Grumpy Old Man raises a smile

Rick Wakeman performing at Sheffield Cathedral
Rick Wakeman performing at Sheffield Cathedral

NOTED for taking things that one step further, Rick Wakeman once performed his epic of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as a spectacular ice show.

As keyboard player with Yes, he took prog rock to excess at arenas around the world.

Often resplendent in flowing hair and glittering cape, he composed a best-selling epic about the Six Wives of Henry VIII and worked with the London Symphony Orchestra on Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

A couple of hours in Sheffield Cathedral – he has performed in other churches – was another intriguing diversion in a career that can hardly have been more colourful.

His one-man show against such a grand and atmospheric backdrop was a treat, the audience/congregation admiring in equal measure his skills as a pianist and his wit as a raconteur.

Grumpy old man? Not tonight.

Never one to take himself too seriously, each piano piece was accompanied by reminiscences from a life chock-a-block with anecdotes, right back to the age of five when he gave his first public appearance playing Monkey On A Stick (which he reprised).

The stories flowed as smoothly as the piano skills of somebody who did, after all, train at the Royal College of Music. And he has played on sessions for hundreds of singers and musicians, “from Clive Dunn to Black Sabbath”, as he puts it.

How many in the church knew that he accompanied David Bowie during his Life On Mars period, or that he provided the piano on Morning Has Broken?

There was a glorious explanation of how he extended what was to be Cat Stevens’ number one single by adding twiddly bits at the start and end and in the middle, before going on to perform the instrumental version.

And there were pieces from the various stageposts in his career – Glimpses of Heaven from a fondly-remembered time with The Strawbs (on the same night that the Acoustic Strawbs were playing in Rotherham), Catherine Howard from the Henry VIII album and You And I and Wondrous Stories from his Yes days.

Audience participation equated to a request for simulated birdsong on The Birdman of Alcatraz, after an account of how Bill Oddie flew to his then home in Switzerland to contribute vocals and then the idea of the twittering local wildlife.

There was a also call for a show of hands on how many times people have been married. Wakeman is about to embark on his fourth. “I like cake,” he says.

Yes, it was one of those evenings.

His classical training meant he could effortlessly play nursery rhymes in the style of Mozart, Ravel, Rachmaninov – and Les Dawson – and the evening ended with Eleanor Rigby as played by Prokofiev.

These days Rick Wakeman is probably renowned for his appearances on TV programmes such as Grumpy Old Men and Countdown and as a Planet Rock DJ. He was recently on Radio 4’s Just A Minute, which is further testament to his way with words as well as music,

It all comes together in thoroughly entertaining fashion in a show that shone brightly its ecclesiastical environment. Nothing risqué on this occasion from the man who is himself a Christian.

And it’s good to see the Cathedral exploring new territory. After staging a couple of folk concerts, Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham maintain the momentum tomorrow night (Friday).