Live Review | Birmingham Arena | Review by Marc Higgins
In the mid 60, a bunch of serious like-minded young men, formed a band, as many did. Cycling through various names and inspired by two Blues men their guitarist had heard of, they became The Pink Floyd Sound. At first they were an improvising house band for the hip middle class London underground, then a pop band, then with a new guitarist they became again, an experimental Progressive group, making truly exciting and different music. A fact often overlooked or forgotten by those whose assessment of Gilmour, Mason, Waters and Wright, begins and ends with “Money” or The Wall. It was all about the music, the lights, the songs and albums, listened to from beginning to end. Pink Floyd, with their enigmatic album art, huge live shows and serious musicianship became a brand, granted a very successful brand. Within the life of the band, there was progression, listen to the bite of the guitars on Animals, the beauty of Dark Side of the Moon and the ambient majesty of the The Endless River. But, like their earlier incarnation suggested, there became a Pink Floyd Sound, a way of playing “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. It was a stunning thing to behold, but there evolved a Gilmour solo and possibly it became less progressive, as if the band were limited by their sound, constrained by success. Interestingly both Roger Waters and David Gilmour have delivered looser and fresher versions of their band’s material on their own. Gilmour’s flamenco acoustic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” at The Festival Hall was inspired. Waters’ versions of Floyd material, with Eric Clapton on The Pros and Cons tour, with the Bleeding Hearts Band on the Radio Kaos tour and more recent line ups on the In the Flesh and The Wall tours, have always been interesting and forward looking. I am a huge Pink Floyd fan, raised with their early 70s output pumping through my bedroom floor, soundtracks to my dreams. I was utterly blown away by the The Wall and attended the premier of the film. I own copies of pretty much everything they have ever done, collectively and individually. That encompasses the bizarre Waters and Ron Geesin album Music from the Body and the brilliant Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports album, with songs by Carla Bley and vocals by Robert Wyatt. It also led to the life changing Picnic compilation album, which in turn led me to Roy Harper, Michael Chapman, The Pretty Things and a million other rabbit holes, but that is another story. I finally saw Pink Floyd in Paris in 1989 as a hairy graduate Art student and standing in front of the stage, loved every second. But part of me wants to hear the improvising spirit of the 69 Floyd as well as huge live versions of the albums I love. I have seen David Gilmour a few times and Roger each time he has toured since 1984 and love the ways that both musicians have played Floyd material live. During the 80s Roger was not well regarded by the music press. His old band played on and had cache, while he pursued a more personal vision of conceptual and thematically linked music, but to less acclaim. The 90s then the 21st Century saw a growing acceptance and a realisation of something that we Waters fans knew all along, that Roger had a unique vision and that he delivered an amazing live performance with a sharp sound and a maestro touch when it comes to delivering a multi-media show. Too many times listening to a muffled thumping sound at a large gig I’ve found myself yearning for the clear sound and speakers spread through the hall at Roger Waters concerts. Us and Them at Birmingham, was without a doubt the best Roger Waters concert I’ve seen in 34 years and quite possibly one of the best live shows I have seen. The set, opening with Dark Side of the Moon’s “Breathe”, gave the first of many opportunities for the musicians in Waters’ band to demonstrate their distinctiveness and show that they were not just guns for hire. Jonathan Wilson’s vocals on the Dark Side openers were brilliant, lending a CSN, Laurel Canyon richness. If you haven’t heard Jonathan then check out Cecil Taylor from Fanfare or anything from Rare Birds his most recent. Lucius, the eerie vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, made the sublime vocal on “Great Gig in the Sky”, their own. Both Lucius and Wilson appear on Waters gloriously angry Is This the Life We Really Want album, but this very much isn’t the album tour. When Roger toured in 84-85, it was with the Pros and Cons of Hitchiking tour and following the Floyd model he played the album as a set piece. Same in 87 with Radio Kaos, he played the album intercut with classic Floyd tracks. In 2018 the concept is Us and Them and what drives it is not a new album, but a sense of injustice and rage at the state of the world. Historically Waters is seen as grumpy and curmudgeonly, but with the therapy of The Wall what seems to motivate him is a righteous anger. Through 90s album Amused to Death and its frighteningly prescient “Bravery of Being out of Range” he seethed against society’s failings. Tonight the older material was chosen to fit with this theme of disquiet, betrayal and outrage, although to be fair Roger Waters’ writing has always veered towards the uncomfortable self-analysis and the unpicking of our motivations. The visuals, delivered across a vast screen that ran the width of the stage, were a mix of Floyd originals, live feed and newer imagery. A powerful chopped up mix giving the songs a new socially relevant and current context. But the music was never swamped, the pounding keyboard on “Welcome to the Machine” managed to simultaneously sound like the 75 album version and contemporary. Tracks off the latest album, skeletal on record, fleshed out live, sounded excellent loosing none of their bite or vim. Closing the first set was the run of three tracks around “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” the hit off The Wall, with a chorus of Birmingham children providing the ragged “we don’t need no education” chorus. Arriving on stage in Guantanamo Bay prisoner outfits with the heads covered by hoods the singers Tablea added to the disturbing atmosphere with some sinister dance moves. The song itself roared along with a seismic beat and a corresponding roar from the audience. Oppressive, dark school days, apparently we can all relate to that. The screens ran through the interval, bringing up suggestions of how you could channel this indignation that Waters had cooked up and resist oppression. It’s rare for an artist to wear their heart so openly on their sleeve and offer a pragmatic channel for the emotion they had conjured. Like one of those ‘If you’ve been affected by these issues’ TV back announcements. The concert consistently offered a perfect balance of music and gripping visuals, but after the interval came the wow moment that sticks in the mind. As with sirens and flashing lights, like the start of Stingray, the man who built a wall across countless stadia, lowered a larger than life 3d representation of Battersea Power Station from the roof. It hung there, stretching the length of Birmingham Arena, exactly the way pre-war brutalist architecture doesn’t, with smoke coming out of its Doric pillar styled chimneys. It’s difficult to know if the cheers that greeted its descent, were applauding the majestic absurdity of it hanging there or anticipating the music to follow the arrival of the iconic symbol from the 1977 Animals album. The Power Station was a three dimensional arrangement of projection screen that bisected the audience and burned with images, absurdly improbable but technologically and visually brilliant. It was still all a foil for the music, “Dogs” and “Pigs” were the highpoint of the concert, musically they seared, Waters huge bass riffs, Jonathan Wilson’s Gilmour-esque guitar and those huge screaming keyboard parts burned home the lyrics. Those anthems to human archetypes sounded as relevant now as they did then, possibly more so. Every word of “Dogs”, a warning to the Gordon Gekko’s, rang true, resonating for an American President unimaginable when it was written. “Pigs” originally written for Mary Whitehouse, was a perfect fit for the current inhabitant of a different kind of White House. Additions of some graphical representations of Trump, showed how sharp Waters was in the 70s, writing a kind of big business folk music. The long form songs showed what masters Pink Floyd were at building at building an oppressive slow burning anthem. If you want a song that encapsulates the self-obsessed immoral gluttony of Trump and his era then nothing touches forty year old “Pigs”. “Money” always a dark hymn to commercialism with its hollow exultations to spend and consume gained an “I Won” Trump quote in the crashing tape loop intro, shifting the context and sharpening the meaning. “Us and Them” was sublime, maybe the lyric writing was not as acid as the Animals tracks, but Jonathan Wilson’s vocals and a soothing atmosphere made the whole thing transcendental. “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” by turns Edward Lear absurd surrealism and glass eyed social comment never sounded more relevant. “Comfortably Numb” would have been the encore, if the band had left the stage. Instead after a pause a jovial and fired Waters introduced the band and accompanied by some breath taking lasers they powered through the 79 Pink Floyd anthem. Thematically the song, was a, balm at the end of two emotional sets and following messages from Waters a call to not become comfortable and numbed by everything you see. Us and Them 2018 was a powerful visually and sonically arresting concert by a master musician and writer who can play the large venues like a multi-media instrument. After a period of being marginalised by the music press, he looks, not back in anger at personal demons but out at the world, giving us a rude shake and asking “is this the life we really want?” Gilmour may be the god of guitar and history may remember Waters as being half of the messiest musical divorce in history and for having the biggest selling nervous breakdown album of all time, but The 21st Century Wall tour is rightly in the record books and this tour goes up to thirteen. An institution, captivating live who should be on every music fans bucket list.