Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on The Wall concert

It would have been very easy to be disappointed by Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall (Monday, November 29, 2010 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles). Pink Floyd’s album The Wall (specifically the song “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”) was what hooked me on the band; I received the album for my 12th birthday. The rest, as they say, is history. Thirty years of history, and after such a long wait I was afraid that the show would not live up to expectations.

The original Wall concerts in 1980 are the stuff of rock and roll legend. So elaborate and expensive that the tour was limited to four cities, it also represented the last time the “classic” four-man lineup of Pink Floyd performed live until the 2005 Live 8 reunion. The concerts were filmed but never released. An audio recording was not released until 2000. Fans have had to make do with Alan Parker’s 1982 film adaptation Pink Floyd The Wall – a fine film and probably the best possible adaptation, but not a substitute for the concert experience – and with Waters’ 1990 staging of The Wall in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. This latter was a well-intentioned boondoggle, so beset by technical problems that a good third of the footage in the official concert film was taken from the previous evening’s dress rehearsal. Again, not what we really wanted.

I confess I felt trepidation when I heard that Waters would be taking The Wall on tour, despite (or because of) thirty years of wishing I’d been there. I was not encouraged by the fact that Waters hasn’t done any new material of note since 1992; his tours in the late 90s and early 00s have been rehashes of past glories. His Dark Side of the Moon tour in 2006-2007 was enjoyable but not earthshaking. And I was skeptical of any changes he might make to The Wall in its new incarnation. I had no desire to see Waters’ version of “Greedo shot first.”

But the new Wall tour is proof that going back to the well can be a positive thing. While the music and the staging concept remain unchanged, advances in technology have enhanced the performance in a multitude of ways. And there are other, more meaningful changes as well.

First off, the music. What you’ll hear at the show more or less mirrors what you’ll hear on the recordings of the original tour (and is not too far removed from the studio album). No one can replace Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour (who will grace one of the new Wall shows with his presence, but alas it was not Los Angeles) for either vocals or guitar, but Waters has put together a solid, talented lineup of musicians: Snowy White (guitar), Graham Broad (drums), Harry Waters (Hammond organ), Jon Carin (keyboards), G. E. Smith (guitar), Dave Kilminster (guitar), Robbie Wyckoff (vocals), Jon Joyce (backing vocals), and Mark, Kip, and Pat Lennon (backing vocals).

As for the visuals, the original Wall shows were highly impressive for their time, not least because of the fundamental concept: constructing a wall across the stage that eventually blocks the band from the audience’s view. As a metaphor for alienation it’s not especially original, to say the least, but as theater it’s powerful. The show begins with the right and left side of the wall already in place, and as the songs tell of greater reasons for one to shun interaction with fellow human beings, more and more bricks are added to the wall. At the concert’s halfway mark the wall is complete. It’s simple yet quite effective, especially as one is so caught up in the show that it’s easy to overlook the smaller and smaller spaces available for viewing Waters and the band. And the first song of the second half, “Hey You,” is performed entirely from behind the wall, but with the full light show and spotlights on singers still continuing, thus reinforcing the theme of alienation and the metaphorical barrier between artists and audience.

This is not to say that the audience is left staring at a blank space for much of the show. During the Wall’s construction the band’s famous circular film screen (known as “Mr. Screen” to the fans) is in place, and post-construction the wall itself serves as a projection area. Such has always been the case with Wall concerts dating back to the originals, but new technology allows for precise animation onto individual bricks, or across the width of the wall itself. Waters uses this technology to often-stunning, occasionally heartbreaking effect, from the creepily lascivious flowers to simple photos and descriptions of those who’ve died in wars. The animation present throughout the show is a mix of cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s original sequences (save for “Goodbye Blue Sky,” the absence of which is my only complaint about the show) along with newer animation, as well as use of newsreel and television footage.

But perhaps the greatest enhancement to The Wall is the shift in the work’s themes. The overall theme remains the same: rock musician has crappy life (father killed in World War 2, overattentive mother, soul-crushing educational experience, marriage gone bad), reacts to crappy life by alienating himself, unleashes his inner fascist, puts himself on trial, tears down the wall, and learns the true meaning of Christmas. But the intervening three decades between the work’s conception and its newest incarnation have, thankfully, given Waters some perspective and allowed him to imbue the work with greater maturity and universality.

It’s ironic that what first attracted me to The Wall is the very thing that makes it no longer my favorite Pink Floyd album. It’s a very adolescent work – a friend once summed it up as: “I’m an asshole and it’s everyone’s fault but mine.” This is fine when you’re an adolescent, and frankly I doubt I’d have gotten through my teen angst phase unscathed if I hadn’t had this album in heavy rotation. But as I’ve gotten older, the album has had less appeal for me. (It’s still one of my go-to albums when I’m angry about something, though.)

Waters seems to have realized this too, and while keeping the same themes he’s given them a broader appeal. The defining loss of the character, the first “brick” if you will, is that of the character’s father. To this sequence Waters has added visuals of others’ family members lost to wars and other conflicts; during the show’s intermission the wall has photos and descriptions of fallen loved ones (these tributes were sent in by fans) giving silent testimony to the terrible costs of war. Likewise, though the song “Vera” makes specific reference to World War 2 and British singer Vera Lynn (famous for “We’ll Meet Again”), the accompanying visuals include footage of today’s children reuniting with fathers home from Iraq. There’s a greater use of metaphor as well, as the song “Mother” becomes not just an exploration of the damage parents can (un)intentionally do, but of governments that don’t trust their citizens to think for themselves.

One of my favorite improvements is a subtle one. At the close of the show’s first half, during “Goodbye Cruel World” the final brick is put into place. In past stagings, the placement of the brick has always been the job of a stagehand. But now Waters puts the brick in place himself. It may only be improved brick technology that allows this, but there is also the implication that we are the ones that build these walls. We do it to ourselves, it is not done to us. We are the ones responsible for what happens when we cut ourselves off emotionally and spiritually. And we are the ones who need to tear down the walls, no matter how painful or difficult that may be.

Overall, the evening was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. An added thrill was that everyone around me seemed to get what was going on, and enjoying not just another show but a blend of spectacle and meaning, sight and sound.

I waited thirty years for this. It was worth it.

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