RALEIGH – Back in October of 2009, U2 dropped into Carter-Finley Stadium with its usual boatload (or rather, spaceship-load) of messianic rock-star gestures. Watching Bono exhort the crowd with positivity, it was easy to wonder: What would an ill-intentioned rock star do with that kind of power?
Monday night brought a dramatization of that very thing to the nearby PNC Arena, in the form of Roger Waters playing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” An operatic 1979 concept album about a disaffected rock star, Pink Floyd’s original version of “The Wall” portrayed a man at war with himself who ultimately turned on his audience before getting his comeuppance.
Both the Pink Floyd album and the 1982 film version starring Bob Geldof were steeped in the narcissistic excesses of ’70s rock stardom. And yet “The Wall”’s themes of alienation have worn surprisingly well -- they're durable enough to easily transpose to a broader mistrust of all forms of authority. Where the original album railed against war, matriarchy and Britain's class and education systems, this year’s model of “The Wall” broadens its targets to governments, corporations and ideologies.
As for Waters, the Pink Floyd bassist who instigated a bitter split with the rest of Pink Floyd in the 1980s, he served as host on a tour of the rock star’s psychic burden. When he donned shades and a black leather trenchcoat to symbolize his protagonist’s descent into self-aggrandizing fascism (shades of The Who's "Tommy"), he resembled nothing so much as a cable-news bully pundit from one of the political channels. Then he took up a submachine gun to pantomime opening fire on the audience; listening to the cheers after that was chilling.
This touring version of “The Wall” involves an incredible high-tech production, with a 40-foot wall going up during the first act to double as an enormous video screen. The show served as a memorial to the disappeared from a century of worldwide conflicts, with the wall displaying portraits of people killed in wars, terrorist attacks and assassinations from World War I up to the present day. It also displayed quotes from Kafka, Orwell and Dwight Eisenhower, with other effects including surround-sound, spotlights, oversized blow-up figures, a children’s choir and confetti in the shape of icons that rule us all – dollar bills, corporate logos and religious symbols.
Of course, there was an inherent contradiction in the quote from Eisenhower (“Every gun that is made…signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed”) getting trotted out at an event where the good seats cost more than $200. If you want to talk about the greater good, how many people could have been fed with the several million dollars that changed hands at this show?
But give Waters credit, you saw that on the stage. The 12-piece band displayed consummate skill, especially the triple-guitar battery of Dave Kilminster, G.E. Smith and Snowy White, who duplicated Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s original parts with uncanny accuracy. Waters did a fine job with his own parts, too, hitting his marks three decades on in a variety of guises.
The post-intermission second act did drag a bit, in part because the band played a good chunk of it from behind the wall. But ultimately, those songs just weren’t to be denied, from the majestic tones of “Comfortably Numb” to the spectral drive of “Run Like Hell.”
Even Bono would have approved.