Prog visionary Rick Wakeman will bring Final Solo Tour to three NJ venues

rick wakeman interview

Rick Wakeman has shows coming up in Montclair, Red Bank and Collingswood.

When Rick Wakeman began touring with Yes in the early 1970s, synth players were a rare sight onstage. This led to certain logistical difficulties.

“There was no place to put the instrument,” says Wakeman, 74. “At that time, no manufacturers made synthesizer stands. I had to go to furniture shops. We’d get a chest of drawers, and that’s where we’d put the synthesizers.”

In 2024, there is no shortage of stands. But alas, we’re about to have a shortage of Rick Wakeman. After more than a half century in the spotlight — years when Wakeman demonstrated that a synthesizer player could be just as flamboyant, and just as badass, as a lead guitarist — he is on what he is calling his “Final Solo Tour,” with the subtitle, “An Evening of Yes Music and Other Favorites.” His shows at The Wellmont Theater in Montclair on March 20, The Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood on March 23, and The Vogel at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on March 26 represent the last chances to see a solo New Jersey show by this pioneer of electronic performance, famous raconteur and showman, and virtuoso musician.

“I’ve been doing solo shows and solo tours off and on for the last 40 years,” says Wakeman. “And it’s wonderful. But there are so many other things I want to do. I realized that unless I clear the decks, I’m never going to get some of those other things done.”

Rick Wakeman in a vintage publicity photo.

Staying busy has never been a problem for Wakeman. His deep discography includes film scores and video game soundtracks, collaborations with David Bowie, Lou Reed, Ozzy Osbourne, Etta James and others, and a long run of concept albums that includes 1975’s Jules Verne-inspired Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which went to No. 1 in the United Kingdom and No. 3 in The United States. His range is unquestioned: he is responsible for both the heavenly piano on Cat Stevens’s hit version of “Morning Has Broken” and the diabolical analog synthesizer lead on Black Sabbath’s “Sabbra Cadabra.”

But he will always be best remembered for his work with Yes, the British progressive rock band with astral ambitions and a knack for memorable melody. Yes is, famously, a restless outfit with an ever-shifting lineup of broad-minded musicians, and Wakeman joined, left and re-joined the group many times during its multi-decade run.

While he was in the band, he contributed mightily to its sound and image. That is his scalding Hammond organ on FM radio staple “Roundabout,” his searching piano on the meditative “South Side of the Sky,” his pew-shaking pipe organ on the 16-minute epic “Awaken,” his baroque harpsichord on the delicate “Madrigal,” and his battery of then-cutting-edge instruments on “Close to the Edge,” the centerpiece and title track of one of the most musically accomplished albums in rock history.

“They were way ahead of their time,” Wakeman says of his first encounter with Yes in the early ’70s. “The music they were making was so wonderfully different — unlike any other band. You could tell immediately they were taking great care with their sound and their songs. They were the first band to mic up the drums. (Bassist) Chris Squire played a Rickenbacker, which was then very unusual. Instead of the heavy wattage, (guitarist) Steve Howe had two small Fender Twin amps that he’d miked up. The only guy who looked like he was in a rock band was (organist) Tony Kaye.

“In most bands at that time, the singer was 6′ 2″ and muscly with long black hair. That’s what I was expecting to see. Instead, out came this little gnome.”

Yes members in a ’70s publicity photo (clockwise from top left, Chris Squire, Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe and Alan White).

The gnome was Jon Anderson, a heady frontman with literary influences, ecological concerns and broad tastes that included everything from Stravinsky to Bob Marley and The Association. Wakeman’s musical partnership with Anderson would be a long and fruitful one, with the synth player coloring and enhancing the singer’s wondrous stories, and the singer penning words inspired by the synthesist’s daring soundscapes.

“I think of him as a wordsmith with a unique way of writing, and a knack for putting words together that fit, even if they sound odd at first,” says Wakeman. “There’s never been anybody like him.”

It was that sort of unconventionality that drew Wakeman to join Yes in the first place. In the late ’60s, he had already established himself as an in-demand session musician and was part of another musically eclectic group: The Strawbs, a London group that played a fusion of British folk, country and mildly psychedelic and experimental rock. But Yes gave him an opportunity to do something he had never done, and something he found irresistible — the chance to imagine his instruments, many of them new and untested in a rock context, as the orchestral component of a working band.

“For The Strawbs, the ambition became to go on ‘Top of the Pops,’ ” says Wakeman, “and my ambition was not to go on ‘Top of the Pops.’ ”

In Yes, the aesthetic was maximalist, experimental and expansive. The band dispensed with conventional song structures and regularly pushed past the three-minute mark favored by radio programmers. Side one of Close to the Edge consisted of a single song broken down into movements. Ideas introduced in the early sections were developed, inverted, stretched and compacted, and brought to a satisfying conclusion by the end of the piece.

Rick Wakeman interview

Lee Wilkinson


Yet a group where every member was brimming with ideas was, by nature, a fragile union. Wakeman made no secret about his dissatisfaction with some of the directions taken on the 1973 double album Tales From Topographic Oceans, a project that pushed the Yes approach to its limits. Notices were mixed, some fans felt their patience tested, and Wakeman left the group.

The irony was that Wakeman’s analog synthesizer playing on Tales From Topographic Oceans — and in particular on the side-long track “The Revealing Science of God” — was some of the most audacious that had ever been put to wax. Fifty years later, his playing on that album continues to be an inspiration for those attempting to integrate synthesizers into the context of a rock band.

After leaving Yes for the first time, Wakeman hardly restrained his vision. Instead, he turned to the making of elaborate, thematically driven sets inspired by mythology, futurism and science, first on his own, and then with his English Rock Ensemble.

“When I listen back,” says Wakeman, “I often wonder how the hell we did some of that. Remember that we only had 16 tracks to work with, and there was no automation. Every little centimeter of space on the tape was used up.

A vintage photo of Rick Wakeman.

“Whenever I recorded any of the concept albums, I always lived, ate and breathed the concept. I immersed myself in it and read everything I could on the subject.”

Wakeman rejoined Yes for the 1977 album Going for the One and stuck around for the underrated Tormato, an attempt to streamline and update the band’s sound. But critical and commercial winds were shifting. In the 1980s and 1990s, progressive rock and concept albums would fall into disfavor, and musicians associated with the movement would find their profiles and prospects diminished.

Few artists are as closely associated with prog as Wakeman is. Nevertheless, he went right on composing and experimenting, rejoining Yes for world tours, continuing his soundtrack work, and making a glorious racket with vintage synthesizers — as he did on The Red Planet, a 2020 concept album inspired by the mountains of Mars that demonstrated that he hadn’t changed a bit. And in the 21st century, the world has finally caught up with him: His is acknowledged as a pioneer, and Yes’ albums, which have never truly fallen out of circulation, are regularly cited as influences by a new generation of progressive musicians.

“Because we all got it,” Wakeman says of Yes, “we never understood why everybody else didn’t always get it. That said, if we all liked the same music, how horrendous would that be?

“And over the last decade, there have been a lot of younger people who’ve discovered the music in their grandparents’ record collection. I was in Buenos Aires, and I met a 16-year-old kid who had a copy of (the 1972 concept set) The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I asked him what he liked about this old music, and he was incredulous. ‘What do you mean, old music?’ he said. ‘It’s new to me! When somebody hears music for the first time, that’s new music!’

“I got back in the car and the driver told me that I looked shellshocked. I told him I’d just been taught a huge lesson by a 16-year-old Argentinian. I’ve never forgotten that. I think about it whenever I go onstage.”

For more on Wakeman, visit


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