DEJA VU – Roger Waters live at United Center

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 presentation (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, 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.

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Gilmour Shines On at United Center

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.

 

SET LIST:

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