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roger waters: the wall live

December 2, 2010

This is the most recent piece of writing I’ve yet published on this blog. It is only a couple of months old and I wrote it quite quickly, soon after seeing Roger Waters’ concert tour The Wall Live at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on September 16, 2010. It was previously posted on several Pink Floyd fan sites.

As we took our seats prior to the start of the show (while the dulcet tones of some 1960s-era Bob Dylan tunes wafted through the air), a strange, ragged-looking person pushed a shopping cart up and down the seating aisles on the arena floor. His cart was full of empty cans and hand-scrawled placards bearing slogans like “keep taking the tablets!” As he shook hands with passersby and goofed around for the crowd’s benefit, doffing his cowboy hat and generally carrying on like a bloody lunatic, someone sitting next to me suggested that this could be Roger himself; closer inspection proved that this was NOT the case (fantastic though it may have been to contemplate such a ballsy move on his part!) — but he did kick things off with a flourish.

While showtime grew ever closer, intense anticipation palpably building up among the crowd, the preshow soundtrack morphed from Dylan to dialogue. Clips from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, several classic television comedies, and finally Spartacus rang out over the quadraphonic speakers as the sounds of an old TV dial being turned mimicked the iconic ambient “hotel room” effect of television noise from the album. Just as the show was about to begin, our friend pulled to a halt in front of the stage, reached down into his cart, and from among the empty cans pulled out Pink himself, the soft limp pink puppet, tossing it onstage as the house lights went out leaving a single narrow spotlight on the small, pathetic figure. A lone trumpet blew out the introductory theme from “Outside the Wall”…

Then the band kicked into “In the Flesh?” with all the pomp and pyrotechnics one would expect. The enormous circular Mr. Screen lit up above with the giant white-and-red crossed hammers. The partially-built wall itself was illuminated with images of graffiti and torn posters, bearing that iconic hammer logo and the legend “TRUST US” — and I was immediately struck by the sheer brilliant clarity of the fifteen gigantic video projectors required to light its staggering entirety. Each individual brick had about the same level of detail and brightness as a high-definition TV, so if you can imagine a whole hockey arena’s width, stacked to the upper bowl with HDTVs, you’ll get some idea of what watching this show is like.

Of course, all that video is just one component of the spectacle. There is also the great Floydian art of the arena-sized visual props, and ever since the 1970s it has been the band’s daring tradition to fly an enormous model plane over the audience’s heads, crashing it onstage, right on cue, with fiery fury. I happily report that Roger has brought this tradition back to life! The wall-building itself was also expertly timed, brick by brick, down to the last second. As the band played “In the Flesh?”, a moving platform full of menacing figures bearing hammer banners rose out of the stage and up to the wall-building heights they would rise to throughout the first half of the show.

What I was most interested in finding out was how Roger would update the show’s content for the “more political” bent he had promised. It turns out that this was done somewhat more subtly, or at least much less pervasively than I had expected. If you wanted to visualize “a million tear-stained eyes” you could just listen to “The Thin Ice”, or you could watch hundreds of faces of people killed in conflicts appear on the screen, along with their names and places of birth and death, then take their places as projected upon an individual brick over the course of the song (starting with Roger’s father, of course, and continuing on through the young men, women and children sent to the slaughter in modern-day Iraq). It was a powerful sight, and the first of many times I was moved to tears that night by the combination of images and music.

Stark, blood-red imagery from a camera moving over a body of water accompanied “Another Brick in the Wall, Part One” along with the faces of children from the conflict zones of the Middle East. Haunting stuff, and it meshed very well with the famous helicopter flyby of “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” — one of many parallels between the childhood recounted in song and those children today whose way of life is threatened by our war-torn age. Several spotlight operators rose up on trapeze-like moving platforms and scanned the audience, prompting cheers of delight as the thunderous sound moved around the arena — then an audible gasp of disbelief followed as the inflatable Teacher was revealed seemingly out of nowhere in front of the wall, with a hearty “YOU! YES, YOU…”

People all around me were awestruck at their first sight of the massive puppet; it was so very cartoonish and menacing, and yet moved with lifelike precision while Roger and a local kids’ chorus pointed and shouted in its direction during “Another Brick in the Wall, Part Two”. Sadly, the mother puppet was improperly illuminated for some reason (though it was still visible) during “Mother” — what I could see of it seemed pretty spectacular, even though that was not much. Hopefully this kink gets ironed out by the next show!

It was a real delight for me during that tune to watch video of Roger in Earls Court circa 1980, projected all across on the wall throughout most of the whole song, singing and playing guitar along with Roger circa 2010 onstage. It was tantalizing, to say the least, considering what must also surely exist of those concerts in such high video quality. Meanwhile, on Mr. Screen there was a CCTV camera with a menacing HAL9000-like stare, adding a clever Orwellian slant to the song’s anti-government stance, with the message “Big Mother Is Watching You”! G.E. Smith took an extra slide guitar solo after Snowy White executed the opening salvo to great musical effect.

The anti-war message was amped up with “Goodbye Blue Sky” in a whole new piece of animation that depicted planes dropping not bombs but recognizable logos — symbols of greed and religion — over the landscape, which I thought was good but not nearly of the same calibre as Gerald Scarfe’s original clip from the movie. Thankfully, that was soon rectifed with the transition to “Empty Spaces/What Shall We Do Now?” — kept largely intact from the original film, but beautifully re-framed and extended to fill the entire width of the wall instead of just Mr. Screen. It was nothing short of stunning.

Something like one of the “frightened ones” from that unseen “Goodbye Blue Sky” clip took on a life of its own in later parts of the show, being rendered as a hulking monstrous figure with a gas mask-like face that represented Pink at his most maniacal. Again, a good idea, but not rendered quite as effectively as the original execution, in my opinion. Another moment early in the show rang slightly flat, when the sexualized “Young Lust” imagery seemed a little under-baked, at least compared to the rest of the first half. There could have been a missed opportunity here to further tie in the theme of repression, although the giant unblinking eyes that connected this song with the following sequence were a nice touch. Great Hammond organ solo from Harry Waters, though!

A new piece of video, shot specifically for this tour, accompanied “One of My Turns”. It featured an actress recreating the groupie scene from the movie (minus the role of Pink himself, originated in the film by one Bob Geldof), in CCTV hues of black and white. As with most of the rest of the show, the monologue was taken straight from the original album recording, though thankfully the actress’ lips didn’t attempt moving to match it! This and the following song “Don’t Leave Me Now” were performed in a lower key, about a whole tone or so, to let Roger sing them without straining his voice too hard.

Moving away from the blow-by-blow account, let me just say that Roger’s singing has never sounded better. There were no obvious seams in his performance, being clear and full-voiced throughout (except for an apparent microphone failure in “Bring the Boys Back Home”). I spotted only one moment of obvious pre-recorded support — and that was the megaphone voice in “Waiting for the Worms” (which he has always mimed onstage). As I mentioned, it appeared that parts of the music were lowered in key to accommodate his now-lowered vocal range, but it was hardly noticeable and otherwise he is hitting the notes that would have given him great difficulty twenty years ago.

His band is tightly rehearsed, of course, and never misses a beat. Their combined sound was powerful but not overwhelming… in fact, I would have liked to have heard a touch more “oomph” in the mix, as Graham Broad’s cracking snare drum was occasionally lost in the shuffle of quadrophonic sound effects and the thick wash of two keyboards, three guitars, and four backing vocalists. Speaking of backups, the three Lennon brothers/cousins from the band Venice do a terrific job of duplicating all those Beach Boys harmonies (along with Jon Joyce, deftly reprising his bass vocal parts from the original) and Robbie Wyckoff pulls off a very serviceable stand-in for David Gilmour’s lilting vocal delivery.

Dave Kilminster sang most of these lead parts on Waters’ Dark Side of the Moon Live tour, and while he did a fine job at it, his real talent was clearly to take command of Gilmour’s solo guitar parts — and that’s exactly what he concentrates on doing throughout The Wall Live. I witnessed a moment of sheer beauty and poignancy, watching him stand atop the completed wall and playing the climactic passages of “Comfortably Numb” while the projected image upon it exploded from a stark, austere white edifice into a kaleidoscopic rainbow. I can only imagine what that moment will be like when Gilmour himself decides to join Waters at one of the upcoming shows on the tour!

The remaining guitarists, G.E. Smith (replacing Waters’ touring stalwart Andy Fairweather-Low on additional rhythm and bass guitars) and Pink Floyd alumnus Snowy White are both given their own moments to shine. During “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”, all three took a guitar lead in turn, Smith trading off with Harry who played some more tasty Hammond organ licks. Snowy leans further on the bluesy side, as he did in the original Pink Floyd shows (he is the only member of the band, other than Joyce and Waters, to have played at all of the 1980 shows and the 1990 Berlin outdoor spectacular).

Jon Carin (also a former touring member of Pink Floyd) ably fills in the other keyboard and occasional rhythm guitar parts. His ear for texture and sonic quality have always been an exceptional asset to both Gilmour’s and Waters’ solo jaunts through the Pink Floyd catalogue. He had a vital supporting role here, as The Wall stands out as one of the most densely-packed “ear candy” records, even among the works of a band known for demanding headphone-listening! He struck all the right chords in this department, with panache.

There was even the occasional flash of unexpected humour. For “the defendant’s wife” in “The Trial”, Roger took on an outrageous faux-French accent that worked splendidly and undercut the venom of that verse somewhat. Roger also had a laugh at the expense of a failed trumpet valve that prevented him from executing the outro of “Outside the Wall”, betraying some annoyance at this mishap! Other surprises during that number included seeing Kilminster strumming on a banjo and Smith leading the band on mandolin… even drummer Graham Broad blithely picked away at a ukelele!

Not sure what’s left to put in words about this; I guess you could say it was a thrill ride. Anyway, on the whole I’d say the show is pretty faithful to the original. There are no lasers, no surprise guest stars, no flashy light-show gimmicks (except for the occasional — tasteful — big bright brash moment of strobing). As ever, the focus is on some seriously stunning projected videos, the amazing props, and of course the music. If you like The Wall then you MUST see this show. It stays fairly close to the Pink Floyd live album Is There Anybody Out There? as far as arrangements go, minus the second drummer and adding an additional few bars to fill in an extra moment here and there. In fact, I’d say that it breathes a bit more, and has better dramatic pacing, than any previous incarnation. Even among such a crowded embarrassment of riches, there is surely room for the show to keep growing and taking on new elements as it rolls across the globe over the next year.

IN SHORT: DO NOT MISS THIS CONCERT TOUR.

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