The Six Wives Of Henry VIII: Live At Hampton Court Palace

Rick Wakeman

Eagle Rock, 2009

http://www.rwcc.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/18/2009

Fifteen million albums – that was the number that stuck most in my head as I read over Eagle Rock’s one-sheet for the latest release from keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman. 

Which is not to say Yes keyboard man / television host / raconteur / phenomenally prolific solo artist Wakeman has actually issued fifteen million separate albums all by himself; it only seems that way sometimes.  (By 1990, he had issued 20 albums; since then he’s averaged about five a year – not counting compilations.)

No, the 15 million figure refers to sales of Wakeman’s very first solo album in 1973, arguably the most successful keyboard-based rock album of all time, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII.  Astonishingly, according to the promotional materials for this disc, Wakeman had never performed the entire album live before being invited to do so in conjunction with celebrations earlier this year of the 500th anniversary of Henry’s 1509 accession to the throne.  The fact that the concerts were to be held at Hampton Court Palace, the primary home of Henry and his various wives from 1528 through his death in 1547, no doubt spurred the event organizers on to include not just a six-piece core band, but a large choir, larger orchestra, costumed actors and a narrator.

Taking full advantage of the moment he’s been offered, Wakeman bolsters the original album’s six tracks with three additional cuts, new opening and closing numbers as well as an apocryphal number called “Defender Of The Faith” that was recorded for but left off of the original album.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The opening and closing numbers “Tudorture” and “Tudorock” provide the album’s most rousing moments, with Wakeman and his core rock ensemble driving the orchestra to one stirring crescendo after another.  The latter in particular delivers a sense of scale and grandeur that surely suits the moment.

In between, Six Wives is performed with great enthusiasm and skill, the jaunty, Hammond-and-synth-centric “Katherine Parr” and punchy, rather manic-depressive “Kathryn Howard” contrasting nicely with the severe church-organ-dominated “Jane Seymour.”  “Catherine Of Aragon” remains a standout thanks to its pure energy and layers of sound washing over and around a great flowing basic piano line.  Some of these tunes might feel a bit bloated, but not “Aragon”; six minutes go by in a blink.

Halfway through, “Defender Of The Faith” is a nice surprise, a heavier piece overall that nonetheless deploys just about all of Wakeman’s tricks in a single ten-minute piece, from proggy jams to sizzling synth soloing to rich choral accents.  In the late going, “Anne Boleyn” delivers – as it should -- the dynamic emotional center of the proceedings, flowing through gorgeous piano work into a billowing, dramatic choral/orchestral section, into a giddy prog jam, into a celebratory fanfare, dropping back to a spare piano-and-choral section that turns the story from triumphant to elegaic in the space of a few masterful piano runs.

One bit that completely threw me – a childhood aficionado of British history – was that for this live performance, Wakeman’s run order almost completely scrambles the historical order of Henry’s wives (only Catherine Of Aragon and Jane Seymour show up in the right spots).  Which caused me to double-check the original album, only to discover that it presented these tracks in a different non-chronological order.  Alrighty then – I guess it really is all about the music…

In the end, the historic nature of these shows and their staging might be a touch more compelling than the music itself, which, while unique, influential, superbly arranged and beautifully played, inevitably comes off as a bit self-indulgent.  Full-blooded proggers might argue, but personally, for all the excitement generated by this release, it verges on too much of a good thing. 

Rating: B+

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