Roger Waters Live at the Garden
Twenty years ago, my friend Joe and I went to see Roger Waters at Madison Square Garden for the Radio KAOS tour. We had horrible seats high up and at a ninety degree angle to the stage, but, being teenagers, we moved down as far as our bravery would take us. And that wasn’t too far—we positioned ourselves in front of the stage, but not at stage level. We were just up from that, first tier. It was the best view I’ve ever had of a concert, but I was nervous through the whole thing, shifting from seat to seat and row to row as ticket holders made their way into the concert.
The whole section, minus two seats, filled up, and we managed to stay there for the entire show. “Radio KAOS” was set up as a live radio show, with Jim Ladd as a DJ, and a caller, Billy, whose synthesized voice would set up various pieces, including “Arnold Layne.” At the time, I wasn’t really immersed in Pink Floyd’s early work, but “Arnold Layne” transcended any ignorance on my part. It’s a brilliant piece of pop psychedelia, and when it played, entirely recorded—the band just watched the video along with the rest of the audience—I thought it was the most amazing thing I would ever see in a concert.
This being in the days before the internets and YouTube.
Now, I can see “Arnold Layne” on demand. It’s amazing really, and something I haven’t really explored. But, what is more relevant is how it changes the expectations of a Waters’s live show. The audience won’t be content with piped-in music while an old video plays. Pink Floyd, and by extension Roger Waters, are known for their amazing shows, with the lights and lasers and floating pigs. What would Waters do to make his show worthy for the Internet Generation? Last night, twenty years after the last concert I caught at the Garden, Katherine and I found out.
To drop some suspense: There were no lasers. Lasers are so 1990s.
Instead, the cohesive binder was an olde-tyme radio, a cigarette, and a bottle of scotch projected out from an LCD screen behind the stage, spanning its entire width. The visual was on the screen long before the lights went down, and occasionally, a hand would reach up and grab a glass of booze, the cigarette, or even change the station on the radio. I was particularly pleased when “Dancing Queen” was quickly changed for some smoky jazz. And, just before the band came on, Vera Lynn sang “We’ll Meet Again.” The images were super-sharp and vibrant.
This concert was billed as “Roger Waters performs The Dark Side of the Moon,” which certainly would have been noteworthy enough, but with the death of Syd Barrett, whose madness informed much of the popular work of Pink Floyd, surely Waters would throw in a tribute to the founder of Floyd. And there’s a war on. Waters obsessed thematically on war on “The Final Cut,” “The Wall,” and “Amused to Death.” He couldn’t let this latest excursion in imperialism go without comment.
When the lights came down, the energy was immediately pumped up with a pyrotechnic version of “In the Flesh” I’ve been to several Waters and Floyd shows, and this was the first that used a lot of pyrotechnics. Of course, I never saw “The Wall” in concert, where a wall is literally blown up in front of an audience, so it certainly wasn’t unheard of to see pyrotechnics in a Floyd show. Still, it was noteworthy, to me.
“In the Flesh” was followed by “Mother,” also from “The Wall.” PP Arnold, a long time touring background-singer with Waters, sang the David Gilmore parts. Very nice. “Mother” ended, and where, on the album, a little boy normally said “Look, mummy, there’s an airplane up in the sky,” in the concert, it was replaced by a low-pitched throbbing noise. The screen behind the band turned black, and, on its lowest edge, the eclipsed corona of a darkened sun began to arise. There were so many disparate cues as to the next song that it took me a moment to recognize, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”
Katherine can probably confirm how ebulliently excited I was. There are certain songs that I just assume I will never see live. “Set the Controls…” is almost 40 years old and not that popular, even amongst fans of Floyd or Waters. When I heard it, I was breathless. It took me back to 1999, when I saw Waters at Jones Beach perform “Dogs,” from “Animals.” It took me back 20 years when Waters played “Arnold Layne,” and “If” from “Atom Heart Mother.” Waters has no problem pulling something from the back of his immense catalog.
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” is an interesting song for Floyd fanatics. It was made on the cusp of Syd Barrett leaving the band. It is one of the few early songs sung and composed by Waters. The studio version actually has guitar work by David Gilmore, who came in to relieve some of the pressure from the ever-breaking Barrett. But, thank you YouTube, I came across this old gem, where Barrett is on lead guitar. This video is odd, because Waters stops playing bass to sing. Clearly, he’s singing live, and Nick Mason and Rick Wright are playing live, but the bass and guitar are coming from some ethereal plane, because Waters and Barrett aren’t strumming anything close to what is heard.
Back to the concert. Was there anything after “Set the Controls…”? Maybe. I could have left happy after that.
Oh, yes. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” parts 2 through 4. Here was the start of the tribute to Barrett, with an excellent sax solo by Ian Ritchie.
Then came “Have a Cigar” with some really nice visuals on screen. “…Cigar” was sung by Waters. He did a good job of it. On the album, “Wish You Were Here,” “Have a Cigar” was sung by Roy Harper, the same Roy Harper immortalized by Led Zepplin in “Hats Off to Roy Harper.” Some trivia. At any rate, according to Nick Mason in Inside Out Waters wasn’t too confident in his voice at the time of recording “Have a Cigar,” so they got someone else to do it. I doubt anyone in the audience last night, who didn’t know Waters didn’t sing it in the first place, thought anything less of the song. There’s a magical bit of sound effect at the end of “Have a Cigar” on the album, where, instead of a fadeout, the song transitions to the next by way of changing radio stations. Static and brief bits of music and dialog are heard, including a man and woman arguing: “Yes it is. No it isn’t! Well, I’m sure of it.” At the end of “…Cigar” in the concert, the visuals gave way to the olde-tyme radio again, and the hand turned the dial as one would imagine on the album. “…Cigar” transitions this way into “Wish You Were Here,” and so it did at the concert too.
“Wish You Were Here” had some nice video of Barrett, often filtered in orange and yellow capturing his playfulness and madness all at once. But then, the video, and the concert, transitioned into something else. The video showed poppies floating down across a field, a Floydian visual clue if there ever was one. Poppies are all over the album, “The Final Cut,” the most reviled Floyd work ever. It’s a difficult Floyd album to get into, unless, like me, you’re a depressive sort, in which case the multiple layers of disillusionment and helplessness really speak to you. But for purposes of a Waters concert, the important aspects of “The Final Cut” are in its anti-war and anti-fascism songs. The poppies came down over “Southampton Dock,” and “The Fletcher Memorial Home” featured a black and white video of a desolate cell block where vaguely Castro-looking men shuffled about. Along the walls were portraits of Stalin, Reagan, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Dubya Bush. “The Final Cut” was built around a distaste for dying empires grasping at glory, specifically The Falkland Islands Crisis in 1982. Sadly, Waters paranoia and fear of fascism is more relevant today, and he used his older music to capture his hope and frustration at our state of fear and war.
The Mideast clearly fascinates him, inasmuch as Western Imperialism keeps bombing the shit out of the same few places where people—let’s not forget these are fellow human beings we’re bombing the shit out of—don’t really have much to begin with. “Amused to Death,” Waters last rock album, dealt with the disconnect between the luxury of Western civilization and the poverty of the rest of the world. After “The Fletcher Memorial Home,” Waters played “Perfect Sense, Part I” and “Perfect Sense, Part II,” with some outstanding singing by Katie Kissoon, who appeared on the original album, and an inflatable astronaut flew around the Garden. A repeated refrain in the second song is “Can’t you see?/It all makes perfect sense/expressed in dollars and cents/pounds, shillings, and pence.” It’s even part of our “global anthem.” Written after the first Gulf War, but before our latest excursion into quagmire, “Amused to Death” decries war-boosters who will never, themselves, feel the bloody waste and horror that war really is.
But, then, after all these songs and themes, Waters tells the audience that we’re now in “the controversial part.” He explained that the next song, “Leaving Beirut” was about a personal experience he had while hitchhiking through Lebanon as a teenager. The recorded version has a narration by Waters, but in the concert, the narration was on screen as if from a comic book, with sound effects, word balloons, and all. When Waters and the background singers sang their parts, they too were accompanied by word balloons. Very clever. I admit I was surprised by the small, but boisterous, negative reaction by some in the audience. We’re not at war with Lebanon. The message of the song was that there was a kind family in Beirut, and Waters hopes they’re okay despite the 20 years of civil war (and more recently, Israeli bombing). Why boo at this song? Could it be this line, “Oh, George, oh, George, That Texas education must have fucked you up when you were very small”? Whatever. In a brilliant, absolutely brilliant move, Waters immediately followed up “Leaving Beirut” with “Sheep,” from “Animals.”
That was another dissociative moment for me—another song I never thought I’d hear live.
During “Sheep,” the obligatory Floyd pig flew around, with remote control box and two directional fans strategically placed to give the pig his testicles. But this pig had graffiti. “New Yorkers/Don’t be led to the slaughter/Vote November 7.” And “Fear Builds Walls.” And “Impeach Bush Now” on the pig’s ass. Huh. A bobble-head behind me, who booed during “Leaving Beirut,” tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s fucked up,” when he saw the pig’s good-bye message. I shrugged and continued to enjoy an old psychedelic hippy getting out his message to some people who refuse to understand. After the show, there were people on the train home who were talking about the best concert they’d ever seen, but what the fuck was with the stupid Beirut song? I’m getting ahead of myself here, but… good. If you didn’t expect a message like that, then you don’t know anything about Waters, and you don’t know anything about compassion.
Wait, wait. We’re at intermission, but there was so much more to this concert. The lights went up, and the screen behind the stage had a teeny-tiny moon on it, which grew over 15 minutes, until it was the classic circled-screen size for many Waters and Floyd concerts. For the entirety of “The Dark Side of the Moon,” all the visuals were placed in that circle.
But before we began, Waters introduced “a dear personal friend,” Nick Mason. Well, color me surprised. The rest of his band were familiar to those who’ve seen his shows in the past. Snowy White, on guitar, and Graham Broad, on drums, toured with Waters since at least 1984. Dave Kilminster, on guitar, and Jon Carin, on keyboard, were with him last time ‘round. Jon Carin played with Floyd the last time they were around, too. Some kid named Harry Waters played the Hammond organ. Never heard of him.
“The Dark Side of the Moon” was played, in its entirety. “On the Run,” had a new video to it and some new sound effects, but other than that, the songs were played fairly close to the released version. There was no 20 minute guitar solo during “Money,” thank God (Dave, I’m looking at you). Carol Kenyon knocked “The Great Gig in the Sky” out of the arena. And I got to hear my favorite track (because I never hear it), “Any Colour You Like,” which has my single favorite transition of any song, segueing into “Brain Damage/Eclipse.” And 40 minutes after it began, the heartbeat softly pulses out to “There is no dark side of the moon really…,” and it’s over. A very tight set.
Water thanked all of us. The stage went dark, and the audience went wild. I am always impressed at how the audience before the encore is so enthused and eager and loud, but they’ll still manage to ratchet up the energy when the band comes back out. So it was. I looked at Katherine and said, “Here comes ‘Comfortably Numb,’” but Waters said, “We’re going to do something a little different.” He introduced a boy-choir from New York, about twenty kids in all ranging from age 7 to mid-teens. They wore jackets that obscured their t-shirts, which they would later reveal to say “Fear Builds Walls.” And, sure enough, the band broke out into “Happiest Days of Their Lives” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” with the helicopter sound effects and all.
Waters celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall with a concert at the site in 1990. The Berlin Wall obviously informed “The Wall,” but after the fall, “The Wall” resonated more with the memory of it. The wall in “The Wall” is destroyed by madness, but the Berlin Wall fell by the will of Berliners. That the wall was not rebuilt, I think, gave hope to Waters. Until, of course, it was rebuilt, this time by Israel, between it and the West Bank of Palestine. The video, during “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” contrasted images of the Berlin Wall, and it’s fall, with the building of, and separation caused by, the Israeli wall. Fear builds walls, indeed, and I was reminded of our own considerations to build a wall between us and Mexico.
To me, it’s ironic that Waters got inspired to write about incidences that were happening on a global or personal scale, but were moments, nonetheless. And yet, years or decades after the fact, the music and the messages find more resonance, are more apt, then ever. I went to the show assuming I’d be watching a sixty year old burnt out and disillusioned beyond belief. Instead, Waters himself seems revitalized by the strange confluence of circumstance that makes his songs about the Falkland War prescient to the Iraq mess. What he has in abundance is hope. And it makes for a good show.
Bringing this point home, Waters closed the show with “Vera,” a song of longing for Vera Lynn and the nostalgia of a “good war.” This followed into “Bring the Boys Back Home,” both from “The Wall.” A clearer message of hope and hopelessness that is bound into war couldn’t be found in a one-and-a-half minute song. The pyrotechnics ablaze, the band and audience singing at the top of their lungs, in a full-fledged plea to stop the fighting. What a way to close the show.
Oh, right. Then they played “Comfortably Numb.” Maybe you can’t fight the man, after all.
Posted by Jonathan at 02:14 PM, 14 September 2006