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Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble

Tuesday 20th February 2024

The Dome, Brighton

Serendipity is a wonderful thing when it strikes.

Knowing I had to be in Brighton one day this week, did a quick skim of gig listings to see if I could double up on the journey only to see that a long term hero, Rick Wakeman, was due to be at The Dome in just a few days time. Not expecting anything to be available, was overjoyed when a quick peek showed a cheeky single seat in the middle of the stalls. Promptly purchased. Happy Days.

Last of the triumvirate of the unparalleled 70s superstar keyboard players, a grouping always unchallenged in their style and rarely in their skill & attainment. The much underrated Don Airey is perhaps qualified to knock on that door and arguably one or two notable, prodigiously talented others if they had more… panache, (and perhaps likeability) - but for me, Wakeman, Emerson and Lord were the best of a generation. Possibly two.

So, ticket in hand (well… on phone) I toddled along to The Dome to see Mr. Wakeman for only the second time ever. The last time was as part of the (Yes in all but name… and Mr. Squire, of course) Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe incarnation… tonight is a “Rick” gig with his regular bunch of playmates, The English Rock Ensemble. The main reason for the show was a complete rendition of Rick’s second big conceptual solo outing, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.

Falling between ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and ‘King Arthur’, this was initially released in 1974 when Rick had left Yes for the first time (at the time of ‘Relayer’). It was a live release recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, as the cost of a studio recording for something so vast would have been prohibitive and, as a vinyl release, was confined to just under 40 minutes meaning whole sections had to be left out. Even so, it topped the UK album chart (albeit for 1 week) and earned Wakeman Ivor Novello and Grammy nominations.

After the album was initially toured, that looked like being it as no copy of the considerable score could be found. It was thought lost forever… until, in 2009, a copy turned up unexplained at Wakeman’s house. Apparently encouraged by Jon Lord, work began on reclaiming and digitising the score from the tattered document, resulting in a new, studio recording in 2012… with an additional 18 minutes of previously excised music reinstated, resulting in a new 54 minute epic.

So to tonight… Rick was accompanied by his familiar band, The English Rock Ensemble comprising long-term members Dave Colquhoun (guitar/vocals) and Lee Pomeroy (bass). Along with Hayley Sanderson (vocals) - who had to withdraw from this run of dates to be replaced with Mollie (daughter of Steve) Marriott. Colquhoun and Pomeroy have been with Rick long enough to have played on the 2012 recording of ‘JTTCOTE’. The drum stool was filled by Adam Falkner and additional keyboards provided by none other than Adam Wakeman. Providing exceptionally listenable backing vocals were the trio of Nick Shirm, Izzy Chase and Tess Burnstone. It has to be said that each of these musicians are incredibly accomplished with lists of credits as long as a Rickenbacker neck that are simply too numerous to list here.

As with most single artiste shows, the evening was divided into two sets. The first half featured a handful of Yes tracks - a faithful rendition of ‘Roundabout’, a collection Rick labelled “The Yes Suite” – ‘The Meeting’ (Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe), but what the heck… we’re all friends here), ‘Wondrous Stories’ and ‘South Side of the Sky’, with the first set being completed with ‘And You and I’.

Lee Pomeroy’s use of a Ricky for this set (naturally ☺) aside, there were various degrees of ‘faithful rendition’ here… ’Roundabout’ was much as you’d expect, ‘And You and I’ pretty much so, but the others were more interpreted than covered – ‘The Meeting’ in particular being enhanced by a wonderfully delicate arrangement by the trio of singers.

Set 2 comprised a full rendition of the 2012 version of ‘JTTCOTE’. And very fantastic it was too. Recordings of Peter Egan’s narration were seamlessly interspersed with every piece. I found it pretty incredible that both recordings of this were accompanied by a symphony orchestra and The English National Chamber Choir, but the sound - both instrumentation and voice - was so complete as to make their absence unnoticeable. Rick and Adam between them had the fullness of the sound covered, and the backing trio covered the choral parts fantastically well. I couldn’t say if this was augmented by effect or recording (I suspect not), but if it was, it was absolutely seamless.

After the majestic closing chords of ‘Mount Etna’, the ensemble took their bows and retired briefly before returning for an encore. Regaled by another ‘story’ from the always entertaining Rick whilst Adam Falkner gafferred his injured drum kit, it wasn’t long before Pomeroy strapped the Ricky on again for another Yes memory… ‘Starship Trooper’, a track that Rick didn’t record or contribute to but has doubtless played hundreds if not thousands of times. Whilst the intro and verses were as you would expect, between the verses went completely off piste. And I should have suspected something was afoot when at the start of ‘Wurm’, Pomeroy swapped the Ricky back for the (? Precision) he’d used for the entire second set. Sitting on the front of the stage, he dispensed with the pick and powered and slapped his way through an enjoyably impressive and all too brief solo. Gracelessly but amusingly rolling back onto the stage when finished, Adam Wakeman stepped out of the shadows (both literally and metaphorically on a night of seemingly limited spotlights) with a keytar and built a solo that even his dad was impressed by.

And if that wasn’t enough… he gave way to Colquhoun who, off the leash, followed with an absolute belter of a solo of his own.

And if that wasn’t enough…

As Colquhoun concluded, the trio of vocalists swapped places with Rick and lined up behind his gargantuan stack of keyboards to each hold down some background (amusingly, plenty of room - not to mention keyboards - for all three of them ☺) whilst the man himself stepped forward with a keytar to be joined by Adam again, whereupon we were treated to several minutes of father v son dueling - A Wakeman-off, no less - 123 years of Wakeman battling it out, note for note. All whilst Mollie was, I think, pummelling bass pedals with her hands whilst kneeling at Lee Pomeroy’s workstation.

Priceless.

Not to denigrate the rest of the show, all of which (particularly ‘JTTCOTE’) was marvellous, but the solos in this closing section were worth the ticket price alone.

Even within the aforementioned blessed triumvirate, Rick Wakeman is one of a kind. One of the most gifted, prolific, talented players whose work we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy, his skills as an always-engaging raconteur just adding to the enjoyment.

Favourite bit of the night – ‘Starship Trooper’ (not because of what it is but what was done with it) and possibly ‘The Tunnel’ segueing into a bit of beefed up Greig. What’s not to like?

Mark C

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