If I had been God
With my staff and my rod
If I had been given the nod
I believe I could have
Done a better job
– Roger Waters
Roger Waters is not a subtle man. That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Pink Floyd albums The Wall and The Final Cut or solo efforts like Amused to Death. While his obsessions drove most of the grand concepts and theatrics the Floyd are so renowned for, they also led to the band’s dissolution. Waters’ vision is so singular and forceful, it alienated fellow Floyd members and upset the band dynamic that gave birth to more organic-sounding albums like The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. While Waters had already established dominance in the Floyd hierarchy by 1973, it was with the 1977 release of Animals where listeners were exposed to the overtly political and eviscerating approach that would dominate his work to this day.
Four years after completing his last record-setting world tour (a revival of 1979’s The Wall), Waters is back on the road with another politically-charged and angry show. Though the tour is in support of his latest album, Is This the Life We Really Want?, the themes, motifs and iconography all hark back to Animals. The world’s leaders may be different than in 1977, but the corrosive sociopolitical issues remain the same. All the great injustices of the world that have driven most of Waters’ best work still exist, as does his passionate need to rant about them. And one can make the Floydian/Orwellian argument that society is still made up of “Dogs”, “Pigs”, and “Sheep”.
At 73, Waters retains his ability to both entertain and provoke. His flair for putting on an epic, theatrical and fully immersive experience colors every facet of his live show. While not as awe-inspiring as his last run of Wall concerts, the new Us + Them arena tour is nearly as creative and captivating with some truly big moments. Waters and his team also deserve major credit for dreaming up an entirely different presentation with innovations never before seen, especially during the second half of the concert (yes, Waters actually has an old-school intermission midway through the show).
Opening with Dark Side favorite “Speak to Me/Breathe,” the show eases you in, seducing you with a groove and melody as familiar now as a child’s lullaby. Gone this time around is the legendary, circular “Mr. Screen” familiar to all Floyd fanatics. While missed, Waters again deserves kudos for going in a different visual direction on this tour. Having started the show on a gentle note, Waters and his backing band followed up with the head-banging throb of “One of These Days”. The pulse is still mesmerizing, as are the searing slide parts. It was a great one-two punch to start the show with. From there, the Floyd favorites continued with the still-majestic “Time,” “Breathe (Reprise),” “The Great Gig in the Sky” (featured vocals from lookalike Lucius singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig), and the menacing-as-ever “Welcome to the Machine”. The songs all sounded magnificent, benefitting as usual from the superior surround-sound first pioneered by Pink Floyd in the ‘70s. As an audience member, you truly feel like you are inside the sound and not just having it blasted at you.
As part of a well-thought out set list, Waters then segued into three new songs that shared much of the same sonic palette as what came before. Starting with “Déjà Vu,” which sounds like a sequel to “Wish You Were Here,” Waters finally articulates his God complex with a vocal delivery straight out of The Final Cut. In “Picture That” and “The Last Refugee,” he expresses clear rage at the current political climate, a thread that would continue well into the second half of the show. The new songs all cleverly share strong musical threads with peak-era Floyd, thanks in large part to the production tricks of Nigel Godrich (best known for his work with Radiohead, themselves Floyd devotees). Along with the rest of Is This the Life We Really Want?, these songs make a fitting addition to Waters’ songwriting legacy.
The first half of the show closed with “Wish You Were Here” (as with Gilmour’s last tour, much earlier in the set than one would expect) along with Wall standards “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Another Brick in the Wall” (parts 2 and 3). For the latter, once again Waters brought out a dozen or so youth from a local inner city school to substitute for the bratty English school kids on the album. While a consistent crowd-pleasing moment, their awkward dance choreography is one of the few missteps in the show, veering a little too heavily towards schmaltz.
With that, Waters and co. took a 15 minute intermission. What followed in the second half was to be more confrontational, yet also more visually arresting. Through a very clever set design, several interconnected screens that operated as scrolls dropped down from the top of the arena to magically transform into the iconic Battersea Power Station, bringing the cover of Animals to life, working smoke stacks and all. Always an imposing and oppressive symbol of the Industrial era, Battersea is the central image of the entire Us + Them tour. Having revisited the entirety of both Dark Side and The Wall on his solo tours, his current run is a pseudo-40th anniversary tour of Animals where, once again, what’s old is new. To further drive that point home, the second set began with “Dogs,” complete with a creepy mid-point tea party where the band wore animal masks as if part of some twisted English ball of yore. This was followed by outright, relentless Trump-bashing during “Pigs,” where Waters resorted to some juvenile and over-the-top imagery to symbolize his “resistance” to the current leader of the free world. Again, it was as unsubtle and heavy-handed as one could get while potentially alienating half of his audience, but Waters is one of very few artists breathing rarefied air. He doesn’t have to care if he bruises certain sensibilities in the crowd. You don’t like it? Leave, but don’t forget to buy the t-shirt on your way out.
From there, it was back to Dark Side material with the classic-rock radio staple “Money” and “Us and Them,” songs from 1973 that still powerfully resonate in the present. He slipped in one final new song “Smell the Roses” that easily could have fit on any mid-70s Floyd album, before closing the second half with a stunning version of “Brain Damage/Eclipse” where Waters and his lighting team vividly brought the prismatic Dark Side cover to life. It was an ingenious and brilliant effect to behold.
Waters and his great backing band returned for an encore that started with acoustic-based versions of both “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home” that were really affecting, particularly the latter, removed from The Wall’s more bombastic touches. Finally, the show closed with “Comfortably Numb,” which was to be expected save for the appearance (on the Sunday show) of hometown legend Eddie Vedder to sing the Gilmour vocal parts. It was a genuine surprise that further elevated both the song and the United Center audience. After singing his parts, Vedder strapped on Waters’ trademark black acoustic guitar to help the band bring the song and show home. Sharing as they do a similar artistic and political temperament, the pairing was not as odd as one might think. The affection between the two rock titans was heartfelt, as was the moment itself.
Though he’s been on an amazing touring run since coming back to live performance in 1999, Waters has stated that this may be his final go-around. Sad as it may be to hear (as we only have so many legends of his stature left), Waters has absolutely nothing left to prove. He conquered the world as a young man with Pink Floyd and though he had a rocky start after the group split up, has since triumphed as a solo artist. His was the more challenging path than Gilmour’s, initially relying less on the Floyd brand for survival. But as the wonderfully retro Is This the Life We Really Want? and Us + Them tour make clear, Waters still has a lot to say and the same poetic and conceptual gifts that have captivated rock fans across generations. The lunatic is still on the grass.