"Thirty years ago, when I first wrote this album, I was rather famously not very good at being in rooms with people liking me a lot," Roger Waters said last night at the close of his epic performance of The Wall, wherein he used pyrotechnics, a high-def screen, dozens of projectors and blank white bricks that created a screen upon which a universe of pain, torment and beauty unfolded. "But I could not be happier right now than to be here with all of you." It's been a long journey since 1979 for Waters, and 2012 seems a potent time to be reviving this monstrosity for a tour.
A packed (and rapt) Pepsi Center audience watched the scenes unfold in front of it tonight, and although most of us know each chord of the album by heart, seeing it performed live is something else entirely. There were a few surprises and slight deviations from the album version -- this is live, after all -- but for the most part, the script played out exactly like the album, only writ larger than life on the giant stage with its wall neatly bisecting the Pepsi Center, chopping off a third of the venue.
Behind the two halves of the partially built wall hovered a giant circular screen, and as the house lights went down (and a voice warned would-be DIY photographers to turn the flash off their cameras lest they ruin the high-definition projections about to spool across the stage), dialogue from Spartacus blasted from the speakers while two soldiers held a faceless figure up as if to execute it. The release of the figure was punctuated with blazing fire shooting up from the stage and down from the rafters, smoke and gunshots opening up "In the Flesh?"
As this was happening, a plane flew into the Wall and knocked down a few blocks, and at one point, a helicopter hovered around the room before landing on the stage; the air vibrated with its power, and you could feel the wind from its propeller sweep your face and hair as the 'copter landed. Several audience members glanced upward almost involuntarily to try to spot the hovering machine. Photos of fallen soldiers (from World War II and Iraq), firefighters and civilians were projected on the bricks, and the rolling guitar line that opens "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1" heralded a scene of water projected on the wall and the screen, then the intent (often unhappy) faces of children surrounded by a halo of spotlights.
A giant alien puppet teacher descended from the ceiling, eyes glowing red, holding a wand as if conducting an orchestra, tentacle-like hair twisting from its head, ushering in the unmistakable opening chords of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2." A choir of children wearing black shirts with the white lettering "Fear Builds Walls" stenciled on the front joined in on the second verse. Before starting "Mother," Waters addressed the crowd for the first time and explained that he wanted to sing a song to commemorate Jean Charles de Menezes, an engineering student shot and killed by London police for no reason in 2005. "And it's also to remind ourselves that if we start giving our police and our government more power, it's a very slippery slope."
"Mother" featured Rogers strumming softly on his guitar alone on stage while he played along with footage filmed in 1980 at the Earls Court Pink Floyd show; he noted he was going to play a duet with "that poor, miserable, fucked-up little Roger from so long ago." His younger self was projected in stark black and white behind the older (and wiser) Waters, and an authoritarian, Queen-like Mother figure loomed over the stage, head panning back and forth as if scanning the crowd. When Rogers sang "Mother should I trust the government," red words scrawled "No fucking way" across the wall. Cameras and the red, ominous lighting belied the soft guitar lines of the song.
"Goodbye Blue Sky" had a similar tone, with images of birds flying on the screens turning into images of airplanes that took off into the air, then dropped images on the ground below them: Crosses and sickles and dollar signs and crescents and stars and shells and golden arches, creating a sea of red spreading across the landscape. Complex psychedelic scenes unwound on the screen through "Empty Spaces," with fucking flowers growing fangs and attacking each other and cities springing from endless products, growing and consuming everything as a white wall streaks across the landscape.
Beautiful women in wholes and snippets (and various stages of undress) were the focus of "Young Lust," and gradually, we realized the wall was growing slowly but inexorably, and the images on the wall (which was expanding to cover the circular screen behind it) conflated to a giant pair of eyes that began crying blackish-green tears, sickly and overflowing. Through "One of My Turns" and "Don't Leave Me Now," more and more of the wall filled in until it filled up three-quarters of the stage, with small holes at the bottom revealing Waters and his band. Another giant alien-like puppet, similar to the teacher, stomped out on stage, undulating to the deep basslines the headliner coaxed from his instrument.
Fragmented, disjointed images flashed across the wall during "Another Brick in the Wall Part 3," including violent clips, colorful static, Martin Luther King Jr., brands and logos, a girl lifting her shirt, a snarling dog. Pieces of the wall began floating away into the darkness, leaving gaping holes and fragments of wall suspended in midair. Then the bricks started to speed back into the wall, each brick containing faces, and we realized during "Goodbye Cruel World" that the wall was never gone at all -- it was an illusion, and the holes revealing the musicians had almost been completely filled in, with only two bricks to show Waters, then one, then none -- and it was time for intermission.
During the intermission, a message was projected onto the wall: "I would like to thank all of you who have sent in photos of loved ones -- they will be remembered." Faces and information about people in a grid filled the wall for twenty minutes or so before the lights went back down for the second act. Projections of a wall on the wall (very meta) accentuated the brick parameters, and the unmistakable guitar lines heralding "Hey You" filled the air. Behind the wall, blue spotlights illuminated the band, and the song played restrained but earnest.
The void and giant blinking eyes returned, with a small hole in the wall through which Waters peered before the bricks were replaced. Throughout the rest of the set, although the wall was never removed, there were various ways in which the artists communicated with the crowd: sometimes through psychedelic screen projections, sometimes by peering over the wall or poking holes through the wall, and other such novelties.
During "Nobody Home," Waters appeared in front of the wall in a typical living-room setup, with a couch, a lamp and a television to which he gestured at the appropriate moments. The wall swallowed him back up amid planes and gunfire, and then "Vera" began, hailed with images of children reuniting with long-gone parents and poignant pacing of the guitar.
For "Bring the Boys Back Home," the lyrics blazed white (and occasionally red) across images of war and famine and the sad eyes of children, and a white spot in the middle of the screen expanded into "Comfortably Numb," wherein Waters stood on top of the wall to serenade the crowd. He hit all those difficult notes beautifully, proving that although he might have thirty years of singing these songs under his belt, they sound just as deep and resonant as they did when he first wrote them.
Projected on the wall were columns and columns (in row upon row) of bricks, and light seemed to move down from the tops of the bricks like sun rising on a range of mountains. Back came the hammers and the banners, black and red, and an angry black pig with tusks and glowing red eyes launched from the top of the stage with earlier symbols of fear and more slogans -- "Them Not Us," "You Better Run" -- splashed across its vast, shiny sides.
"Are there any paranoids in the stadium tonight? This is for you!" Waters exclaimed before "Run Like Hell" filled the speakers. White print reading "iLead," "iProtect," "iResist," "iTeach," "iLearn," "iPay," "iBelieve" and "iKill" and pigs wearing white earbuds fill the wall, and screeching dissonance and sirens, military footage and gunshots permeate the air before ribbons of snakelike red wind across the wall like earthworms.
An overblown, cartoonish (yet spooky) judge pronounced his sentence in "The Trial" after more images of marching hammers, faces on the wall and psychedelic, wheeling stories of madness in "Waiting for the Worms," and before we knew it, "Outside the Wall" was ringing through the speakers. "Tear down the wall" rang the chant throughout the room, and planes, hammers, Mother and other symbols returned in flashes as, with rumbles and booming, the wall finally came down.
Behind it, the circular screen shined with a projection of the moon on it; a girl with balloons stood and waved in the middle of the screen before taking a deep curtsy. With a short acoustic bit about internal walls, followed by an extended band introduction and a long, final goodbye, the house lights came up on a magical night that played out like a trip inside a lifelong psychic journey.
Page down for Critic's Notebook and Setlist
Personal Bias: Roger Waters is a total fucking rock star. If you disagree with that, then you probably weren't there last night.
Random Detail: A couple by the line to get in bore a plea for tickets in a sign painted with the trademark red lettering on white bricks: "The dark side of the Wall/Isn't comfortably numb/Wish we were there." That sign deserved a couple of tickets, for sure.
By the Way: The criss-crossed pickaxes that comprise the Nuggets logo look quite a bit like the criss-crossed militaristic hammer logo, which I never would have noticed outside of this experience at the Pepsi Center.
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