in Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe | Rick Wakeman
Session player Julian Colbeck tells the tale of how he got the gig as support keyboard player for Rick Wakeman on the recent Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe world tour, and runs through the instrumentation he and Rick used on stage.
Early in 1989, someone asked me when I'd last played any live gigs, "Good question," I thought. "Yikes, it must be all of three years ago," I replied, "with John Miles, on a brief zoom around Germany supporting REO Speedwagon." The question didn't send me back on some nostalgia trip (neither REO Speedwagon nor Germany rank that high on my list of favourites, I'm afraid) so much as set me wondering - nay, panicking more like - when or if I'd ever play any live gigs in the future.
Or was that it? 'Julian Colbeck played in more bands than he cares to remember 1964-1986. Thereafter he became a...'
Didn't like the sound of it at all. Sessions (such as I - and many others, come to think of it, now that even keyboardists are being replaced by canny, tech-ed up producers with Cubase/Notator in tow - do) are no substitute for hitting the boards, the smell of the crowd, real playing and all that stuff.
And then there I was, on a rare excursion to one of those London nightspots - Tramp, or was it Pal Joey's? - for a birthday party cum album launch for Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford, thanks to having undertaken certain bits and bobs of recording and instrument advisory work for their management company over the past year or so.
In fact, the only 'Yes' person I met at the party was Matt Clifford, the whizz-kid keyboardist/programmer who had done so much of the groundwork for the debut ABWH album. As it turned out, that was the night Matt revealed that work offers from The Rolling Stones may prevent him from being able to undertake the forthcoming ABWH tour. Forthcoming in the 'rehearsals starting in a month' sense, that is.
"If you need a replacement, you know where to find me," I breezed, not for a minute suspecting they would - or, if they did, would need recourse to the Oxford branch MU directory for keyboardists. But as so often happens, the most direct solution is the one opted for, and when Matt finally declined all forms of bribery to remain in the ABWH camp, it was me who got the panic-stricken 'Are you free? Are you sure you can do it? Well, can you go and have a meeting with Jon this afternoon' phone call.
The next couple of months felt like I was preparing an assault on Everest, with fell walking as my only previous experience! If I were to try hard, I guess I could remember precisely how I felt coming home at nights, my head awhirl with chords, sounds, arrangements, vocal parts, equipment setups... but I'd really rather not, thanks all the same. At times I was inches from the funny farm.
Rick, of course, was no help whatsoever. "It's desperate," he'd say. "I know I've played these songs before, but I can't remember anything else about them!"
Musically, my attack was two-pronged: new album, oldies. Both had their simple/impossible points. Much of the ABWH album had been recorded using C-Lab's Notator sequencer so, in the absence of any directive to the contrary, Matt Clifford (part of his deal to remain the proud possessor of kneecaps was easing me in, I think!) and I spent hours going through the sequences, sorting out which parts could or should be played live, which sequenced; what sounds had been used; sampling some of the unreproducible ones, like didgeridoo; transferring Notator sequences across to a Roland MC500II, since I refused to even entertain the thought of using an Atari ST on the road. And so forth...
By day one of rehearsals at the Nomis complex in London, I'd got to a pretty reasonable stage with the new songs. Plumb Bill Bruford into a click, I figured; throw Rick Wakeman a printout of his solos; presume Steve Howe, Tony Levin, and Milton Macdonald can remember what they played on the album; press 'Go' and... hey, this isn't so bad after all.
Enter Jon Anderson. "Oh no, no, no," he says in his endearing Accringtonian drawl. "We don't want to use sequencers!"
"Whaaat?" gasp I, mentally reaching for a sharp knife to slit at least one of our throats. "No, no," Jon reiterates. "No sequencers, just play it all live and see how we get on."
"Much of the ABWH album had been recorded using C-Lab's Notator sequencer..."
Jon's grasp of technology being on the slim side, shall we say, pointing out things like having to redesign and reprogramme an entire keyboard system cut no ice with Jon whatsoever. "Well, I'll go and have a cup of coffee then. How long do you want?"
As anyone who has worked with Mr Anderson will testify, the most infuriating thing about him is that he'll ask for the impossible, get it, and be right to have done so.
Working without sequencers proved to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of this reunion, both for the band and the audiences. Not that we often flew off on tangents or threw in extended solos, but the old-fashioned concept of a bunch of musicians playing instruments on stage without clicks, drum machines, and sequencers in tow, gave the new ABWH material an elasticity and depth that many a critic had deemed missing from the record itself.
In the Seventies, Yes wrote the book on elasticity and depth, of course. It would have been sacrilegious to have sequenced the older material. Futile, and probably impossible, too.
Although becoming a sequencer-free band had a considerable effect on my brain and system in general, and Roland A50 mother keyboard in particular (50 percent of the songs would now have to be reprogrammed - and for some songs we're talking a dozen patch changes, with most patches many zones deep), the MIDI gear the A50 would trigger remained relatively unscathed'.
Putting together an equipment rack for the tour was great fun; it was also pretty straightforward. My function as support player, if you like, to Rick Wakeman decreed that I provide a range of services - washes, textures, basic parts, additional 'touches', sound effects, triggering sampled backing vocals - which meant that I had to have a full range of facilities and sound types on tap.
Choice of sampler seemed as good a place as any to start. On the ABWH album, all the sampled work that wasn't a Fairlight was a Casio FZ10M. I'd been a big fan of some of the regular Casio sound disk library samples (there's a stunning solo sax, some gritty strings, and an excellent 'Sound Of Japan' series of traditional Japanese instruments), so the thought of having to use an FZ10M wasn't exactly a drag.
But with 2Mbytes internal memory and a long load time, I knew I couldn't get away with just the Casio, or even a pair of them. A fully loaded Akai S1000 sampler was really the only choice. At that time (Spring 1989), most people I'd talked to were still experiencing problems with removable hard disk systems. I couldn't take the risk and so plumped for Akai's own 40Mbyte hard disk machine (S1000HD) - an expensive move, maybe, but one that I never regretted.
Memory requirements aside, I think it's a good move to have more than one sampler to hand. No matter how uncoloured you may think any sampler to be, there's always a degree of sameness. Personally, I find the certain rawness and grittiness of the FZ10M most appealing. The Akai is a far smoother operator, but it has one glaring fault which I discovered minutes after having whipped it out of its box. Project Music, from whom it had been purchased, had kindly spent hours stuffing the hard disk full of goodies. So what do I do? In my enthusiastically over-zealous button prodding, I accidentally format the bloody thing. Within a nanosecond I realised what I'd done, but of course it was too late. Akai really should make such an operation impossible without several warnings and 'Are You Sure?' messages. Boy did I feel sheepish.
As for the remainder of the rack, my selection was governed by a number of factors: gear I owned already, distinctive sounds/instruments that had been used on the ABWH album, and a need to find instruments that could create an atmosphere associated with classic Yes material, without having to be at the mercy of early keyboard technology. In other words, I wanted to have Moog, Mellotron, and Hammond sounds available, but no way was I going to cart round wagons full of prehistoric gadgetry.
"Working without sequencers proved to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of this reunion, both for the band and the audiences."
On the modern side of things some of the choices basically made themselves: my trusty D50, Korg M1R, Yamaha DX and TX. Less obviously, I've got great mileage out of a Roland U110 which, though infuriatingly fiddly to operate, always seems to come up with the perfect sound when I need, for example, an extra texture to a voice patch, a great little trumpet, or the body of an acoustic guitar.
Although piano parts were inevitably more Rick's department, there were times when I too needed some steam joanna. Roland's P330 came along just in time, offering a perfectly wide enough range of straight ahead piano sounds, along with some fine electric pianos and harpsichords etc, though I tend to add a touch of DX wire-strung piano to my acoustic piano patches, just to give them extra lift and edge.
Much of the early Yes material in the ABWH set - classic rock, as the Americans call it - was recorded before the taming of synthesizers; when setups comprised heaving, telephone exchange-like modular beasts from Moog and ARP, and the unpredictable tape-based Mellotron. The most noticeable pieces of keyboard work from this period were solos - fairly obviously the responsibility of the Wakeman department. But overdubs there were: mainly swirly, stringy, synth washes. I'd never consider touring without my long-serving Juno 60, which although not used a great deal, did provide some neat filter opening and closing growls and whirls during the 'moody' middle section of Close To The Edge.
Partly to use on such material and partly because programmer Matt Clifford had used it to great effect when constructing guitar solo sounds on the album, I got hold of an instrument I'd previously been quite scathing about in the music press, namely an Oberheim Matrix 1000. I still think - at its original price at any rate - that you don't get much in the way of facilities with the Matrix 1000: no multitimbralism, no onboard programmability. But it's horses for courses.
Grudgingly, I had to admit that the Oberheim gave me access to sounds and moods unavailable elsewhere. Except, perhaps, on the Cheetah MS6. The Cheetah analogue module offers both the above-mentioned features, and is certainly cheaper. At my instigation, both Rick Wakeman and Tony Levin used Cheetah MS6s. In fact, due to the nature of their duties (monophonic lead or bass lines, at which the Cheetah excels) I think they ended up using the MS6 more than I did!
My whole system was glued together by a single Roland A50 mother keyboard. No Sycologic, no MX8, no sequencer. None were necessary. Each instrument was, of course, set to a permanent and dedicated MIDI channel (U110 simply set to receive on channel 16, even though a multi-channeled sound might lie at the end of it). Patches were simply built up instrument by instrument, sound by sound, and finally chained together in set order.
Such is the nature of ABWH's music, and certainly the expansive inclination of Jon Anderson, that I don't think a single 'sound' was produced by one instrument alone. Choir sounds would generally comprise a mix of smooth wash vocal sounds, some characteristically timbral voices from the Casio sampler, some high, almost string-like sounds from the Roland D50, and maybe some heavy breathing from the Korg M1R. All four layers (the maximum on the A50, and a limit I was only occasionally hampered by) would be under control of their own MIDI volume pedal, so that I could mix and let the sound evolve as I was playing.
Although the A50 masterminded the system, it was not the sole controller. There were times when either a patch change couldn't be implemented in time, or I'd run out of zones, when I needed to have some control over the rack from another keyboard. My genius keyboard tech Chris Macleod, who not only designed my system but physically built it as well, came up with the simple answer of using Anatek Pocket Merge boxes. These allowed me, on occasion, to trigger the rack from not only my D50 but also my ancient Juno 60! In almost a year's work, spanning three continents and about 100 shows, we suffered no problems in this department. Not a bad advert, really.
Meanwhile, way over on the other side of the stage was Fort Wakeman (so named because of the Roger Dean designed Plexiglass panels that encased Rick's multi-keyboard setup.) Rick Wakeman's keyboard requirements are totally different to mine, and his setup, though comprising many of the same instruments, was put together in a completely different way.
"At my instigation, both Rick Wakeman and Tony Levin used Cheetah MS6s."
For a start, Rick likes the look and feel of a physically large rig. Due to the technical demands of the parts he plays (I've not heard anyone, and that includes your Chick Coreas and Joe Zawinuls, play as fast, as accurately) he just doesn't have time to fiddle about with too much patch changing. He's just got to lunge at a keyboard and know that it's going to trigger a certain set of sounds.
So that's what he did. The Roland A80 mother keyboard was configured to trigger a Roland U110, P330, and Akai S1000 on most of the piano-based sounds, and the A50 set up to control a Roland D550, Yamaha TX802, and Kawai K1r for general purpose synth sounds. Nestling on top of a customised Hammond C3 organ (which only lasted half the tour, sadly) sat a Yamaha V50, which controlled the Cheetah MS6 module, and a MIDI retrofitted MiniMoog. Beside that was a Korg M1, triggering an Oberheim Matrix 1000. Some instruments were used almost in isolation: an Ensoniq VFX, and a D50, although the latter was MIDI'd to a tiny Yamaha EMT10 module that I know Rick swears by, not only for adding extra attack to sounds but also for occasional orchestral parts like trumpet.
Ultimately, the rig was under the guidance of a Sycologic M16 MIDI routing matrix, stepped through manually by Rick's excellent guitar-playing keyboard man, Stuart Sawney.
Whereas I had contented myself with a mere eight footpedals - four MIDI/zone volume, patch up/down, overall volumes - at Rick's feet lay what became known as 'Marconi's living room': a real bumper crop of MIDI and analogue volume, sustain, patch, you-name-it pedals; about 30 all told. If you see Rick appear to dance from time to time, he's actually thundering about on his pedals. Great stuff.
The classic Wakeman 'look' is, of course, arms spread out, playing two keyboards. Whereas many of today's keyboardists find it difficult enough to play in real time using one hand, classically trained Rick finds it hard not to play with both hands - often with frighteningly independent parts. "I find it difficult to play a right hand part without the left," he says. "Sometimes, if that's what's needed. I'll turn the volume off on another keyboard and keep on playing. I've never been madly keen on splitting sounds across a single keyboard either. Frankly, I prefer to play on another keyboard."
Rick used the ABWH tour to completely revamp and reappraise his keyboard system. Although his much-loved Hammond C3 made the first leg of the tour, it kind of bit the dust by the time we hit Europe. From then on, the only old timer in Rick's rig was the MiniMoog he'd owned in the Seventies! And while we're on the subject, thanks to one Pete Forest for agreeing to sell said MiniMoog when he'd only bought it from my good friend and keyboard ace Don Snow the week before.
After the MiniMoog era, Rick did become associated with - some would say helped considerably to get on the map - a modern, Japanese synthesizer company: Korg. During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Rick was seen almost exclusively with Korg equipment. Though the days of such single-mindedness are over, Korg president and founder Mr Kato greeted Rick like a long lost brother when we were invited over to the company HQ in downtown Tokyo during the recent Japanese tour. It was interesting, too, to see the assembled bevvy of engineers and marketing bods hang on Rick's every word when we were given a sneak preview of the (thoroughly excellent) Korg Wavestation. Rick's status in Japan seems undiminished fron the heady Yes days of the Seventies. There again the Japanese, unlike the rest of the world, continue to set great store by technical expertise and dexterity - a curious irony from the land that has either invented or popularised so much 'non real-time' equipment.
Speaking of which, the Wakeman line on sequencers is this: "I use sequencers in the studio, because they really allow me to go for a performance. In the old days you'd be playing a solo and it would be going well, and then you'd get to within 15 bars of the end and feel you'd have to play safe to preserve the take. Now I can play with total confidence that anything I don't like can be edited afterwards. Sequencers enable me to play without fear in the studio, and that's great.
"But too many bands rely on them entirely. Not only do they use them as safety nets, but now they've got the tightrope only inches from the ground!
"Sequencers have enabled technicians and producers to play and produce music. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but it has tended to prevent regular musicians from getting near the studio. Sequencers may have helped the elder statesman but I worry that they may have hurt the younger player."
"Whereas I had contented myself with a mere eight footpedals, at Rick's feet lay what became known as 'Marconi's living room': a real bumper crop of pedals; about 30 all told."
In case you are wondering, Rick is a Steinberg Cubase user in the studio.
The two remaining equipment areas are signal processing and amplification. On the first, the Wakeman/Colbeck approach was pretty different; on the second, it was identical.
Rick is never happier than when he's swirling around in majestic, full-blown, reverb and echo colourated sounds. He uses it to great effect - it's another of his trademarks. I believe he only used an Alesis Quadraverb. No, tell a lie, there was a Yamaha SPX1000 in the rack as well.
Me, I figured that in order to avoid blending in with the splendidly betailed figure in the blue corner, I'd better deliver relatively dry, untreated sounds to the front of house mixing desk. I did employ a Roland DEP5 though, MIDI'd into the system for specific effects per patch. But this was pretty sparingly used.
As for amplification, originally I'd intended just taking a feed from the monitor desk and using a couple of wedges. Somehow Rick managed to persuade me that this would be suicide, and that we'd better get a powerful, dedicated, self-sufficient system sorted out.
After scouring the scene for a while, Celestion was contacted. I'd reviewed their SR series a while back and had been greatly impressed by the combination of power, measures to ensure reliability, and sheer obvious roadworthiness of it all. It's one thing to review amplification gear in the safe confines of your living room or a studio, and quite another to be shackled to it as you galavant around the world.
Mercifully, my instincts were right and this 800 watt system, using Yamaha power amps, delivered crisp, powerful, full range sound to me every night. It also frequently took poor Steve Howe's head off, who had the misfortune to be stationed directly in my line of fire! Mind you, his battalion of Fender Twins parked beneath my riser meant it was never exactly folk night.
"What was it like playing with those guys?" was the inevitably asked first question at the 'meet-n-greets' after the shows. It's a difficult one to answer without either sounding like you're trying to be too cool by half or just plain idiotic.
Yet the bottom line is that any such gig as a sideman with a major league band is simply a job. One that you enjoy, hopefully, but a job nonetheless. Bill Bruford is, of course, a leading exponent of his instrument, and quite breathtaking in his injection of broad musicality to the frequently too specific business of drumming. But on stage the fact remains that he simply is the drummer, equally capable of pulling out some monstrous fill that sends shivers down your spine, or some off-the-wall fill that leaves you totally stranded without any hint of a beat. One responds accordingly. The perhaps sad fact is that when you play in a band, while you may appreciate what your fellow members are up to, you do have an overriding responsibility to play your part (sic) to the best of your ability. And that might well entail a level of concentration that precludes large amounts of misty-eyed lingering over your compadre's stick/finger/vocal technique. Yes, of course, so-and-so is bloody marvellous - now shut up, I'm listening for that cue!
"Rick is never happier than when he's swirling around in majestic, fullblown, reverb and echo colourated sounds."
To illustrate the point, take a song like Brother Of Mine. Sound like fun to play? Well, yes it is, but not perhaps in the way one would imagine.
Bill Bruford starts the number with a crescendo gong roll. At its peak I hit the top key of the A50, which triggers a Koto run on the Akai S1000 sampler. Full velocity and play to the end, so I don't need to worry about how hard I hit it or how long I keep the key pressed down. Which is just as well, seeing as I then have to watch Jon like a hawk for the first downbeat - a large-scale jangly string/electric piano/koto trem type patch employing two or three instruments.
The introduction over, there's a nasty sort of hang before beat one of a guitar solo, by which time I've eased off entirely on the koto trem volume pedal and eased back a tad on the electric piano.
After the first verse comes a chorus, in which the electric piano is increased slightly and a twice repeated backing vocal part is both sung and triggered from a top F key, a manoeuvre that involves cross-hand work. Another verse and chorus follows.
Then the mood changes to a more insistent beat and I patch change to a sturdy brassy sound. I have but a 'sniff', or upbeat, to change patches. As you may know, the Roland A50 mother keyboard will not change patches if a key remains pressed down, but it will change patch if you take your fingers off the keys during a long release sound - so I have to time my foot stabbing at the increment switch with absolute precision.
This section doesn't last long and ends with a slow, diminished (I think!) run, culminating in a diminished (I know) koto run which is triggered by the second-to-top key. For this, I will have changed back to the first patch used. Another guitar solo and bridge brass stab section follows on, this time ending with a return to the chorus - in a different key.
The intro theme then makes a reappearance, with an added counter melody I play on a muted, plucked sound. What's tricky here, aside from a blind (no count) entry, is that I'm now playing with my left hand what I played with my right hand during the intro. My right hand is now playing the counter melody. This section swells into a guitar solo, at which point I stamp on the koto trem pedal and leap up an octave. It goes on for a while and then deviates into a manic cross-time section, involving six members of the band playing 4/4 and Bill playing in 12s. Basically, during this section, one listened to Bill at one's peril. At this point I also switch to an acoustic piano patch.
The crazy-time instrumental section leads into an up-tempo chorus - still piano, plus lots of backing vocals; live ones only this time. After a second instrumental comes a second chorus, and then a half-time section on electric piano, followed immediately by a return to acoustic piano for a final instrumental in which Bill now joins us all in 4/4. Another half-time electric piano bit leads into the end section, which is a speed-freak run of ascending triads.
Brother Of Mine involves a dozen or more patch changes; probably 4Mbytes worth of triggered samples; a myriad key, tempo, and basic time changes; and lasts approximately 12 minutes. Fun, to be sure, but it ain't exactly get down and boogie stuff!
The summer is now 'off' for us hired hands. No ABWH touring until... well, I guess just until. I'm sure there will be more, though. Meanwhile, Rick is embarking on a European tour of gargantuan proportions, date-wise, with oodles of concerts in the UK [see last month's 'Edits' pages for a list of tour dates]. Any student of keyboard playing should go and check the man out. You may not play, or even like, the type of music Rick plays nowadays, but as an object lesson in dexterity and panache, there really is none to compare.
Mind you, after some 100 three-hour shows, played over 18 weeks through 15 countries and three continents, old JC's fingers aren't too shabby these days either. Offers anyone?
Feature by Julian Colbeck