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Rick Wakeman on keys — for Yes success

Rick Wakeman on keys — for Yes success

Keyboard player talks about music tech, a lesson learned and Keith Emerson
Rick Wakeman on keys — for Yes success
Yes men who will play the Palace are (from left) Louis Molino III, Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Lee Pomeroy.
Photographer: Provided

People can't miss Rick Wakeman on stage — he's the big guy in the cape.

The accessory has been part of Wakeman's look since the earliest days of Yes, the progressive rock band that was one of the monster acts of the 1970s.

Keyboardist Wakeman will likely dress for success Thursday night, when "Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman" plays the Palace Theatre in Albany. The show begins at 8 p.m.

Vocalist Anderson and Wakeman are linked to the band's glory days of the '70s. Guitarist Rabin joined during the 1980s, when Yes played more pop-oriented pieces. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past April.

There are two groups of Yes men on the road these days. Guitarist Steve Howe leads a troupe that includes drummer Alan White and keyboardist Geoff Downes.

The "ARW" team also includes Lee Pomeroy on bass and Louis Molino III on drums.

The tall, golden-tressed Wakeman, now 68, talked about his work and his band during a Wednesday morning interview, as the guys prepared for a show in Boston.

Question: How has the Yes sound changed over the years?

Answer: "I think the sound has changed. Some people might say it's matured, other people might say it's just changed a lot. A lot of that is down to technology. When we were first out in the early '70s — '70, '71, '72 — the music was way ahead of technology. We wanted to create sounds that just didn't exist, so you had to find ways of doing what you wanted to do using what was available.

"Speaking for myself, and certainly for the other guys in the band at the time, the secret really is is to make sure you use the technology, the technology doesn't use you."

Q: Many Yes pieces don't seem all that dated. How do you keep this music fresh?

A: "I've never been very keen on sticking dates on albums or pieces of music because there are new generations of people coming along. I tell this story sometimes — I was in Buenos Aires some years ago and I came out of a hotel and there's this young lad there, he had a copy of my 'Six Wives' (the 1973 "Six Wives of Henry VIII" instrumental project) album on vinyl and I said, 'How old are you?' And he said — he spoke good English — 'Sixteen.'

"I asked, 'What do you like about this old music?' and he got really annoyed. He said, 'It might be old to you but it's not old to me. I only heard it for the first time two weeks ago. For me, it's new.'

"I signed it and he said, 'Please remember when you're playing a concert that for some of the people in the audience they're hearing it for the first time and that means it's new.'

"I went back into the hotel and my drummer was sitting at the bar and he said, 'You look shell-shocked.' And I said, 'I've just been taught a massive lesson by a 16-year-old Argentinian boy.' Ever since then, I've thought about that before I've gone on stage every show.'"

Q: What's your take on the current state of progressive rock?

A: "It's diverse, which is great. I always say all progressive rock is not abiding by the rules — do what's in your head and heart. When I was doing sessions in the '60s, virtually every pop record I played on had a format — intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus, a little bit of a solo and out. Everything was so formatted.

"Basically, what progressive rock did was, 'No, we're not formatting, we're writing music that's in our heads and hearts and take it from there.' That was obviously more suited to LPs and the record companies only started to take notice in the '70s when LPs overtook the sales of singles.

"I think the great thing now, the thing that gives me great pleasure, is you listen to a radio almost anywhere in the world now — whereas before in the '60s when you listened to radio stations it was pop record after pop record, which is that 3 1/2-minute format or whatever it was. Now you can put on the radio and hear anything."

Q: Along with Yes, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were bands with big keyboard bands. Was there ever a competition between you and the late Keith Emerson?

A: "Keith and I were great friends. I played at his memorial service early this year. I did a tribute to him on the piano.

"We used to laugh. Keith was very much a jazzer, he loved his jazz, played his jazz. I'm not. Our styles were completely different. I like to say it's a bit like comparing a baseball pitcher to a quarterback. No, there was never a rivalry or who's better, who does this, who does what, it was never that at all. Keith was very individual in how he played, how he performed, the same with Jon (the late Jon Lord of Deep Purple).

"Keith lived most of the time in California, but when he came back to England he had a house in the south of England and we used to meet in London, have lunches and laugh. We tried to plan a few things to play together, some concerts, but unfortunately the illness he had with his hands struck that."

Q: Any news on the new Yes album?

A: "We're looking at new music, but we're very well aware for the last heaven knows how many years, there have been various Yes albums out since '90125' that have just been, for want of a better word, there has been some good stuff on some of them and not so good on some of the others and the albums have just disappeared.

"We've been talking about Yes going to do new music, but it's got to be special and part of a project Yes fans can relate to, not just, 'Here's another album.'"

Q: How did the band come up with the set list?

A: "We decided right from the outset, obviously, Jon sang on all the originals, but either Trevor or I had to play on the tracks. Trevor and I came up with this simple idea, we didn't know it would work or not but it has worked tremendously, is obviously on pieces I didn't play on like 'Rhythm of Love' and 'Hold On' and things like that, I'd say, 'OK, there are some important parts to play on keyboard, but if I had been in the band at the time, what would I have played. I throw all that in, and Trevor does the same. He'll play all the important parts on 'You and I' and 'Heart of the Sunrise' and what it has done is not changed the pieces but given them a whole new lease on life because some of the things Trev does makes me play differently and vice versa."

Q: How were songs chosen?

A: "When we were looking what we were going to do, we made a huge long list of pieces which included 'Starship Trooper.' We rehearsed 'Starship Trooper,' we played it and after we finished it — we all played it well, adding different little bits in — and we all looked at each other and said, 'No.' It is what it is, 'Starship Trooper' is a great piece, but it needed a rest."

Q: How about "Roundabout?" Still fun to play?

A: "It is a fun piece to play. It's what I call a smiley piece. you play it with a smile on your face."

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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