On the evening of Friday 22nd October I went to see Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson [The Anderson-Wakeman Project] at The Anvil, Basingstoke.
I approached this concert with a feeling of some ambivalence. The whole thing about these antique rock treasures being taken out of the old trophy cupboard and dusted down saddens me. I can think of nothing worse than spending an evening fawning over some old has-been who is attempting to rekindle that long extinguished flame one more time. And all that servile pretentiousness that is expected from the audience. All those fake nostalgic feelings. And all that hushed beatification of the noble rock luvvies – the entire experience tends to bring bile to my lips. If old rockers don’t die gracefully then, at the very least, they should be forced into exile far away – running a trout farm or something. We do not need them to come back every five minutes, trying to hit the high notes, and rambling on about how freaky everything was back in ‘73. It is undignified. And, worse still, it reminds us that we are getting old too. So, no thanks. If we really want to hear them at their very finest then we can download their stuff onto MP3 can’t we? We don’t need them to be standing there in the weakly quasi-living flesh, doing their absent-minded best to entertain us in some frail way do we? But, on the other hand, what if they still could still turn on the old magic? What if the gift was still there? What if they could still deliver a sting? It is so intriguing that it is almost worth taking the risk. But, frankly, I was prepared to be disappointed.
As I sat waiting patiently in the luxurious surroundings of The Anvil I couldn’t help asking myself… Are Rick and Jon just yesterdays men? Can they still pass muster? Culture lovers and quality music aficionados around me seemed to be asking the very same question. Then, as the lights went down, a gentle ripple of applause echoed around the venue, and the two venerable rock-gods shuffled onto the simply light stage. Jon was clutching an acoustic guitar and was dressed casually, as if he was popping up the corner shop for a pinta. Rick strolled over to the two keyboards. And that was it. We were in the presence of two artists who can conjure up sounds, images, textures and sensations from just an old guitar and a couple of keyboards. It was magical.
It is interesting that Jon is five years older than Rick – because he doesn’t look it. Aged 66 (to Rick’s 61) he looks like he is in his late forties. The years have not worn away Jon’s elfin features and nor that airy-fairy posture. Neither have they worn down his amazing voice. Naturally higher than tenor, but without extending to falsetto – his voice has a lush mellow sweetness to it. At this concert he was still perfectly pitched and the nuances of that nutty-brown Lancastrian accent were still abundantly clear. Jon seemed to be completely baffled by the whole experience of getting up on stage with his guitar and putting on a show. A consistent theme ( perhaps deliberately over-emphasised for dramatic effect ) was that Jon could not remember the text of any of the songs, nor present a concise introduction to the pieces. In fact, it seemed likely that he didn’t even know what day it was. But the audience seemed perfectly happy to let this go by, and the songs were gorgeously inspiring and wondrously created.
Rick has now become a minor celebrity outside his rock persona for being one of the regular ‘Grumpy Old Men.’ He is also an admired DJ on Planet Rock. As far as I am concerned he can never do wrong, not just because of his keyboard work for ‘Yes’ but also because of his incredible contributions to such famous songs as Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and Cat Stevens’ re-working of the school assembly hymn “Morning Has Broken.” I first encountered Rick’s virtuosity on ‘The Strawbs’ ‘From the Witchwood’ album (1971) and I commend to you the track “The Hangman and the Papist”. I advise you give that a listen, to understand why I was completely blown-away by his spectacular artistry. In the Anderson-Wakeman Project, Rick keeps things simple. Just two keyboards and a laid-back gentle attitude. Only once or twice did we experience the true greatness and extraordinary rendition of this amazing player. And at those times he stooped over the keys like a mad praying mantis – a look of deadly concentration upon his face – as his fingers flashed out, like a predator, to take the ivories.
Rick seems, upon the surface, to be ‘of sound mind’ and the more lucid of the partnership. But it is quite clear that he adds depth and magic to the mythical and emotional dimensions of Jon’s characteristically surreal pieces- like those old favourites “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Yours Is No Disgrace”. He is perfectly at ease in translating what seem like the ‘ramblings’ of an imaginative mind, and turning that jamboree-bag of Jon’s thoughts into real commodities, containing sound and light. These two are a perfect creative partnership. This became even clearer as the new songs emerged from ‘The Living Tree’ and during the “Recital Part” of the show, (as Jon called it.)
Constant humorous interludes and witty interjections from the pair helped enliven the show and added a welcome lightness. Not only were these anecdotes entertaining, they were also inciteful. According to Jon the two partners collaborate together using email and text – Rick lives in the UK whilst Jon lives in the U.S.A. So when one has an idea, he urgently emails the other to put across the musical concept. Jon told us how he was grappling with the ideas behind ‘The Living Tree’ and he told us how he had come up with the idea after he had ‘Just come in from the garden… and trees and plants were on my mind …. I had to contact Rick right away with my thoughts’. Rick added “It’s a good job, then, that you hadn’t just come in from the loo!” An another occasion Jon was speaking passionately and fervently about the theme of love and how people do not love themselves enough – loving each other has to start somwhere and it ought to start with loving ones self. Rick interjected ‘ I used to love myself …. a whole lot …. back when I was fourteen – until my dad told me to stop because it would make me go blind’.
Another interesting anecdote was shared with the audience when Jon explained how he had come up with the idea for “Roundabout” [from the 1971 Yes album Fragile ]. ‘In and around the lake – mountains come out of the sky – one mile we’ll be there and see you…’ According to Jon, the band were herded into a van to make a difficult return journey from northern Scotland back to the north of England in time for the next concert. The journey seemed to ‘go on for ever’ and the most annoying parts were the ‘roundabouts’ (circular road junctions) “I remember there seemed to be hundreds of roundabouts on the way back, and at each roundabout there was a traffic hold up – I thought we would never get to our destination.” But the icy lakes and the occasional glimpses of mountains squeezing through the cloud, helped Jon to pass the time and paint a pretty potent lyric.
The purpose of prog rock is to create an imaginary world. To move beyond what is commonplace. To travel through space and time, and reality. To represent textures, sounds and ambiguous ideas in the forms and nuances of light and shadow that make life a dream and reality a memory.
You might like your rock to be earthy and raw. You might need it to be unblemished and simple to digest at times. But if, like me, you want to leave this tawdry planet every now-and-again and fly off in a paper glider towards those Topographic Oceans then you need bands like ‘Yes’ ( or ‘Porcupine Tree’ and ‘Spock’s Beard’ or ‘Rush’ ) and you need artists like Jon and Rick to help you break the bonds of your existence so that you can float gently away.
In the Anderson-Wakeman Project tour, Rick and Jon have managed to cut down on flamboyances, cut away excesses and shortened the conceited sojourns and the interminable jazz odysseys. This is stark, almost nude, Progressive Rock. Not quite unplugged, but almost. And without the pomposity and the over inflated egos, the audience were left with some simply attractive, carefully crafted, rock pieces. Put together with heart and soul. Yes, the lyrics are in bloom, and you need your thinking-cap on to make the most of it. But for sheer joyous escape, and flight to a better world, there is nothing better than sharing some time with Rick and Jon. I was not disappointed.
The Anderson/Wakeman Project 360 Tour continues through November culminating in a visit to London’s Indigo at the O2 on 15 Nov
Monday, November 01, 2010 Colston Hall
Tuesday, November 02, 2010 Cliffs Pavilion
Saturday, November 06, 2010 Playhouse
Sunday, November 07, 2010 Concert Hall
Monday, November 08, 2010 The Sage
Thursday, November 11, 2010 Palace Theatre
Friday, November 12, 2010 The Corn Exchange
Monday, November 15, 2010 indigo2 at the O2