A bit of a nostalgia trip for me tonight - the last time I saw one of Rick's solo concerts was in Liverpool in 1976, and Ashley Holt was vocalist on that occasion too. Tonight's venue is the smaller of the two theatres in the Fairfield Halls complex. It's a pretty decent sized venue though, with quite a large stage area. At least it probably was before Rick's massive keyboard rig dominated it. There was barely any room on the stage for the other guys to stand, and Tony Fernandez was tucked right into the far corner of the stage. It was fun watching Ashley Holt trying to gingerly negotiate his way around the keyboard rig for the opening number - not the most dignified entrance.
On the subject of Ashley Holt, he apparently stepped in at short notice after Damien Wilson pulled out for reasons as yet unknown. This was a big disappointment for me. No offence to Ashley, but their vocal styles and ranges are completely opposite, and I was not sure how Ashley was going to handle singing tracks from the new album. It must have been a daunting task for him, and it was good of him to step in and help out. It's just that after spending a couple of weeks getting into the new album, I was looking forward to hearing Damien perform the new stuff, especially as I have never seen him live before.
After a taped intro, we are treated to a medley of some of the best bits from the first side of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. I do like the "stripped down" format of just bass, drums, guitar and keyboards for these gigs, I think it forces the musicians to come up with inventive ways of reproducing tracks that initially were recorded with multiple musicians, orchestras and choirs. This was a decent reading of the track, not too different to the versions I have heard of some of the recent live albums. At this point I was quite impressed with Ashley, he seemed to be quite comfortable singing this one. Rick's fingers were a blur as usual, darting as he was from keyboard to keyboard in his sparkly jacket.
A little bit of Rick's trademark between song banter followed. Always entertaining, even if it is a bit end-of-the-pier at times. Then it was straight in to two tracks from No Earthly Connection (I can remember buying this album in the 70's - remember the bit of silver foil that came with it, you rolled it into a tube and placed it on the cover?). The Realisation and The Spaceman were the tracks played, the former with a nice bit of guitar from Ant Glynne, and an aggressive vocal performance from Ashley.
The next piece was supposed to be Catherine Parr. It started off fine, until some horrible noises started to come from one of Rick's keyboards. This brought the song to an abrupt halt, and Rick joked that there might be a short interval. And in fact, that was what we got. Up came the lights, and off we wandered to the bar. Oh well, needed to pay a visit anyway. Once the technical problems were sorted, we were off and running again, and back into a rousing version of Catherine Parr (with a curious little diversion as Rick insisted on playing the last note of the previous song first). This is one of my, and I am sure a lot of other peoples, all time fave Rick Wakeman tracks, and it really benefits from the addition of Ant Glynne's powerful guitar.
The first disappointment of the evening was up next, the title track from Out There. Nothing wrong with the instrumentation, but it was painfully obvious that Ashley's vocals were not at all suited to this song at all. He was forced to sing it in a much lower register than usual, and it did not sound good.
At this point I should mention the stage design. For a small theatre the stage show was pretty impressive, a very good light show, video projections, and a handy little camera placed near one of Rick's synths that gave us a close up view of his nimble fingers darting across the keys.
And then we had the second interval of the evening. Could not help feeling a little peeved at this point, because we had already had a 20 minute unscheduled interval about 15 mins before, and I would have thought this one could have been at least shortened.
However, once we were settled back into our seats, some funky drumming from Tony Fernandez took us into an energetic version of White Rock.
And then the evenings second major disappointment - the dreaded drum solo. My first thought was you have got to be kidding - we have already lost 20 mins out of the set because of the technical problems, so I would have thought someone backstage would have made the decision to drop this tonight. But it was not to be, and on it went for 7 rather ordinary and uneventful minutes.
A medley of a couple of tracks from Arthur was up next. To my ears this did not seem to come across very well - it seemed to me that the energy level on stage was flagging, Rick missed a couple of cue's towards the end, Ashley seemed to be struggling a little now, and I was just not particularly fond of the overall arrangement of the piece. Maybe I am being unfair, perhaps I was still smarting over being subjected to the drum solo.
Things improved very much with the next track, Dance Of a Thousand Lights from Return, played solo on the piano by Rick, with a taped orchestral accompaniment. After the last couple of below par efforts, this was a refreshing change.
Another track from Out There followed next, Cathedral Of The Sky. Some nice pipe organ work from Rick, with the addition of some sampled choral accompaniment provided by one of the backstage boys. Ashley seemed to make a better job of this one, but did flag somewhat towards the end. I did feel for him though, he did give it his all - looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel at some points.
The closing track was a rocked up version of Merlin The Magician. Very different from the original, but I quite liked it actually. Rick's flair for showmanship came to the fore here, as he left the stage with his portable keyboard, came into the audience, turfed a guy out of his seat a couple of rows behind us and sat in it - all the time still playing and never missing a beat. It got slightly embarrassing when he pulled a lady out of the audience on to the stage, though. She seemed somewhat confused as to why she was there, and what he wanted her to do. It took Ashley to step in and explain she needed to hold her hands out so Rick could rest his keyboard on them and play the last few notes of the song. But it was entertaining, and a very good version of the song.
For the encore, we got an epic version of Starship Trooper. Surprisingly, I thought Ashley sounded quite good on this one, and Lee Pomeroy got a chance to shine here too with some incredibly fast, intricate bass work. Ant Glynne decided to go walkabout round the back of the theatre on this one while playing his guitar- or perhaps he was just looking for the toilet. A very satisfying end to the show.
Apart from a couple of gripes I have already mentioned, this was a very enjoyable gig. There is certainly no doubting Rick's musical prowess, and the rest of the band were more than up to the task of providing a solid foundation for Rick's legendary keyboard skills.