Roger Waters in the 3arena, Dublin, 27 June 2018
There’s a bit in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men where, in the background of a dystopian London slowly succumbing to full-on apocalypse, we see an inflatable pink pig floating above Battersea Power Station. This is a visual nod to the cover art of Pink Floyd’s 1977 LP ‘Animals’, and the reference perhaps echoes the fact that this concept album draws inspiration from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. All three works are – among other things – portraits of oppression, of how the world we know can turn into totalitarian nightmares alarmingly easily.
These echoes are present too in Roger Waters’ spectacular stage show for his Us + Them tour. In essence it’s another one of those greatest hits tour of the like we’re well used to from artists of Waters’ vintage, and it sure enough the best of Pink Floyd’s 1970s output is all on show here. But what sets Waters apart is the lengths he goes to to wallop his nostalgia seeking audience over the head with the contemporary relevance of the music’s subject matter.
A single huge screen takes up the wall behind the minimal stage, and through the night – alongside the standard trippy space-effect you’d expect at a prog show – are images of refugees in camps and militarized police forces going off on peaceful protesters that could well have been taken from Children of Men. But this footage is reality, not sci-fi, and Waters is determined to draw a straight line from the nightmares Pink Floyd were having in the ’70s and the reality of the world in 2018.
For a show playing to an audience that’s here for a trip down memory lane, it’s a bold, confrontational move, but the sheer spectacle Waters conjures up sells the message.
The show takes the form of two separate hour(ish) long sets, divided by an interval, and this method of curation keeps thing bubbling along nicely. The initial opening salvo draws almost entirely ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, a immediate dive into what everyone is here for.
Arguable though, it’s the weakest bit of the night. Maybe it’s because he’s saving his own parts for later on, but in the show’s early stages Waters seems pretty content to let the band take the lead on the tracks he himself was never the centre of. His lead guitarist / David Gilmore stand in gets plenty of spotlight time, and certainly has the chops to give Gilmore’s vocal parts & solos a good whack.
Slightly less convincing are Lucius, the new York duo who are on backing vocal duty tonight. They get their own big moment with the soaring vocal heart of Great Gig in the Sky, but unfortunately, this one feels a bit like they’re reaching a little for something they can’t quite hit, and it seems like an error in the name of crowd pleasing to attempt to follow the recorded version too closely rather than risk amending it too much to suit the talents of the current band set up.
The thing that kills off these early worries is actually a trio of numbers from Waters’ recent solo album. Sure, nobody is really here to see this bit, but the band – who also recorded said album – and Waters himself find a lot of life here, more than enough to get away with playing three new tunes in a row.
This is also where the politics of Water’s show take hold, setting up the exploration he’ll dive into later on with the old numbers. The Last Refugee is typical of Waters’ current work, driven by politically charged motivation that, rather than hiding behind some big abstract concept, is a raw slap of unpleasant reality, delivered with grace but motivated by an anger that this is how this are in the world.
The show then circles back into Floyd mode through a monstrous closing run through of Another Brick in the Wall, which gets a huge pop-style production with a row of child dancers (clad in orange prison jumpsuits) who join Waters to hammer home the anthemic, chanted chorus.
If the first set hinted at politics, the second dives right in the deep end. Following an intermission where the stage screen flashed revolutionary slogans like “Resist War Crimes” and “Free Gaza”, Waters opens up the second set of the night with a couple of tracks from ‘Animals‘ that jet off into free-flowing jams of proggy guitar noodling, sweeping full band segments. All of this is kept from spiralling off into total sonic wankery by a constant central motif.
The concept behind the record ‘Animals’ draws on Animal Farm – a fable showing how a revolution driven by socialist ideals could descent into a totalitarian dictatorship. The record makes more specific reference to the descent of a capitalist society into oppressive dystopia, and tonight Waters brings that theme into the present day.
The message isn’t exactly subtle. In Orwell’s book, the pigs represent the leaders of the revolution who take power and quickly become oppressors themselves. For tonight’s show, the nifty visualisations take the head of Donald Trump and stick it onto the body a pig.
Sure, it could be seen as little more than a visual stunt that the likes U2 would go in for. But underscoring the visuals is the fact that Waters seems to be seriously asking his audience – who came here for a few unchallenging old tunes – to seriously consider the relationship of this subject matter and the contemporary world.
Of course, the giant inflatable pig also makes a grand appearance, so whether you want to engage with the show’s politics or not, it’s hard not to get swept up in it all.
From there it’s one old favourite after another. Staying on the theme of Capitalist evils, the ‘Animals’ medley feeds into Money. Us and Them follows, with the band’s saxophone player getting his chance to do his thing – and this time the rendition carries the weight of such a well-loved song more comfortably.
After this we get the stunning double coda to ‘Dark Side’ – Brain Damage and Eclipse. At the operatic peak, beams of white light shoot out across the pit to form a pyramid (recalling the prism cover of ‘Dark Side’) that appears with perfect timing as the band surge their way into one final round of prog-tastic flow.
There isn’t really an encore as such. After the extremely enthusiastic applause dies down, Waters remains onstage alone, to give the 3Arena a soft little run through of Danny Boy on acoustic guitar. This loose, quite moment feels wildly out of place in the otherwise enormous and strictly choreographed show, but that’s fine. Because it also doesn’t feel like some token tune thrown in to please the Irish, it just feels like a something Waters felt knocking out at the end of the night, because why not?
One of the things that the film Children of Men is about is ageing and apathy. Its characters are people who’ve tried to fix the world and failed, and now they’re too burnt-out to care or they’ve given up and decided they’d rather just be selfish and happy as the world goes to hell.
It’d be easy for somebody like Roger Waters to have a similar attitude. Whatever his motivations for making music in his youth, he now has the option coast along, take the big pay check for the nostalgia tour, and play show after show without worrying too much about the world around him. But he’s not doing that.
If the slogan “Resist War Crimes” that flashed upon the giant screen at half-time felt a bit like empty posturing– a kind of “Feed the World” type buzz phrase that didn’t actually mean anything practical – by the end of the night things have become a bit clearer.
Maybe the decision of a few artists not to play in Israel while there is a situation of human rights violations taking place, or the decision of one little country not to buy goods from illegal settlements, won’t do all that much. But these are the tools we have, and we can either use them to maybe achieve something, or become comfortably numb and let the world get worse around us.
The message from Waters would appear to be: keep going. Don’t give in, keep up the resistance (however small) and above all keep the apathy from setting in, maybe that’s enough. It’s this energy that elevates Waters show above a predictable crowd-pleaser. Far from disappearing into the prog-rock concepts of albums written 40 years ago, Waters is out there exploring them anew with the modern world as his new point of reference.