World renowned keyboard player Rick Wakeman is wishing audiences a (not so) grumpy Christmas in a tour of music and hilarious anecdotes heading to Dorset. He tells Martin Hutchinson more.

DESCRIBED as ‘an intimate evening of music and laughter’, Rick Wakeman is heading out around the country in The Grumpy Old Christmas Show.

Armed with his trusty keyboards, Rick will be regaling audiences with spellbinding piano music and hilarious stories and revealing insights into his long and varied career.

From his days as a session musician (and working with David Bowie early in his career), through folk-rock band The Strawbs to world-wide acclaim as a member of prog pioneers Yes and his immensely successful solo career; natural raconteur Rick has a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of stories and anecdotes that will keep audiences entertained for hours.

Speaking just before setting off for a six-hour drive to perform one of his Piano Odyssey shows, Rick tells me about his recent Grumpy tour of North America.

“The North American tour was about 100 times better than I thought it could be,” he says smiling.

“In fact it’s been so successful that we’re booking in another 30 dates for next year, and considering that no-one over there knew how the one-man shows worked, it was amazing.”

He ‘tailored’ the shows to suit his audiences.

“Yes, I had to resurrect a few more ‘American’ stories. It was great fun.”

However, before he gets to the Christmas tour, there is the little matter of a new album being released.

Rick made British chart history in 2017 when his Piano Portraits album became the first solo piano instrumental album to enter the UK Top 10 immediately upon release – a feat he repeated in 2018 with Piano Odyssey. The new album Christmas Portraits could well make it as hat-trick.

The new album features familiar festive music, all personally chosen and arranged by Rick; including The First Noel, A Winter’s Tale, In The Bleak Midwinter and Silent Night.

“Christmas is my absolute favourite time of year,” Rick tells me. “I love every aspect of it, especially traditional music and songs which have wonderful simplistic melodies that are perfect for adaptation to produce variations on the album. That is something I love to do and that is exactly what this album is.”

But how did it come about?

Rick takes up the story.

“After Piano Portraits, Sony asked me for a meeting and they said ‘we like the way you do variations on tunes people know and we thought it would be good if you did the same for Christmas songs.’. Well, I thought it could work, but I had to give it the same thought as I did with Portraits.”

“I returned to Sony and said that I would do it, but it needed a gap after Piano Portraits, and the pieces needed some strings – and I did Piano Odyssey in the interim.

“Earlier this year I made a note of 42 Christmas pieces of music then played around with them at the piano for a couple of weeks. I realised that some didn’t work and I whittled the list down to 23 and then I started work at The Granary in Norfolk with my engineer Erik Jordan.”

But Rick found that some of the songs were a little short.

“Yes, that’s right. Some were finished at about one minute thirty seconds and I thought that it was another Morning Has Broken scenario.”

Rick’s fans will know that when he recorded the single Morning Has Broken with Cat Stevens, the song was under a minute long and they asked Rick to come up with some ideas, so he added an intro, middle-eight and outro to stretch the song out.

“What we did was combine two and sometimes three songs into one so The Holly and the Ivy is combined with Mary’s Boy Child and I Saw Three Ships is combined with When a Child is Born.”

Rick then couldn’t decide on a running order.

“No, the songs worked no matter which order you played them so I sent the tapes to Sony and asked them to set the order.”

And he is pleased with the outcome.

“At the end of the day I was really pleased. It’s an album that’s different from other Christmas albums, you can play it anywhere. I’m really thrilled about it.”

Rick found the recording of the album enjoyable as he finds The Granary a great place to record.

“It always is, and they have the Steinway Model D Grand Piano which is my favourite piano of all time.”

“As such, the sessions were never tiring, we generally worked from ten till five, although Erik would stay to listen to what we had done, and the next day might have some suggestions. It’s a great way of working.”

And as for the tour, Rick is promising us lots of music and stories.

“There will probably be more music than chat this time around and maybe 50% of the music will be Christmas stuff.”

“As usual there’ll be certain pieces you feel you have to do such as Life On Mars, and there’ll be a few Christmas-y stories included stories from when I did pantomime.”

Does Rick find it difficult coming up with new stories?

“Not really, more often than not, people remind me of things that happened at such and such a place, then I always make a little note.”

And some more of these stories will be in Rick’s third book of Stories of a Grumpy Old Rock Star that he is working on.

“Yeah, the book is coming on great, it should see the light of day before the end of 2021.”

And is Rick looking forward to the tour?

“It’s a simple choice,” he says laughing, “Christmas concerts or traipsing around the shops – no contest, really! Seriously, it’s just so lovely to do some Christmas shows – it’s such a great time of year.”

*Rick Wakeman will be bringing The Grumpy Old Christmas Show to The Lighthouse, Poole on Sunday, December 15 at 7pm. Tickets are available from the box office.

Martin Hutchinson