In a venue already known for an angst-ridden wall, Roger Waters returned Friday night to Chicago to rebuild "The Wall" in the outfield of Wrigley Field.
Waters, 68, first brought his ever-ambitious construction/demolition tour to the United Center in September 2010. Friday night's "The Wall" was largely the same rock opera, brick by brick -- but with a wall twice as wide, stretching beyond both foul poles.
The ultimate symbol for many of this song cycle's timeless themes of alienation, disillusionment and mistrust of authority, the white foam-brick wall -- built up during the first act, then (spoiler alert) knocked down at the end of the second -- is three stories high, 140 yards across and ablaze throughout the concert with high-definition graphics and video from 42 synchronized projectors.
"The Wall," a massive theatrical transcription of Pink Floyd's 1979 double-album, has remained Waters' magnum opus since he first attempted staging it in a handful of Pink Floyd concerts in 1980. The tortured legacy of that band and the relative fizzle of his own solo career has left Waters with this one trump card, which he's managed to play in a variety of circumstances -- staging it in Berlin in 1990, in smaller concert suites, and in this full-scale revival during the last three years.
It's still aces, though -- a daring spectacle of pyrotechnics, Broadway-busting stage effects and grandiose performances by Waters and an 11-piece band (featuring three guitarists in place of Pink Floyd's greatly missed David Gilmour: Dave Kilminster, G.E. Smith and Snowy White). Built of timeless materials -- sturdy melodies, dense moods, those age-old gripes -- this current "Wall" keeps its original themes of madness and rebellion intact while sprucing them up with contemporary cultural and political references. Intellectually it's still a confusing and often contradictory jumble (selling anti-commercialism rants for $200 a ticket, for example), but it's still potent, surprisingly fresh and remarkably relevant.
The two-and-a-half-hour concert (with intermission) boasted several things the United Center show did not, starting with a stunning surround-sound system. Speakers around the ballpark blasted cinema-quality sound effects -- banshee shrieks from the upper deck during "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)," the guttural organ solo that literally swirled during "Young Lust," a dizzying magnification of those final chants to "Tear down the wall!" -- in 360 degrees. Secondly, the opening crash of a prop plane onto the stage worked spectacularly; a malfunction in 2010 deleted that effect from one United Center show. Third, a much larger and better-functioning inflatable pig hovered over the crowd during the second act's fascist segment ("In the Flesh," "Run Like Hell"). Best part: as the white bricks came tumbling down at the end of the show, so did the flying pig -- which Friday night was grabbed, pulled down and torn to shreds by the crowd just east of home plate.
A small but significant extra song has been added on this leg of the tour, too -- a brief acoustic coda to "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" eulogizing Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian student mistaken for a bombing suspect and shot by London police in 2005. A seemingly odd case to single out, one that's obviously been gnawing at Waters, he used it to proclaim at the end that "when we give our police too much power it's a very steep and slippery slope to tyranny!"
The clunker moments are still there, too. Like Waters' narcissistic duet with himself in "Mother" (using concert footage from the 1980 shows). Like his awkward solo lounge act, alone with a microphone in front of the wall during "One of My Turns" and "Comfortably Numb," strutting back and forth with his AARP-grade fighting-fit gait. Like the abundance of and over-reliance on Gerald Scarfe's animation from the film adaptation (the rapey flowers, the insidious worms), particularly during the difficult second act.
All in all, though, "The Wall" remains an impressive spectacle -- the likes of which we're not bound to see again. What younger star out there today has a "Wall" in him or her? Who's creative -- and crazy -- enough to craft such an epic music and lyrical statement, as well as pulling off a similarly megalithic narrative concert? Lady Gaga, Green Day, surely Kanye? When Waters knocks down the wall at the end of this tour next month in Canada, it could signal the end of the boomers' era of such bravado and bombast.