Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s 1973 solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII was a critical and commercial success, and he had always dreamed of performing the work live at Hampton Court Palace, a favorite residence of Henry VIII. When the album was first released, Wakeman wrote a letter to the palace, requesting the opportunity to perform the work, and thirty-six years later, on the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne, his request was finally granted. Alongside of a full orchestra, backup singers, a large band, a bevy of synthesizers, and oversized actor Brian Blessed, Wakeman’s two night stand played to large crowds of rapt listeners. These May 2009 performances were captured on film and will now be released as The Six Wives Of Henry VIII – Live At Hampton Court Palace.
Wakeman’s skills on the keyboards are on full display in this performance. Although it may not have been his cleanest performance, he still manages to impress on wildly difficult and complex compositions. Each wife gets her own movement, and after being given a hearty and impassioned biography by the jovial Blessed, Wakeman’s work subtly evokes the more interesting aspects of his subject’s life. Loaded with arpeggios and regal figures, the songs often shift through numerous themes, and while certain overdramatic, John Tesh-like passages may bore, the mood quickly shifts into darker and occasionally funkier territory. Blessed’s over-the-top, bombastic narration also adds a welcome change-of-pace, insight, and laughter to the proceedings, and the entire ensemble does a fantastic job of capturing the grandiosity of this opus. The only glaring weakness in this concert is the set designer’s decision to surround Wakeman’s keyboards with an assemblage of plywood castle turrets, which look inexplicably cheap when sitting in front of an actual castle.
The two concerts that have been edited into this film were part of a never-to-be-repeated event, and the unique framework of these nights allowed Wakeman the opportunity to present some material that was not included on the original album, including a track dedicated to Henry VIII himself. Moreover, the grand finale of “Tudorock,” successfully parlays the artistic spirit that Henry VIII encouraged in his kingdom, which was largely responsible for a boom in European musical innovation. It is a fitting capper for a night filled with bold intentions, deft technical skill, and unmistakable joy.