On Tour At 73, Roger Waters Is Brazen, Political And Emotional — He’s Prog Rock’s Last Punk

Back in 2013, I ended up at my first Roger Waters show after a good friend of mine asked me to go see the Pink Floyd co-founder perform in a football stadium in Philadelphia. Though at the time I would’ve described myself as only a casual Pink Floyd fan — so much so, that I remember specifically thinking that I didn’t even know which songs were on The Wall except for “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Comfortably Numb” — I like those songs, and my friend paid for the ticket, so I went. But attending that show turned me into a rabid Roger Waters fan.

On that tour, Waters was playing the The Wall his former band Pink Floyd’s monumental tour de force, and the fourth highest-selling album of all-time. The moment it changed for me came mid-show, when, after openly weeping in the middle of Citizens Bank Park during “Goodbye Blue Sky,” a song I’d never heard before that day, I looked around and noticed a large percentage of the other 50,000+ people in the stadium were weeping too. The Wall and its message of self-reclamation from the forces of evil continue to resonate deeply with a huge number of people even thirty-five years after its release — enough people to fill a baseball stadium.

Waters opened The Wall show the same way the album starts, a Nazi-like figurehead taunts the audience with a chilling opening line, “So you thought you might like to go to the show?” After that, he crashed a plane into the 400-foot wall on stage. The tickets were probably very expensive; the show was very much a spectacle. But there was more theatrics and political statements afoot than just what he did onstage. One of the first thing I noticed upon entering the stadium that night is that many of the advertisements, which usually dominate the field of vision in the ballpark, were covered in black cloth. It was Roger Waters’ stadium for the night.

If you haven’t kept up with the world of Pink Floyd over the past three decades, you may not know that Roger Waters and co-bandleader David Gilmour hate each other. Apart from the occasional cancer benefit or Live 8-style event a full-scale Pink Floyd reunion is unlikely. And, if you haven’t kept up with Roger Waters’ solo career, he mounts over-the-top audio/visual versions of Pink Floyd albums like The Wall and a similarly sensory overloaded version of Dark Side Of The Moon anyway.

While he may be repackaging old material, Waters has doubled down on every single left-leaning anarchist political belief that ever seeped its way into a Pink Floyd song. The performance of “Goodbye Blue Sky” back in ‘13 featured bomber planes on a giant LED screen dropping McDonald’s logos, Stars of David, Crucifixes and Shell Oil logos from bomber planes. To recap: Roger Waters played a song about the world ending due to war and environmental despair while a bomber plane dropped bomb/crucifixes in front of 50,000 people in a in Philly stadium and made everyone weep. Roger Waters doesn’t f*ck around.

So, while the Staples Center in Los Angeles is smaller than a baseball stadium, Roger Waters doesn’t do anything small. In fact, as he sprang onstage at Staples earlier this week, for a special, newly-added show, he was looking pretty damn good for 73 years old. He’s still rangy and dignified, with the broad chest of a young Kirk Douglas.

The show opened with Waters and his nine-piece band tearing into a string of Pink Floyd hits (“Breathe,” “One Of These Days,” and “Time”). The first half highlight was “Great Gig In The Sky” with Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the band Lucius, a young duo who play a surprisingly large part in a show featuring mostly Pink Floyd songs. While Lucius may bring a youthful spark, the rest of the band was filled with competent hired guns, including REM and Beck drummer Joey Waronker.

There was a sense that the first half of the show was for the casual fans. “Wish You Were Here” floated by with lighters raised in the air. Towering above the crowd, former NBA great and Deadhead Bill Walton openly jammed out to “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 3” from his floor seats. The people who saw Pink Floyd back in 1979 are happy.

Then, came a twenty minute intermission.

With the fluff out of the way, Waters used the second half of the show to dig into Pink Floyd’s catalog and play some of the band’s darker and more obscure songs. He also lowered two giant video screens that ran perpendicular to the stage, topped with recreations of the Battersea Power Plant smokestacks that grace the cover of the band’s album Animals. If this sounds a little “musical theater,” it was.

The second set opened with “Dogs,” a 17-minute song off Animals, and during the synthesizer solo, a waiter dressed in a pig’s mask came onstage and set a table. Waters and a few of his bandmates then also donned pigs masks and sat at the table drinking champagne, while the keyboardist wailed away. That spectacle lasted for a solid four minutes straight. It drew a line for the audience, almost daring them to bail on the second half of the show.

Those who stayed through the pig dinner were treated to three straight politically-oriented songs, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”, “Money” and “Us And Them,” all featuring anti-Trump videos that ranged from the poignant (Images of Black Lives Matter protestors) to the obvious (Trump dressed as a baby.) It’s important to remember that Waters plays the same show every night on this tour, so while the anti-Trump rhetoric felt relatively safe in Los Angeles, that can’t possibly fly as well in other American cities.

A fierce examination of the big picture is rare for a rockstar of Waters’ stature; he’s the only guy left from the first wave of “dinosaur” rock bands who still fights with the fire and passion of a teenage anarchist in a Dead Kennedys shirt. He will talk to 50,000 people about police brutality like he did in Philly in ‘13. He will force a stadium full of people to look at photos of atrocities of war. We live in an era when, apart from rare outlier like the agit-punks Downtown Boys, openly caring about the world around you in your music is deeply uncool. Roger Waters does not give a f*ck.

Spectacle plays a huge role in delivering his message, and for decades, Pink Floyd/Waters have flown “Algie,” a giant inflatable pig around whatever venue they’ve played. Algie made an appearance at Staples Center too, flying by remote control into the rafters and down just out of the audience’s reach. Later, Waters floated a silver reflective orb around the audience in a similar manner; it nestled itself behind the band as a giant laser pyramid appeared above the crowd. Streaks of colored light began to stream down from the top of the pyramid, creating a live 3D version of the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon. It’s U2-level over the the top. And like U2, it’s a joy watching a rockstar put on a show befitting the title.

Where Waters sets himself apart from his classic rock peers and the punks of the past is that he recognized — even back in the ’70s — that personal pain is the reason for all the war, hate and atrocities in the world, and he wisely ended the Staples Center show with a three-song set from The Wall that relied more heavily on emotional appeal. With his band silent, Waters and the ladies from Lucius took the spotlight to sing “Vera,” a song that end on the question “Does anybody in here feel the way I do?” As “Vera” fades, “Bring The Boys Back Home,” a brief song about the senselessness of battle and the young lives lost to the war machine, swept across the crowd in tearful waves.

For the final song, the band reemerged and two giant hands appeared on the video screen behind them. The hands slowly grasp each other as “Comfortably Numb” — with its two perfect guitar solos and lyrics about childhood feelings that we can’t reclaim — crept along through the first hazy verse. The two hands joined and the screen erupted in a sea of colors and bricks falling away. The veil was lifted. As the first solo hit, it’s obvious why Roger Waters has been filling stadiums for almost 50 years. By the time the second solo hits, so does the strange euphoria that comes with throwing your hands in the air and singing along to a perfect song with thousands of other strangers.

Set 1:
“One Of These Days”
“Breathe (Reprise)”
“The Great Gig In The Sky”
“Welcome To The Machine”
“When We Were Young”
“Déjà Vu”
“The Last Refugee”
“Picture That”
“Wish You Were Here”
“The Happiest Days Of Our Lives”
“Another Brick In The Wall Part 2”
“Another Brick In The Wall Part 3”

Set 2:
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
“Us And Them”
“Is This the Life We Really Want?”
“Smell The Roses”
“Brain Damage”
“Bring The Boys Back Home”
“Comfortably Numb”

Daniel Ralston is a writer/director living in Los Angeles. His most recent music video, Aimee Mann’s “Patient Zero” can be viewed here.