The old debate of Roger versus David arose from its slumber and other questions had to be considered. How can you play Gilmour’s guitar parts and match his punchy, rasping vocals with a stand-in? What kind of show doesn’t have an encore? And of course, who wants to see a concert where the band stands behind a wall for the bulk of the second set?
We learned the hard way; never doubt Roger Waters. With the exception of a few notable moments where Gilmour’s vocal were missed, Goodbye Blue Sky and The Show Must Go On being the most obvious, the final performance of The Wall at Madison Square Garden on November 6th delivered on every level.
The songs highlighting Roger’s often-imitated, never-duplicated whispering vocals demonstrated Roger’s unique theatrical style, such as on the captivating opener When the Tigers Broke Free, and standards Mother and The Thin Ice. Meanwhile, G.E. Smith crushed his guitar duties, leaving little reason for making comparisons to Gilmour on that front. And perhaps most interestingly, the songs that most people can take or leave off The Wall – those that have inundated us since the beginning of time via classic rock osmosis – the Another Brick in the Wall Suite, proved to be some of the show’s standouts.
The “Brick” songs, along with Run Like Hell, made the live show pulse with energy, and they actually got people moving. Most folks think of The Wall as a veg-out, sit-down experience, but that was absolutely not the case, as the band filled the arena with its lifeblood, rock.
What Shall We Use, to Fill the Empty Spaces?
Rarely do critics make mention of this element of Pink Floyd‘s music – and the Roger Waters material in particular – but one of the sonic components that distinguishes the band is their use of volume contrast, silence and crescendos. They do, in fact, simply leave empty spaces.
While one moment finds Roger quietly whispering the lyrics or the band bowing out to let the moment settle in silence – captivating listeners in a way that no audible material could - another moment finds them capitalizing on the careful attention paid by the crowd, by, BAM, building to a climax with a towering wall of sound.
In the live setting, Roger Waters and his band of backing musicians used this very trick to dramatic effect, keeping everyone in attendance on the edge of their seats. Seeing this juxtaposition of the sonic peaks and valleys, coupled with the crowd’s reaction, made for one of the true highlights of the performance. The fans gobbled up this attention to detail on songs like In the Flesh and reacted to each usage of volume as a means for tension and release.
Is There Anybody Out There?
Yet another element that made the revitalization of the live performance of The Wall so effective came from the crowd itself. Thirty-one years after its initial release, Roger managed to pack the Garden with a crowd of total die-hards. At every turn, fans reacted with eruptions of applause. During every song, folks carefully sang each word, seemingly knowing the exact tone of voice and pitch with which to sing it. And every row contained folks exchanging high fives and throwing their arms up in celebration of what they were seeing.
It’s not easy to find a concert where the entire crowd is on the same page, but this was one of those rare instances. Even a trip to the restroom contributed to the experience, as you’d undoubtedly hear something to the effect of, “I mean, I had heard this show was good, but never in a million years, did I expect to be THIS good!”
Look Mummy, There’s an Aeroplane Up in the Sky
Perhaps more so than any grandiose set of a Broadway show, showy U2 staging, elaborate Phish prank or major pop star choreography, the spectacle of Roger Water’s latest tour of the Wall exceeded every possible expectation, not solely due to the fact that the band played the entire album masterfully, but also because the execution of the dramatic visual content.
Starting right from the get go – when fans heard the rumblings of the booming surround sound system, a physical airplane flew across the Madison Square Garden rafters and crashed in a massive fiery explosion behind the early formations of Pink‘s wall – fans were treated to one eye-popping surprise after another.
From the powerful video projections on the wall itself, to massive-scale haunting puppets dangling over the stage in true creep-out Floyd fashion, to the New York City Boys Cub breaking down energetic dance moves during a funky segment (of which there were many), to the iPod-themed jabs at consumerism and the ills of technology (the modern form of a wall?) and finally Roger singing along with a recorded version of himself from the 1980 tour on Mother.
For some, Roger’s idealism can be daunting, as there is no shortage of hypocrisy in the politics and criticism of consumer culture (we’re looking at you, ticket prices), but it’s hard to argue that the man is anything but a visionary when it comes to the production and execution of big ideas.
What Shall We Do Now?
Has there really ever been a question of timelessness of The Wall? Sure, we all identified with the mind-bending, outlandish nature of Water’s anti-societal content in high school and college when it was easy to turn a cold shoulder to the mainstream, but ultimately, it’s even easier to succumb to the societal pressures as we grow into adults and maneuver our lives within the confines of its grasp.
But take it for what it really is: a damn good social commentary. Regardless of how you view yourself, and wherever your personal beliefs may lie relative to the heavy-handed themes, The Wall is a magnificently coherent and complex concept and societal observation. This is a reaction to middle class life told with a complexity and empathy that stands pat with other great commentaries on the topic like American Beauty in film or John Updike’s Rabbit series in literature.
In a song that is appropriately called What Shall We Do Now, that was ultimately removed from the album for technical reasons, Waters summarizes the pressures of society as much in 1979 as in 2010. Consumers, the very people who were and are Pink Floyd fans, may never have found the answers to these questions, but at least they had the sense to spend their $150 on one hell of a concert.
Shall we buy a new guitar? Shall we drive a more powerful car? Shall we work straight through the night? Shall we get into fights? Leave the lights on? Drop bombs? Do tours of the east? contract diseases? Bury bones? Break up homes? Send flowers by phone? Take a drink? Go to shrinks? Give up meat? Rarely sleep? Keep people as pets? Train dogs? Race rats? Fill the attic with cash? Bury treasure? Store up leisure? But never relax at all.
With our backs to the Wall.
- Ryan Dembinsky and Mike Sullivan