Cards on the table first: Up until 1977, and the release of Yes’s Going for the One, when I was 13 years old, my collection of ‘new’ LPs consisted solely of the first four of Rick Wakeman’s solo albums. I picked up the odd 7” single, cassette and second-hand records, but the only essential vinyl that my pocket money was reserved for literally had Rick’s name all over it.
My introduction was via Nationwide, an early evening news magazine show on BBC1 in the ’70s that was generally playing on the TV whilst we ate tea. They regularly used the main themes from Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Arthur as background music, and it must have been credited at some point, from which time I never looked back. He was my prog rock mentor, and my emotional attachment to Rick, and to the first three albums in particular, is both long-standing and unbreakably strong.
Prompted by this review process, I have thought more about what it is about this music that has sustained me over such a long period. What is unique about this release is being able to listen to the three albums delivered by the same musicians, in the same context. The consistency of the sound and the delivery enables the listener to draw out the essence of each one in a way that is very different to listening to the original albums, and I would expressly recommend this particular package for that reason.
The English Rock Ensemble is the same group used on Rick’s latest solo album released earlier this year, A Gallery of the Imagination, and on previous tours, with session drummer and friend of the band Adam Falkner substituting for Ash Soan, and additional keyboard work provided by Rick’s son, Adam. The band is accompanied once again by the English Chamber Choir, conducted by Guy Protheroe, and the narrations in Journey and King Arthur are true to the originals, recorded by actors Peter Egan and Ian Lavender.
To re-create each album with this format of musicians required a significant number of adaptations to the arrangements, and Rick also had the job of putting together a suitably classic Yes playlist for the band to complete the fourth part of the two-night set. He’s had plenty of practice at this sort of thing, but still it’s a tremendous effort by Rick and his team to be able to deliver such an impressive event in a short time window, and such a privilege to have been able to attend, if you were lucky enough. Thankfully, both the shows were hugely successful and the recordings are a superb addition to what has been, in the past, a rather mixed live catalogue.
All through the set the band is on great form, with Adam Falkner and Lee Pomeroy’s dynamic partnership in the rhythm section particularly impressive. Dave Colquhoun, once again, provides spectacular guitar parts and Hayley Sanderson commands the vocals with ease. And of course, the only thing better than having one Mr Wakeman on board is for there to be two. Compensating for the lack of the orchestra is a particular challenge that the group has pulled off remarkably well.
The first disc covers The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is only the second time that the album has been played in full, following 2009’s Live at Hampton Court Palace event. The album was developed over an extended period after Rick joined Yes for Fragile in 1971, but was instigated by A&M as a result of a deal struck with Rick’s previous band The Strawbs. As the ideas were progressed, Rick invited band members from both bands to contribute, based on what kind of sound was required for each track. A&M weren’t completely happy with it being fully instrumental, but some timely coverage on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and riding the crest of the Yes wave, saw the release of Six Wives in 1973 ‘taking the album charts by storm,’ as they say, and the rest is history.
There is an eclectic mix of styles, sounds and tones on the album, and even now listening back to the original LP, although the main themes are well-remembered, there is an anarchic feel that puts me on the edge of my seat, and it always seems fresh and exciting. There is precision in the musicianship and the arrangements that is exceptional, each track appears to have a mind of its own, something that Rick definitely wanted to achieve in the story-telling. There is plenty of piano going on and the synthesiser parts tend to be blended in, whereas they became more brash and front of centre on the following albums. Jane Seymour features Rick on a church organ, and tracks like this really set Rick apart in being able to marry musical influences to create something unique to his style.
I guess we all know the history, but my point really is that some of the best qualities of this album are impossible to re-create in a live setting. On this recording, the first and last tracks, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr, stand out for me, and apart from a few liberties taken, for example the insertion of an extended Irish jig in Catherine Howard, it’s as good a performance of the album as you could wish for. What it did do, though, was draw me back to listening to the original album and seemingly enjoying it even more, for its precision and its sonic range.
Next up is The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. On more familiar territory now, we can just sit back and enjoy. The last time I saw Rick was at the Stone Free Festival in 2016, where he played the extended version of King Arthur, an 88-minute version with new music developed at that time with the aid of fan funding. He was on fine form, as usual, but as a traditionalist I would have been happy enough with the original score, and I am more than satisfied that Rick has reverted to it for this performance.
I could quibble about the re-sequencing of Merlin the Magician, that takes away some of the pleasure derived by the storming and emotional climax of The Last Battle, but that can easily be solved in a playlist. Hayley Sanderson does a magnificent job on vocals and the whole piece is delivered with such verve by the band that it makes this an absolute pleasure to listen to, even without the orchestral accompaniments. Listening to King Arthur repeatedly over the years is a constant reminder of the joy of being transported to another world, and the band have certainly done the piece justice on this live version.
‘Classic Yes’ kicks off the second night’s performance and is the third disc in the set. In some ways this is the surprise package for me. I wasn’t sure whether Rick might overdo the re-arrangements, but he has pretty much nailed this potted history of his work with Yes, and the band is more than capable of delivering these rollicking versions of classics.
We have got used to Roundabout being the final encore at Yes concerts and maybe thinking that it has become a bit stale and pedestrian over the years, but now I am as excited as I have ever been about hearing it again. This time we aren’t to be disappointed; Rick’s performance is astonishingly good. I’m sure the confidence he has in the musicians around him allows him the freedom to just get on and focus on what he needs to do. Collectively, the band restores our faith in the track and delivers arguably one of the definitive live versions – 52 years on from its release, amazing.
The Meeting from Anderson Bruford Wakeham Howe’s one-time, Yes-in-all-but-name eponymous album is delivered twice, firstly by the choir, unaccompanied, and then by Rick and Hayley, who performs this whole set admirably. The ‘Yes Suite’ now segues into an eighties-style pop/rock version of Wonderous Stories. The purists may not like it, but this is a Rick Wakeman show after all and I’m sure the audience were tapping their feet and singing along enthusiastically. It certainly does the job of keeping the band on their toes, ready for a barn-storming run as the fire is lit by the introduction to South Side of the Sky. The band goes up a gear, Hayley belts out the first verse and we start to realise that Rick and his band are on a mission. Rick and Dave add some extra solos into the mix and before we know it a spectacular nine minutes has passed and we are able to breathe again.
Now is not the time to debate the qualities of the various Yes incarnations of the last few decades, but this is a band that sure knows how to find the joy in Yes music and sell it to an audience. And You and I is next up to be given a new lease of life. Again, this track remains true to the original and the few extra flourishes added to the mix are the icing on the cake. My favourite live version of Starship Trooper is the Keys to Ascencion version that features Steve Howe and Rick duelling out through an extended Würm section. This time the finale has Dave and Rick reprising the original before Adam joins in and we enjoy a family hoedown. It’s spine-tingling to hear it now, it must have been very special for all concerned on the night.
The final part of this event is Journey to the Centre of the Earth. To be precise, it’s the 2012 album version that is actually the original version! The score had been put in storage and was apparently lost before it turned up unexpectedly in 2009. It was restored digitally when it was found to have some water damage, and the recovery of the eighteen or so minutes of music that had been cut from the 1974 LP release spurred Rick on to re-record the full score. This version has been toured a few times since then, but this is my first encounter with it, having also never dabbled with the Return to the Centre of the Earth from 1999.
The extra parts are fine additions that expand and fill in the chapters in the story to make a more theatrically compelling whole. The original Journey album was recorded live, and whilst it remains a prog classic, it also earns its place as a top example of musical theatre. I was taken by my parents to London’s West End quite regularly as a school child and each time I listen I imagine myself sat in plush surroundings settling in for the live experience. For me, the attractions of prog started here; the stories, the grandeur of the mix of orchestra, choir and band, the sumptuous melodies and the drama of the highs and the lows. Although it is out of sequence chronologically, it makes sense to end the set with this album as in the live setting it really is the main event.
So, hats off to Rick and his team for the staging, and to all the musicians involved for pulling the shows off so spectacularly well. On the face of it there isn’t anything in this set that hasn’t been done before, but the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. The albums in the set are all given a modern and fresh re-vamp with a group of musicians who are familiar both with the music and with Rick’s ideas for presenting it. The Yes songs included are boisterous and exciting, and will put a smile on any fan’s face. All together it’s a unique and joyous event and there is no hesitation in recommending it.
Disc One: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
01. Catherine of Aragon (5:29)
02. Anne Boleyn (10:12)
03. Jane Seymour (6:04)
04. Anne of Cleves (8:03)
05. Catherine Howard (10:25)
06. Catherine Parr (9:54)
Time – 50:07
Disc Two: The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
01. King Arthur (7:27)
02. Lady of the Lake (1:24)
03. Guinevere (6:14)
04. Lancelot & the Black Knight (5:36)
05. The Best Knight (1:04)
06. Sir Galahad (5:04)
07. Excalibur (0:35)
08. The Last Battle (9:14)
09. The King of Merlins (1:01)
10. Merlin the Magician (10:12)
Time – 47:51
Disc Three: Yes
01. Roundabout (8:49)
02. The YES Suite (part A – The Meeting) (5:15)
03. The YES Suite (part B – Wondrous Stories) (4:07)
04. The YES Suite (part C – Southside of the Sky) (9:02)
05. And You & I (10:06)
06. Starship Trooper / Würm (17:11)
Time – 54:19
Disc Four: Journey to the Centre of the Earth
01. The Preface (1:20)
02. The Journey Overture (2:47)
03. Journeys Dawn (3:16)
04. Crystals / The Gothic Cathedral / A Quest for Water (3:00)
05. The Hansbach / Fervent Prayer (3:14)
06. The Recollection / Lost & Found (3:24)
07. Echoes / 4 Miles (3:55)
08. The Reunion (2:35)
09. A New Vista (0:52)
10. A World Within A World (2:01)
11. The Raft (1:06)
12. The Battle (5:23)
13. Cumulous Clouds (0:37)
14. The Storm (1:58)
15. The Cemetery (1:24)
16. Quaternary Man (4:36)
17. Mastodons (0:50)
18. The Forest (2:19)
19. Ages of Man (1:56)
20. The Tunnel (1:44)
21. Hall of The Mountain King / Mount Etna (2:08)
Time – 50:15
Total Time – 202:32
Rick Wakeman – Keyboards
Dave Colquhoun – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Adam Falkner – Drums
Lee Pomeroy – Bass, Backing Vocals
Hayley Sanderson – Vocals
Adam Wakeman – Keyboards, Guitars, Backing Vocals
The English Chamber Choir conducted by Guy Protheroe
Peter Egan & Ian Lavender – Narration
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 16th February 2024