If there’s one thing that 2016 really seemed to hammer home, it’s that you should see your musical heroes when you get the chance. With that in mind, I ecstatically replied “YES” when a friend offered me his extra ticket for the Nashville stop of Pink Floyd visionary Roger Waters’ Us + Them Tour.
The music of Pink Floyd, and especially the lyrics by Roger Waters, are unfortunately still as relevant today as ever. The day before this concert, an International Workers of the World (IWW) member named Heather Heyer was murdered by a radical white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters. Walking towards the venue, you could sense a palpable tension in the air. The “more woke than thou” crowd and pseudo-intellectuals like myself were surely carrying expectations that Waters would scratch our angry, political itch.
Oddly enough, the Roger Waters gig had protestors of its own. Waters is on record as supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement, which is critical of the Israeli government’s mistreatment of the Palestinian people. Waters and other supporters of BDS believe the actions of Israel against Palestinians violate international law, reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid and Jim Crow laws from our country’s own regrettable history.
Recently, Radiohead drew criticism from Roger Waters and other members of the British musical community for crossing the ideological picket line with their show in Tel Aviv. Several members of the Nashville Jewish community held signs in front of Bridgestone Arena and tried to pass them out to concertgoers. An older woman approached me and asked if I would bring a sign into the concert. I declined and shouted “Free Palestine!” as I walked into the arena.
Inside was quite a wide variety of people. I saw a couple musician buddies, some aging hippies, a few corporate suit and tie types, teenagers, and working-class classic-rock connoisseurs that drove in from the hills of Kentucky, rural Alabama or deep in the mystical woods of Tennessee. To my immediate left was an older couple who had primarily been fans of the radio hits; to my immediate right was a father and young son.
Suddenly, a video screen revealed a woman—the protagonist of the concept video for Waters’ tune “The Last Refugee”—sitting on a beach and watching the water. A white light flashed over the screen, followed by a mushroom cloud. Flames engulfed the woman as a cacophonous display of light and noise filled the arena. I heard a familiar scream and then the upstroke of an Em9 chord. The chord washed over me like the first joint I ever smoked. I found myself in a transcendent place as the band musically inhaled and exhaled a tune appropriately named “Breathe,” the first track on the masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon.
The band went on to crank through the first half or so of the record, switching out the ambient “On the Run” with the crushing 6/8 rocker “One of These Days,” Waters wielding his bass more like a spear than an instrument. The Floyd faithfuls must have been happy to hear the music so faithfully reproduced to the recorded versions. The feud between Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour that split the band is well known, but if you closed your eyes, you could have sworn the mid-’70s Floyd lineup was right in front of you.
Waters’ guitarists did an excellent job recreating timeless Gilmour solos and tones. They ultimately reminded me, however, of exactly how transcendent those original recordings were. Some recorded solos, like “Time,” have just a little bit of extra mustard that I would argue even Gilmour himself couldn’t recreate live. But griping about two or three notes lacking a certain harmonic quality is truly only a detail a fellow guitarist would notice under the most discerning lens. In other words, probably no one but me cared about such nuance differences.
After sailing through the first half of Dark Side of the Moon, Waters began to sprinkle in a few of his original tunes and select choices from the Floyd catalogue. During this section, the visual production helped entertain those unfamiliar with his solo work, myself included. A good balance of modern technology and lo-fi abstract footage, as well as animation reminiscent of the film The Wall, left this concertgoer with a very anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist message.
Waters closed out the first set with a few well-known cuts from The Wall, including “Another Brick in the Wall 2 & 3,” which featured local school children. They first appeared wearing orange jumpsuits, hinting at Waters’ criticism of what some refer to as the School to Prison pipeline. The jumpsuits were shed to reveal black T-shirts that said “RESIST,” a popular anti-Trump slogan, which also appeared on the screen behind.
After finishing the song, Waters addressed the crowd, announcing the band would take a quick intermission before the next set. At that point, I realized I had sat through an hour or so of continuous music with virtually no dead air. The visual stimulation combined with the music was quite the visceral experience, but the theatrics were just beginning.
As the second set began, an apparatus descended from the ceiling of Bridgestone Arena. Once it was hovering 100 feet above the floor, the base of the apparatus hung stationary over the crowd as the top part rose back to the ceiling, eventually unveiling the infamous Battersea Power Station from the cover of Floyd’s 1977 record Animals.
A jangling acoustic guitar began to play, synthesizers whining in the background, and the full band joined in on “Dogs.” “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” followed with a scathing attack on Donald Trump. While the songs from Animals were written about Great Britain in the 1970s, Trump is the epitome of corrupt Western governments and capitalists. Various unflattering pictures of the POTUS and quotes from him were played on the factory, essentially a giant video wall. Waters has openly spoken out against Trump before and was no-holds-barred in this musical critique. An overblown pig bearing the image of Trump and phrases criticizing the military-industrial complex floated around the arena in a stunning theatrical feat.
The monolithic songs from Animals (the recorded version of “Dogs” clocks in just shy of 20 minutes) were followed by the back half of Dark Side of the Moon. The sarcastic 7/4 groove of “Money,” the prog rock ballad “Us and Them,” and the whimsical “Brain Damage/Eclipse” rounded things out. Once again, it was a set entirely void of dead air, but this time Waters took a minute to address the crowd as “Eclipse” orgasmically concluded.
“There’s a lot of love in this room, and it means a great deal to us in these very trying times. It’s great to see it. There’s a lot of love all over this country. All it needs to do is rise to the surface and spread out. It will.”
After introducing the band members, he explained that in lieu of his typical encore for this tour, “Vera Lynn,” they would be doing something a little more relevant. An acoustic guitar jangled out as Waters asked, “Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” I sang along and contemplated the various bombs that have been dropped, are dropping and will continue to be dropped. It was all too real given the context of the rhetoric between the Trump administration and North Korea, as well as our indefinite occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, with some thinking Syria is next.
“Mother” was followed by the classic hit “Comfortably Numb,” a fitting sendoff equally agreeable to the hippies and squares at the show. The well-known guitar solos were again faithfully reproduced and soared around the arena. It was an epic feeling, and I left fulfilled and inspired.
Roger Waters is at the forefront of artists who speak their mind about social issues. He sees the same overlaying societal problems today that he was writing about 40 years ago—something to recognize for those trying to change our world for the better. It’s easy to want to count down the days until Trump’s presidency comes to an end, whether by impeachment or the mere passing of time. But Waters’ message is that Trump is a symptom of the larger issues our society has not yet managed to address, such as wealth inequality, corruption, war and greed.
While Gilmour and Waters have performed together on rare occasions since tensions spilled over, the last Pink Floyd show was in 2005 for Live 8. Since then, the death of keyboardist Richard Wright in 2008 was the nail in the coffin for any chance at a proper reunion. The US + THEM Tour was the best way to check the box labeled “Pink Floyd” on my bucket list of must-see artists. If there’s anybody that means to you what Pink Floyd has meant for me, see them sooner rather than later. Death, the destroyer of worlds, finds us all in the end.
Until it does, follow Waters’ example and fight for what’s important while you can still breathe.
The US + THEM Tour continues through October 29. Find details here.