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Arts and Entertainment

Roger Waters @ Staples Center 11/29/10

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I was twelve years old when The Wall came out, and while the theme of desperate alienation was familiar enough to any pre-teen kid, the way the thing ended - with the lead character turning into a fascist dictator - didn’t make a lot of sense at the time. It was years later, when I heard Roger Waters tell a story about the night when he spat in the face of a fan who was trying to climb onto his stage at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, that the concept came into focus. It’s a deeply personal piece of music about about the part of himself that Waters would ordinarily address to his analyst, that part of himself that has mommy issues, daddy issues, government issues, and that secretly wanted to see barbed wire fences across his stage to keep his customers from getting within spittin’ distance.

The Wall’s plot isn’t that different from that of Tommy: both protagonists lose their fathers to the war - Tommy’s makes it back, but gets bumped off anyway - then get terribly mistreated by those around them, experience a period of alienation and withdrawal, have an unpleasant experience with drugs, and emerge from this wretched upbringing as a famous superstar. Each one treats his audience with terrible disregard, then experiences a traumatic rejection before a final suggestion of inner peace at the end of side four. Both have a climax that involves a symbolic destruction (smash the mirror, tear down the wall.)

But while Tommy’s reaction to his newfound fame is to invite everyone over to his house, Waters’ character - the rather drolly named Pink Floyd - orders his followers up against the wall to be judged for their purity and executed if they fail the white glove test. Tommy’s essentially a good guy, a naif, while Pink becomes his story’s unapologetic bad guy in the final act.

Both stories are built from the kind of psychodrama that can make for a compelling song cycle if handled right, and if The Wall bears some similarity to its rock-operatic predecessor, let’s admit that Roger Waters and Pete Townshend both had a pretty similar upbringing, English war babies who found their way to rock fame in the mid-sixties. Both works attempt to address the authors’ autobiographical themes through fictional characters. But perhaps because Waters wrote The Wall much later in Pink Floyd’s career, having witnessed the banality of fame at its worst, he found something much darker to say about it.

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This, then, is the thrust of tonight’s lavish, big-budget production: that our adulation sends Roger Waters on a Hitler trip. What kind of message is THAT to send to a bunch of people on their way to the souvenir stand?

Waters brings his unnerving vision to life in this current touring production with the aid of an energetic backing group, capable of re-creating the original score with note-perfect precision. And unlike Tommy, which was performed by the Who with no staging whatsoever, The Wall was always designed to be done big, with lavish production numbers, massive puppets representing the key characters, the return of your favorite flying pig, and a bloody great brick wall that literally separates the performers from the audience.

Production costs in 1980 limited the original Wall tour to just four cities, but modern economies of scale, not to mention the ability to charge up to $750 for the good seats, have made it possible for Waters to take it on the road, where he’ll remain for the next several months. Incorporated into the unique staging is some of the most truly psychedelic big-screen projection I’ve ever seen, well beyond anything Waters has utilized in the past.

The performance is spot-on throughout the night, the reproduction of every nuance on the album is nearly total. They do vary the original program by including the complete “What Shall We Do Now?” as heard in the movie but not the LP, and a brief instrumental interlude at the end of side two while the technicians move the final few bricks into place. Otherwise, it’s a straight-ahead run through of the album in its familiar form, though the graphics displayed during the songs make some topical references to Obama, Afghanistan and Apple, in a mostly successful attempt to bring the story up to date.

While the band swaggers through the rocking numbers with no problem, it’s the oozy “Don’t Leave Me Now”, perhaps the most depressing song ever written, that leaves a wound. Waters’ voice drips with pain as he pleads “You know how I need you need you need you… “ before putting the boot in: “…to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night!” It’s the album’s most uncomfortable moment, a love song sung from a dead place by a character the listener can't possibly sympathize with. It's one of his finest moments, and he performed it with spectacular intensity this night at Staples.

Waters was in reasonably good voice throughout, backing off a bit from the shoutier numbers like “One Of My Turns” but otherwise sounding like his old self, even harmonizing with a videotape of himself playing “Mother” back in 1980. David Gilmour’s lead vocals were handled capably by keyboardist Jon Carin, and while this wasn’t the night for Gilmour to make his promised appearance during the tour to do the “Comfortably Numb” solo, on top of the wall, Waters’ guitarist Dave Kilminster gave it a powerful reading that had lighters waving in every section.

And there’s something about the sheer spectacle of a bloody great brick wall collapsing before your very eyes that immediately justifies whatever bullshit you had to put up with in order to get one of the expensive tickets. The younger generations, for whatever reason, just don’t do rock spectacle like this anymore; post This Is Spinal Tap, it’s just never been okay to have that type of ambition, or take yourself seriously enough to pull a work like this off. This tour could be the last of a certain kind of multi-media rock show, because I don’t see anyone rushing to pick up the mantle.

Roger Waters performs The Wall at Staples Center on November 30 and December 5, and the the Honda Center in Anaheim on December 13 and 14.