So I am sitting down to write this a few days after David Gilmour’s final show in Chicago, following a weeklong stint that included one show at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre sandwiched by two larger-scale shows at the United Center. The U.S. tour, his first in 10 years, is a fairly exclusive affair encompassing only three cities (L.A., Chicago, and New York) before heading back to Europe. And at 70 years old, there’s no telling when or even if he’ll be back. Other than the early Floyd years, Gilmour has never been much of a road warrior. Since taking the helm of Pink Floyd in 1986 following the legal departure of founding member Roger Waters, he’s manned exactly two (albeit massive) world tours under the Floyd banner, the first from 1987-1990 and the second in 1994. He’s done very limited U.S. touring on his own, the last time in support of 2006’s On An Island – a show I was foolish enough to miss, despite being a full-on Floyd freak (if you know the band as Sigma 6, the Architectural Abdabs and the Meggadeaths, you are far beyond the realm of casual fan). So to say that I was grateful to get one more opportunity to see one of my favorite musicians of all time (and favorite guitarist bar none) is an understatement.
In a way, the delayed gratification worked in my favor. Gilmour is currently touring in support of 2015’s Rattle That Lock, a much stronger solo album than his last in my opinion, which makes the introduction of new material in a show heavy on classic rock standards much more palatable. Newer songs like the Leonard Cohen-influenced “Faces of Stone” and “In Any Tongue” held their own much better than the On An Island material last time around. The overall setlist was stronger than 2006 as well, with a brisker pacing of the solo and Floyd material. While no longer doing the epic “Echoes” (most likely due to the loss of close musical partner Richard Wright in 2008, whose sonic signature is all over that song), we got the reappearance of “Us and Them,” the stinging blues of “What Do You Want from Me,” the thundering “Sorrow,” and Wall classic “Run Like Hell”. He also brought back Mr. Screen, the Vari-Lite-rigged circular projection surface made famous on all of the classic Floyd tours of the ‘70s and ‘80s (but missing in 2006’s solo outing). The venues are bigger this time around as well, with more arenas than theaters playing host and this is music custom-made for large, panoramic spaces.
The pre-show itself was the first sonic treat of the evening for Floyd obsessives, as familiar sound effects pulsed through the P.A. (a plane flying overhead, helicopter sounds, the backwards-guitar seagull wails from “Echoes” and spoken-word snippets from Dark Side of the Moon to name a few). This provided the first clue as to the first-rate sound engineering that would take place all evening, the best concert sound I’ve heard since, ironically enough, Roger Waters’s solo version of The Wall a few years back. Pink Floyd’s concert sound is just as legendary in the industry as their visual effects, and Friday’s show at United was all-enveloping. You felt the music deep in your bones; it was that loud, dynamic, and three-dimensional.
The show itself opened proper with the instrumental “5 AM” off the new album, Gilmour’s signature elegiac guitar tone instantly recognizable as it cut through the gentle, cinematic backing. One note in and the audience instantly erupted in rapture and would pretty much remain that way throughout the entire performance (to the point where Gilmour himself would make reference to the crowd’s enthusiasm several times during the evening). This understated opening soon gave way to the bouncy “Rattle That Lock,” inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. Along with “Today,” the song’s production harkened back to a late-‘80s funk-lite feel. The sound was punchy and huge, with Gilmour’s strong vocals cutting through the mix. He sounded confident and in command from the start. The rest of the first set breezed by in a near-perfect blend of new and old: “Faces of Stone” led to a surprisingly early appearance of “Wish You Were Here,” a ballsy gambit that actually worked. The lush harmonies of the Wright tribute “A Boat Lies Waiting” (especially fitting with Wright’s daughter, son, and grandson in attendance) sounded enormous and rich, shimmering like the surface of a lake. This was followed by the ultra-serene “The Blue,” which obviously didn’t have the intended effect on the two “gentlemen” sitting near me who nearly broke out in a fight. Grown men. At a David Gilmour concert. Perhaps someone wasn’t sharing the herbal “enhancements” that substituted for oxygen at this show? Who knows, but the foolhardy twosome nearly got themselves bounced by a whole phalanx of United Center security. Ah, good times…
After a one-two punch of “Money” and “Us and Them,” the first set closed with the foreboding “High Hopes” off 1994’s The Division Bell. Accompanied by iconic Storm Thorgerson video, Gilmour played both nylon guitar and pedal steel with exquisite taste and ease. The band then took a fifteen minute intermission before resuming the show with the Syd Barrett-era “Astronomy Domine,” the psychedelic lighting and projections harkening back to 1967’s London underground. The nod to Floyd-founder Barrett continued with classic requiem “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the introductory guitar figure generating some of the biggest cheers of the night. This classic Floyd staple and Gilmour showcase was played alongside more vintage Thorgerson footage. After watching it on the Pulse video and DVD for so many years, it was a real treat to see this footage projected live. It has aged beautifully. Other highlights of the second set included the pastoral “Fat Old Sun,” the aforementioned “Sorrow” and the visual/sonic attack of “Run Like Hell”. Whether comforting or menacing, Gilmour’s guitar tone was impeccable throughout. All of the signature hallmarks were there in abundance: the refined bends, sustained and delayed notes, all gleaming like liquid glass.
The show closed with an encore of “Time,” “Breathe (Reprise),” and of course “Comfortably Numb”. After playing this song and all-time classic guitar solo so many times, one could forgive Gilmour for struggling to find the requisite power and feeling anymore, yet he delivered. Perhaps it was the energy of the crowd at United Center spurring him on, but it felt as sublime and transcendent as you would hope for, the vivid lasershow a mere backdrop for the real magic happening onstage. Credit must be given to his backing band and singers, many of whom are veterans of previous Floyd and solo tours. They injected fresh life into these classic warhorses, custodians of some of the most beloved staples in rock history. It also helps that Gilmour now tours at his own pace and terms. Financially, he’s never had to tour again past the ’87-’90 trek, but like McCartney he does so because pure musicianship courses through his veins. He can now cherry pick his live appearances and it shows. This is not a working musician slogging it out on a 100 + date tour. This is a relaxed veteran at peace with himself and his legacy. His current state-of-grace is a blessing to his audience and if this turns out to be a final victory lap, it will be a more than worthy one.
First half: 5am, Rattle That Lock, Faces Of Stone, Wish You Were Here, What Do You Want From Me, A Boat Lies Waiting, The Blue, Money, Us And Them, In Any Tongue, High Hopes.
Second half: Astronomy Domine, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Fat Old Sun, Coming Back To Life, On An Island, The Girl In The Yellow Dress, Today, Sorrow, Run Like Hell.
Encore: Time/Breathe(rep), Comfortably Numb