Roger Waters: The Wall Live
Toyota Center, Houston TX 5/01/12
by Andrew C Schlett
Is this how grown-ups get down with concerts these days? I mean, really. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to a Big Rock Show, the sort of traveling extravaganza carnival production that plays arenas and stadiums around the world, so it may be that I am a little out of touch. Or perhaps it was the demographic at this particular show, leaning rather heavily towards the older end of the spectrum, which made the difference. It could be that my pre-set expectations were unrealistic in the first place. But this show was supposed to be enormous, a veritable throwback to my youth, so large in scope that the stage of ToyotaCenter could barely hold the whole thing. Anticipated as the most epic performance that I had ever witnessed in my life, truly, I have to say that what I saw did indeed measure up to what I had prepared myself for. Roger Waters is a professional at his craft, and laid down a flawless presentation of 1979’s Pink Floyd release The Wall complete with video clips from the accompanying film, grotesquely over-sized manifestations of Mother and the Schoolmaster, a graffiti-tagged floating pig, a children’s chorus, and some of the most stunning state-of-the-art visual effects available today. The entire thing was captivating from beginning to end, Waters hit note for note and word for word the exact album that I’ve been listening to for over 30 years now, but there was still something else lacking from the overall experience.
I’m sure it was the crowd.
Now, far be it from me to be critical, but the people in attendance at this show were ‘adults’ in the truest sense of the word. There were some younger people in the audience, of course, but if I were to approximate the average age of a ticket-holder at this concert it would be somewhere more or less in the mid 40s, just a little less aged than I. Even at 48, though, I can still stand for two or three hours at a time, so why was everybody in the place seated throughout almost the entire performance? Nobody stood, except during particularly well-known songs like ‘Comfortably Numb’ or ‘Run Like Hell’ and again at the end for the ovation to Roger and the band members. Truly, it was more like 20,000 people watching a good film together rather than seeing a rock concert. I may even go so far as to say 20,000 people filming a rock concert, as at least half the crowd sat motionless in their seats, moving not at all nor tapping their foot even once, as they pointed their cellphone video cameras steadily at the stage. And that sweet smell in the air that I remember so well from the concerts of my youth? Almost entirely absent now. Only twice did the slightest little whiff waft its way towards my hungry nostrils, whereas in the old days you could have walked out of pretty much any concert with a contact high even if you didn’t smoke. I guess its okay. We’re all older nowadays. I get that. Most of us are parents; some of us are even grandparents. We ain’t gonna be out doing the same reckless crazy shit that we did back in the 80s, and we ain’t gonna let our kids do it, either. Besides, all these venues are totally non-smoking these days anyway. But seriously, did you have to simply sit there with you cellphones in your hands? Don’t you know how many cellphone videos of this show are already up on YouTube? Have some damned fun! Makes me feel old just being around y’all. Just because you’re 50 don’t mean you have to act like it!
More than one reader probably picked up this article expecting to read a concert review. There’s one here, but before I get into the excellence of Roger Waters there is one more dis to drop, that being against the heinous customer service at the Jack Daniel’s Bar & Grill there inside Toyota Center. I didn’t get the names of these two clowns posing as bartenders, but they suck, and they know why they suck. Half an hour for a beer my ass, and rudeness beyond any acceptable limits of civility. Not exactly what I would expect from the staff of what is supposedly an establishment of some class. Okay, that’s enough. Now, finally y’all, let’s get on to the review!
So what was it like to see The Wall performed live after all these years; the closest version to a Pink Floyd concert I’ll ever get to see in this lifetime? All the standard tag-line-press-release adjectives apply here; words like ‘awesome’, ‘historic’, ‘incredible’, ‘mesmerizing’, and perhaps even ‘gargantuan’ come to mind. Nothing was spared from the production of this magnificent show, and Waters led his band through the entire mind-blowing opus with the other half of the crowd, those not glued to their cellphones watching on their tiny little screens instead of in front of their very eyes, singing every single lyric of every single song back to him. What an amazing feeling that must be, and it happens to him around the world, wherever he goes, at any venue and in any country that he performs in; this show kicked off the North American leg of the tour they’re currently on. It could be reasonably argued that The Wall is the album that brought about the end of Pink Floyd, that The Final Cut was just a postscript to an otherwise amazing run as a band, and that anything either Waters or David Gilmour has done since is a mere shadow of their earlier grandeur. It is just as reasonable to say that no other title in Pink Floyd’s rather extensive anthology had the same overall effect on its generation as The Wall did, nor does any other album with the possible exception of Dark Side define the band so precisely as this. I remember, more or less, where I was on that day in 1980 when the now-legendary lyric “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” was heard for the first time across the schoolyards and spread-out subdivisions of Spring, Texas. And now, here in the 21st century, I am privileged, and have paid an obscene amount of money, to see the original author of this expansive production do it live, and do it perfectly. Crossed another one off the list! There aren’t too many left on the list, I’m sad to say. Most of those who were on the list at one point are either dead (such as Layne Staley and Wendy O.) or irrelevant by now (Ozzy, Aerosmith, KISS, and the like). If I’d known, I would have worked harder on this list when both I and these great bands of yore were all still alive.
There are more than a few observations about this show that a responsible critic must make if this review is to be complete. As in the olden days of Floyd, a Roger Waters concert is more akin to a grand operatic presentation than a standard stand-there-and-shred rock performance. There is always something to be seen out of the corner of your eye, always something to be heard out of the corner of your ear. The wall itself was employed throughout as a largely incomplete (since it was under construction for the first half of the show) movie screen upon which any number of abstract or pointed images was presented. Waters maintains his commitment to protesting against global corporate greed and pushing his message of resistance to the status quo which, although this reviewer generally abhors the mixture of music and politics, are ideologies far too often underrepresented in today’s society. A little anarchy never hurt anybody, and Waters presses this point well. The evening was peppered with statements decrying and ridiculing the government and the corporate world (Toyota included, I am wryly pleased to observe) and mocking the mainstream public for their blind, unquestioning consumerism and endless demands for more and more frivolous crap. I don’t know if anybody got it, though. The sheep don’t like to be reminded that they are sheep. Waters’ sense of civic responsibility, so often either lacking or totally over-done amongst upper-echelon rock stars, also found its way to the stage in the form of the children’s choir brought on for ‘Brick pt II’ which he had recruited from youthful beneficiaries of the local Houston Meals on Wheels program, and he took a touching moment to introduce that program’s director to the crowd. Those kids sang their little hearts out!
There were a variety of ways in which Waters was able to update this presentation of The Wall to a more 21st century audience. ‘Bring The Boys Back Home’ became a tearful experience for many as images of our own troops engaged in modern desert combat blended with those of civilian activists lost around the world and antique photographs of World War II veterans, including that of Waters’ slain father, which itself was one of the primary traumas inspiring the creation of this original masterpiece of a concept album. He put a very interesting twist on ‘Mother’ as well; strapping on his acoustic and presenting footage from the 1980 Wall concert at Earl’s Court in London, playing the song live alongside it, essentially in a click-tracked duet with his much-younger self that was entirely successful! There was a brief moment, though, when I had to wonder what Roger was thinking as he offered up a very short and heinously country-fried version of ‘Brick’ from which, perhaps, only the banjos had been overlooked. There may have even been banjos, I don’t remember. Other than that, though, the entire theatrical presentation was without doubt the most immense spectacle that I have ever seen, unmatched in its grandeur. Young people in the crowd were wearing the crossed-hammer symbol right along with us old folks; proof that The Wall is trans-generational, and stands today just as meaningful and relevant as it did in its debut all those years ago. This material is timeless, and possibly without equal in the entire history of recorded rock music.
Waters was supported on stage by a superb cast of musicians, including Snowy White, who has played a key role in many live Pink Floyd productions going all the way back to the Wish You Were Here days. It used to be that David Gilmour would give the second solos to White; this evening those solos were passed to him by Dave Kilminster, whose own guitar expertise was well showcased as he matched Gilmour’s licks masterfully on every song. Not a single note was missed. Graham Broad held the percussion steady, and many other contributing musicians and backing vocalists rounded out the event and made it complete. A great nod of appreciation must go out to the road crew on this particular traveling show. They are the ones who spend laborious hours setting the stage and props just right, and they too are the ones who work tirelessly in the dark throughout the first half setting the bricks of the Wall into place just so, they run the video projectors, they guide the remote-controlled pig through the air with such smooth seamlessness that one does not even notice the appearance of the pig until its already there, nor do you ever watch it disappear to anywhere, it is simply gone the next time you look up. So well skilled and adept they are at this that a well-placed, informed friend advises me that the Roger Waters road crew sets up The Wall in the span of a single day, and tears it down for transport to the next town in less time than that.
Any review of a modern-day stratosphere-level rock show must at some point bemoan the high price of tickets these days, and this review is no exception. Although the face value of my ticket was marked at only $99 (did I just say ONLY $99?) and I bought it directly from the Toyota Center Online Box Office, the convenience fee, service fee, and assorted other tacked-on fees jacked that amount up to a whopping $245. I’m not complaining, per se, so much as I find myself prompted to ask who the real scalpers are here. The ticket agencies who can legally get away with selling a hundred dollar ticket for two and a half times that amount, or the guy out in the street trying to flip an extra ticket for fifty bucks more than he paid for it?
On the two-disc CD set, The Wall runs for more or less an hour. On film, it’s an hour and a half. Live on stage, with the intermission break after ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ and incorporating all the effects, additional music, and filler material not included on the CD set, it stretches to almost three hours long. This is a show of epic dimension and broad, wide-ranging effect. There were no opening acts presented at all, the night was Roger’s alone and rightly so. I would like to have seen Pink Floyd when they brought The Wall through back in 1980, but they only played a couple of North American shows, and those were in places very far from Texas. Last Tuesday night, I got to make up for that lack. I may be a grown-up by now, but I still ain’t no adult and I still don't need no education or thought control! Thank you Roger Waters!
Because The Music Matters!!!
Photo lifted from the Internet