when I last saw them both at Birmingham Odeon in 1980! Rick also adds that he and Tony have been playing together for 27 years, which is "longer than all our marriages put together"!

Next up is "The Visit", the only one I didn't know from the night, apparently from a soundtrack LP called "Phantom Power" from a film remake of "Phantom of the Opera" : pretty twiddly and intricate and warmly received, and featuring some devilish Satriani-like fretting from the new guitarist, Dave Colquhoun. then we get two of Henry VIII's wives back to back (suits you sir !), "Catherine Howard" and "Catherine of Aragon", both pretty well nailed, especially "Aragon" which was the track from the album with all of the Yes musicians on, so it needed a set of players on their toes. following this, I'm delighted to recognise the start of "1984 Overture" from the "1984" sort-of-concept album - I once saw Rick referring to the LP as a soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist - and it features some top percussive bassing from Lee Pomeroy, who turns on some flashing blue lights inlaid into the fretboard of his bass for the occasion: it's also sung splendidly by Damian Wilson, considering that one of the original singers on the overture was Chaka Khan! Then Rick introduces the next one, arguably the highlight of the evening, an arrangement of "Merlin the Magician". unlike the "King Arthur" original, this now has some vocals, which was unexpected, and, more importantly, features an extended bit of soloing from both Wakemans, who strap on guitar-like keyboards and step to front and centre of the stage, trading intricate and, frankly, bloody fast and splendid playing in a sort of play-and-response keyboard duel: I'm also sure that at one point Rick was playing his son's keyboard upside down (while facing him) with no let-up in speed or quality! Phenomenal.

After a huge round of applause and cheering from the suitably impressed punters, "Catherine Parr" is next - no let-up in quality or musicianship here - and then, after thanking us all for coming, Rick brings the main part of the show to a close with a smattering of Yes music. Starting off with the pre-bass-solo section of "Heart Of The Sunrise", the song eventually turns into "Starship Trooper" : Damian Wilson bravely attempts some Jon Anderson throat-stretching (Steve Carney from Fragile is easily safe, however) and when not singing during the "Worm" bit, he even comes down into the crowd to encourage mass clapping! Then they're off for what I would have considered to be a thoroughly deserved towel-down.

Called back raucously for an encore, Rick once more thanks us for turning up (our pleasure!) and finishes off tonight's set with "Return To The Centre Of The Earth's "Buried Alive" - vintage Wakeman with much 90's intricacy and featuring some nimble guitar work from Dave Colquhoun - and, finally, an arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby" done "in the style of Prokofiev". (you had to be there) which begins with Adam Wakeman playing an extended intro with just not enough gaps to allow his Dad in to start playing, resulting in Rick diving forwards/missing his cue/retreating many times in high comic fashion, before complaining "I am ready!" and then launching into a fiendish, flourishing Cossack interpretation of the old Beatles tune. Then that's it and despite an extended clamour for more from delighted fans (our party not inconsiderably guilty here) the show's over. However, while persuading Tony Fernandez to stop breaking down his kit and come and chat and autograph our tickets, Tony tells us that Rick always pops out to meet his public so we hang around to meet the great man, cadge his autograph and I have my second incoherent and complimentary chat with Mr Wakeman, who was even kind enough to pretend he remembered me buying him a pint twenty years ago (if, of course, he didn't).

Verdict time then. This time it's an easy one: Rick Wakeman was still, simply, marvellous. Lots of oldies for us superannuated fans, all delivered with outstanding skill, surprising dexterity, splendid musicianship, a garnishing of laddish Wakeman humour, and fully supported by what proved to be a tight and entertaining band. It was great to see a performer of his calibre still totally in control of his art, after two-thirds of my lifetime watching him and buying his output a joy! And none of the tiresome traipsing back from Birmingham after too. Mind you, full of beer and a head full of Wakeman tunes and memories, and with the promise of Bob's Tasmanian whiskey back at his flat, there was still the problem of traversing the mile-and-a-half to Amblecote, but that's a different story altogether!