In the minutes before Pink Floyd mastermind Roger Waters took to the stage at HP Pavilion earlier this week to perform the band's epic 1979 double album The Wall, the playlist coming through the house speakers gave way to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," a song that seemed well-matched for the impending performance. For an artist that is commonly known for romantic jazz ballads, Holiday's "Strange Fruit" was a defining moment in her career, a point in which she ascended beyond the simplest manifestations of her identity and delved into the darkest corners of her times.
In a similar sense, there is no easy way around The Wall. Pink Floyd's last album during their monumental run in the '70s -- Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals -- was not only their most artistically ambitious, but a lingering challenge to the nature of the band's legacy. Longview attempts to define Pink Floyd in the realm of blacklight posters, spacey sounds, or a Dazed and Confused mindset, will inevitably get stuck at The Wall: a dark and confrontational album that is ultimately the most emblematic of Pink Floyd's greatest characteristics.
So, with Waters (at age 67) suggesting that this will be his last tour, it is appropriate that he would finish with his masterpiece. And make no mistake - this was a concert for the ages.
Playing before an enthralled sold-out crowd, Waters put on a spectacle of acid-casualty-inflicting-potential that seemed peerless on numerous fronts. Musically, the material was as dynamic as it was seamless, deftly rendered by a world-class band of musicians over a juggernaut of a sound system. Visually, the staging seemed calibrated past "entertain" and set on "assault", showcasing a sensory barrage of giant puppets, crashing airplanes, and flying pigs all amidst the construction (and eventual toppling) of a 40ft wall that also served as a towering projection screen for a dizzying array of images and video.
Yet the most notable aspect of the performance was the sheer relevance of the material. This was really an amazing feature, considering that Waters wrote The Wall in the run up to the Reagan-Thatcher era and was now performing it in the aftermath of Bush-Cheney. In this regard, Waters delved deeply into the confrontational aspect of the album's material, challenging the audience with all-too-timely themes of war, ideology, government surveillance, and the general estrangement of modern human relations. During "Run Like Hell" the projections on the wall at one point showed the Wikileaks-released video of the 2007 Apache Helicopter massacre in Baghdad; not exactly light viewing material to accompany one of Floyd's classic radio hits.
Waters looked and sounded formidable throughout the concert, stalking the stage with good-humored authority as the wall was erected in front of the band throughout the beginning half of the album. This first set was packed with striking moments, such as the ominous acoustic beauty of "Goodbye Blue Sky" beset by visuals of bomber planes dropping their payloads of -isms (dollar signs, religious symbols, and corporate logos) on those below. "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)," with its re-occurring mantra - "We Don't Need No Education" - was already a staggering spectacle as a three-story marionette school teacher with laser eyes dwarfed the musicians below, only to then be embellished by a choir of local school kids filling the stage to sing the later verses.
However, the most poignant moment of the show came during the second set as Waters - who had lost his father as a boy during World War II - performed "Vera" and "Bring the Boys Back Home" beneath video spots of children reuniting with their fathers returning home from war. The final clip - of a young girl going from surprise to gut-wrenching emotion as she first sees her father - left audience members wiping back tears as Water's sang the line, "Does anybody else in here/feel the way I do?"
The wall came toppling down after the more theatrical rock-opera moments of the second album, culminating with "The Trial" performed beneath Gerald Scarfe's hallucinatory animation from the 1982 film adaptation of the album. Waters and company finished the concert amongst the rubble, playing a wonderfully serene and hopeful version of "Outside the Wall."
Much has been made of the fact that the original staging of this album was a logistical debacle when it was performed in only four cities some 30 years ago, and that the evolution of technology has now made it feasible. Yet, in a similar sense, the album's material has matured in its own way in this time. Writing during a time of personal crisis in the late 70s, Waters conceived the album as an exploration of human relationships and the many obstacles that hinder them. The timeliness of these themes then -- especially after a decade marred by war and a divided population - makes this tour less of a nostalgic throwback and more of manifested vision. Pink Floyd had always been far ahead their time, so there is a fitting logic that it would take three decades for The Wall to be properly realized in concert.
Of course, it'll be interesting to see if this tour is in fact the last call on an original Pink Floyd experience. Altough the surviving band members are getting on in years (keyboardist Richard Wright died in 2008), they have made some steps at amends recently, and even expressed interest in collaborating again. Perhaps then, there is still time for those walls to come down. After all….when it comes to Pink Floyd, it's well known that pigs will fly