Preview: The Wall by Roger Waters

Once upon a time, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters had a message for his fans:

“Fuck you!”

While touring the world in support of the Animals record in 1977, Waters became disillusioned with the concert industry.  By all accounts, he hated performing in stadium venues because a significant number of fans had become more interested in the party and the festival atmosphere than the music.  Up until the release of Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had played to reverent, hushed, enraptured crowds in theatres.  But the collateral cost of the phenomenal success of DSotM and the follow-up Wish You Were Here album was the loss of intimacy with their audience.

Suddenly, fans were either relegated to the anonymity of Row 64 at the back of the venue (hundreds of feet from the stage) or they were so drunk and disorderly that they set off fireworks during the gig.  Things got so bad that, at one infamous show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Waters actually baited one particularly looney fan up to the front… and proceeded to gob in his face.

In retrospect, Waters was ashamed and horrified by what he’d done, but the event gave him a powerful idea for the next record.  What if we built a monstrous wall across the stage so that brick by brick the band could literally isolate themselves from the lunacy in the crowd?  Could there possibly be a bigger “Fuck You!” statement than a stark 30-foot-high wall between performer and audience?

As the story goes, Waters presented two ideas to the rest of Pink Floyd before they left for the south of France in 1979 to make their next record (the reasons why they went to France are worthy of a separate blog post).  One concept was the story of a hitchhiker, with a series of events unfolding over a late night on the open highway.  The other was the story of a gonzo rock star that isolated himself to ever-increasing degrees from his audience.  The band passed on the first concept, which went on to become Waters’ The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking record in the mid-1980s.  The second idea, with a less-developed demo but much greater musical and theatrical potential, was chosen by the band to become The Wall.

The Wall is essentially the story of Pink, a successful rock star who becomes increasingly displaced from his family, his lover, and reality.  The parallels between Pink and Roger Waters’ experience on the Animals tour are obvious enough.  But a simple “woe is me, the huge rock star” album would have been a complete disaster.  Nobody wants to hear a record about how ‘miserable’ it is to travel from city to city by private jet, with 24-hour instant access to mind-altering substances and hot & cold running women.

Partial credit for actually executing The Wall should be attributed to guitarist David Gilmour (who co-produced and served as musical director) and producer Bob Ezrin.  Ezrin suggested that the idea behind The Wall should be more generalized in order to broaden the appeal.  Everybody feels isolated in modern society; few people get to know their neighbours, socialize beyond a very select circle of friends, or have the opportunity to travel to far-off lands.  Everyone can relate to erecting a metaphorical wall between themselves and the world at large.  By opening up the concept and pairing the evocative lyrics to the memorable music created by Waters, Gilmour (who brought “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell” to the table), keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, The Wall double-album went on to be an influential, world-wide smash.  And that disco beat underpinning “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”?  You can credit that to Bob Ezrin, too.

The original Wall tour in 1980 and 1981 was limited to a select number of engagements in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Dortmund.  At the time, the technology to present the album in a live setting was prohibitively expensive, and it was unheard of to charge more than $20 or $25 for concert tickets.  Concert promoters backed up the money truck, imploring Pink Floyd to take the tour into stadiums where the economies of scale would make the gig profitable.  But this idea was so antithetical to what the band (particularly Waters and Gilmour) were about that a couple of dozen arena shows were all that ever transpired.

Until 1990.

In the 1980s, Waters had a falling out with his Pink Floyd band mates which culminated in his acrimonious departure from the group.  The divorce was extremely messy, but one of the things that Waters retained was the performance rights to the concept of The Wall.  While the Soviet Union was crumbling, Waters assembled a collection of all-star musicians to re-create The Wall in the Potsdamer Platz, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall.  Re-staging the themes of metaphorical isolation next to a landmark of physical isolation was an inspired idea.  The show was an international phenomenon, but it was a one-time event.  And if we’re being honest, it was a bit of a logistical nightmare. Reports vary as to how much money was actually raised for charity… and did they really need to invite Cyndi Lauper?

Fast forward about twenty more years, and the concert industry has become a completely different experience.  People no longer go to a few gigs a month; these days, concerts are ‘events’ that are only attended once or twice a year.  Perhaps the biggest difference is the cost of admission.  If it used to cost $25 to see a primo show, today a $225 ticket price is not unusual.  As well, concert production has progressed leaps and bounds from the ‘good’ old days.  Multi-coloured laser lighting, high-definition projections, crystal-clear audio, and high-end computer processing power are readily available.  The seeds were sown for a proper tour of The Wall.

Over a period of three years, Waters worked with a group of experts to put together an arena production of The Wall that could travel from city to city.  The group worked on everything from brick assembly technology to synchronized video projections to inflatable puppets.  Everything was designed to bring The Wall to life in a concert setting.

And the results are staggering.

I was lucky enough to attend two shows on the 2010 tour.  I saw the Phoenix, AZ show in November, and two weeks later I caught another show in Vancouver, BC.  Waters’ touring production of The Wall is brilliant – equal parts rock show, Broadway musical, and technological tour-de-force.  The tour was so successful that it has been extended several times.  Waters is taking his band of happy minstrels around the world again in 2012, including two shows next week in Edmonton, Alberta and two more in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Live and in the flesh, The Wall is unlike any other show I’ve ever seen.  The quadrophonic sound is pristine, the musicianship is first-rate, and the video projections (first on the trademark Floydian circular screen, later directly onto the wall) are sublime.  HDTV technology has advanced to the point where the A/V guys can project different images onto individual bricks in the wall.  The show is so engrossing that the audience feels simultaneously overwhelmed by the spectacle, yet drawn into the performance.  It is simply over the top of ‘over-the-top’.

There are many great songs on the record, and the touring band do an excellent job of infusing them with life on stage.  I have never been too keen on Side 4 of the album, from “Waiting for the Worms” onward.  The whole sequence where Pink goes on trial before his peers always seemed a bit over-cooked.  Fortunately, the proceedings hold together a lot better in the live setting.  This is where the twisted theatre-style multi-media presentation really pays off.  Throughout the show, I felt emotionally invested in the story.

The whole show kicks ass on so many levels, but a few moments stand out.  It’s hard to beat the bombast of opening number “In The Flesh?”, with the fireworks, the flag-bearers on scissor lifts, and the special surprise at the end.  Throughout “Mother” and the “Another Brick In The Wall” suite, Gerald Scarfe’s puppets depicting the Mother, the Wife, and the Schoolmaster are simultaneously trippy and frightening.

The first half of the show concludes with the insertion of the last few bricks into the wall.  During the intermission, the audience stands face-to-face with a massive monument bearing the images of soldiers, freedom fighters, and everyday heroes lost to 20th and 21st century conflicts.  Among the bricks you’ll see a photo of Eric Fletcher Waters, Roger’s father, who perished in the Allied invasion of Anzio, Italy in 1944.

The tone of the performance has been updated in a variety of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways.  The loss of the father he never knew, neo-fascist paranoia,  oppressive educational institutions, and Orwellian military conflict were always cornerstones of the gig and remain so today.  But watch the videos closely and you’ll see insights into how Waters feels about crass commercialism, religious fundamentalism, and heavy-handed police states.  These are themes he dealt with more directly on 1992’s Amused to Death record, but now they form part of the Wall experience.  The premise is no longer “Fuck You!”; the updated tone is very much Waters AND his audience united against the manifestations of evil in the world.

When ace guitarist Dave Kilminster performs the solos for “Comfortably Numb” from the top of the wall, time seems to stand still.  Close your eyes for five seconds and you’ll be transported back in time to the early 1980s, when David Gilmour stood atop that wall and played his heart out every night.  Kilminster comes the closest to nailing Gilmour’s unique mid-boosted tone and bluesy feel of anyone I’ve seen in concert.  Snowy White does an admirable job on his guitar parts, too, bringing a little more Gibson Les Paul bark to the show.

The ending of the show is deliciously ambiguous.  Without giving too much away, the pinnacle of the show is the systematic destruction of the wall.  But it’s never particularly clear whether the collapse of the wall has released Pink from his fascist purgatory or condemned him to it.  Does he survive the exposition, or is he crushed under the sheer weight of the falling debris?  In a theatrical masterstroke, Waters leaves it up to the audience to decide.

If you have a chance to see this show during Waters’ victory lap around the world in 2012, I urge you to do so.  Whether you appreciate it for the spectacle, the theatricality, the stories or the musicianship, you will not regret it.


Bon Iver’s Seismic Shift

Last year, the northeast coast of Japan was stricken by a huge subduction zone earthquake and tsunami.  It caused an unfathomable amount of death and destruction, killing thousands and affecting the lives of millions of people.  The Japanese are a resilient bunch, and life in the land of the rising sun will eventually return to something resembling normal.  That said, the disasters Japan faced last year would test the will of anyone.

Amid the tragedy, some fascinating physical events occurred.  By some estimates, the main island of Japan moved over two metres closer to North America in a matter of seconds.  A large piece of the Pacific tectonic plate dove under the Japanese sub-plate, which set off the tsunami.  With that much mass moving closer to the centre of the earth, it affected the rate at which our planet rotates.  Thanks to the conservation law of angular momentum, the Earth’s rotation sped up a measurable amount (by something like 1.8 microseconds per day) to compensate.  It was testament to how a single event can trigger an effect on a planetary scale.

The laws of cause & effect also seem to hold in our personal lives.  Everybody has days that stand out, days that subtly nudge the trajectory of their lives in one direction or another.  In my decidedly simple life, those days tend to be music concerts.  It may sound churlish that some of my life-altering events are nothing more than rock ‘n’ roll gigs, but it’s true.  I can still remember how awestruck I felt during Pink Floyd’s show in Winnipeg on 1-Jul-1994, and how emotional I got at Radiohead’s Gorge Amphitheatre gig on 23-Jun-2001, and I remember Wilco’s mind-blowingly intense concert in Edmonton on 18-Aug-2007 like it was yesterday.  Each of those shows, in some small way, deflected the course of my life.

Over time, I think Monday night’s Bon Iver gig in Edmonton might just take its place among my pantheon of great gigs.  Walking out of the show, I somehow felt like a different person, as though life was moving at a slightly different speed.

Based on the sonics of last year’s impressive self-titled release and their restrained performances on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, I expected the Bon Iver live experience to be a low-key affair.  What they delivered live in the flesh was instead at times a visceral rock and roll show, accompanied by an impressionistic audio-visual assault on the senses.  The nine musicians on stage explored every nuance of the songs from Bon Iver and injected new life into cuts from the debut album For Emma, Forever Ago and the Blood Bank EP.

The stage of the Jubilee Auditorium was framed across the top by web-like burlap curtains, with post-modern, multi-coloured LED stalagmites below.  The curtains served as ragged makeshift drive-in movie screens for projected images.  Most of the night the stage was relatively dark, bathed in slowly swirling washes of red or blue light.  But during the punchiest numbers, strobe lights and other effects pierced through the haze to add an extra element to the music.  The result was a workout for the senses – eardrums strained to adapt to varying loudness levels while irises constantly adjusted to the ever-changing lights.  It gave the relatively stoic performers on stage a sense of kinetic energy.

The back line consisted of a bass player and horn player, bookended by dueling drummers.  Up front, leader Justin Vernon was flanked by guitarists, another horn player, and various other instruments.  At times, the guitarists kneeled over their pedal boards in reverence to their musical cousins in Radiohead.  Props to the back line horn player who spent most of the gig playing the biggest goddamn saxophone I’ve ever seen.  It looked like someone ripped the exhaust pipe off a top-fuel dragster, put three bends in it, and jammed in a mouthpiece.  Simply epic.

The set kicked off with the formidable 1-2 punch of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”.  The same two songs lead off the Bon Iver album, but in a live setting the dynamics of the tunes were much more pronounced.  The drums were thunderous, the guitars squalled, and the horns blared in service to the groove.  And this night was very much about mood and groove and emotion, since so many of the songs lacked a conventional verse-chorus structure.

A personal highlight was the mid-set back-to-back placement of “Holocene” and “Blood Bank”.  “Holocene” was ethereal and gracious as you might expect, while “Blood Bank” was a gut-punch of noise and stomping rhythms.  The sax solo that formed the bridge between the two songs came perilously close to “Jazz Odyssey” territory, but never quite slipped over the edge.

Later on, the unmistakable opening notes of “Skinny Love” and “Calgary” elicited cheers of recognition from the 2500 fans in attendance.  The crowd ranged mostly from university-aged kids to people in their mid thirties.  Bon Iver has virtually no terrestrial radio presence in this town, so the popularity of this quickly sold-out gig spoke volumes about how non-traditional media has changed the music world.  Whether by word of mouth, Facebook, satellite radio, internet radio, iTunes or tastemaker blogs, the kids are discovering groundbreaking music by alternative means.  Make something great and unique, and people will always seek it out.

It was also inspiring to watch a hotly-tipped band come out and juxtapose seemingly incompatible genres like modern rock, soul, 80’s AOR, and chamber folk instead of playing it safe.  Bon Iver fearlessly chose to follow their musical instincts instead of cashing in on their recent Grammy buzz.  Nowhere was this more evident than on the main set closer “Beth/Rest”, where Vernon’s passionate lead vocal revealed a complete, un-ironic conviction in the stirring ideas at the heart of the song.

Perhaps that conviction was the root of the seismic shift I felt in my soul on Monday night.  Bon Iver’s performance, taken as a whole, made it clear that convention doesn’t matter and anything is possible in modern music.  The difference may only be a matter of microseconds, but sometimes that’s enough to rock your world.

The (Approximate) Set List:

Minnesota, WI
Hinnom, TX
Blood Bank
Creature Fear
re: Stacks   (JV solo)
Skinny Love
Lisbon, OH

For Emma
The Wolves (Act I and II)

Post-Script: I’m working from memory because the gig was way too dark to take notes.  I’m not sure I got the set list 100% right, but it should be pretty close.  Please submit a comment if you can help me clean it up, especially the bit from “Michicant” to “Creature Fear”.

Found Sounds (Where It’s At)

The beautiful thing about obsessively browsing your local indie record shop is that, once in awhile, you will stumble across something very cool and completely unexpected.  Last Friday was one of those days.

In 1994, Beck Hansen appeared on the mainstream music radar with his debut album Mellow Gold and its ubiquitous hit single “Loser”.  Just two years (and a couple of indie releases) later, Beck followed up his debut with an album that changed alternative music.

Odelay broke all the so-called rules about what a popular record could be.  Released in an era where radio was keen to pigeon-hole artists into specific cavities, Odelay featured a veritable bitches’ brew of sounds and beats.  Listen carefully and you’ll hear a whirlwind of rock, funk, soul, folk, country, bubblegum pop, bluegrass, found sounds, hip-hop, electronica, and a dozen other madcap genres.  It should have been an epic disaster, but thanks to Beck’s underrated songwriting and the Dust Brothers’ brilliant production it flawlessly hangs together.  We still hear echoes of Odelay in alternative rock records today (see also: Radiohead, Eels, Flaming Lips, Kasabian).

Fast-forward a dozen years, and Geffen released a deluxe edition of Odelay on vinyl.  It was an over-the-top celebration of this genre-defying (and yet genre-defining) record, spread across four (yes, four) 180-gram platters.  Sides A, B, and C feature the original record, remastered for vinyl.  The other five sides collate a smorgasbord of rarities, remixes, and B-sides from the era.  Best of the bunch is probably the song “Deadweight” which pointed Beck’s compass in the direction of his excellent but lower-key follow-up album Mutations.  Despite all the sonic goodies, Sides A, B and C will surely have me Rockin’ the Catskills the most often.  I haven’t spun all four discs yet, but the bass and drums on songs like “Hotwax” and “Novakane” sound so good it’s ridiculous.

The deluxe packaging is pretty cool.  The front cover features everyone’s favourite hurdling mop-dog, now embossed with metallic blue doodles.  The twisted collage on the back cover is similarly embossed, complete with the doodle artist’s epithet “Property of Michael”.

The four platters are tucked into individual pockets inside the gatefold sleeve.  Rounding out the package is a large-format booklet containing a short essay by Thurston Moore, a hilariously random interview feature by Dave Eggers, plus lyrics and song credits.  But be forewarned – there is no download code for mp3s of the records! Blame it on the 2008 vintage of the release.

I was very lucky to find this package at my local record shop.  The shopkeeper was astounded that I had snapped it up less than an hour after it first hit the shelves, since it had taken months to bring in.  Call me Johnny-on-the-Spot; my new lucky number is 1614.

On this particular day, my turntable is undeniably Where It’s At.

Rush Honoured in Ottawa

Over the weekend, seminal Canadian rock trio Rush were honoured for their lifetime contributions to music at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Yesterday evening the Governor General of Canada – David Johnston – presented the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (GGPAA) for Lifetime Artistic Achievement to Rush during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. All three members of the band were in attendance.

South Park co-creator Matt Stone was even on hand to induct the band, calling them the first band he ever loved.

So, you know… screw the Hall of Fame!

Twenty-Nine Years

I want to hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up
So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain
God I’m very, very frightened that I’ll overdo it
You know I dreamed about you
For twenty-nine years before I saw you
You know I dreamed about you
I missed you, for twenty-nine years

“Slow Show” by The National, from 2007’s Boxer album

It’s an inescapable fact that Matt Berninger has a knack for putting his feelings into words, feelings that just about everyone can relate to.  Romance, fear, excitement, longing… it’s all laid out for us in sixty-odd words.  Superimpose the gorgeous melody, and you get musical salvation.