Thursday, 26 October 2017


US + Them

Early last June my friend Rene, a graphic designer, called from Calgary. Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, had a fall date in Edmonton. Rene, a native Edmontonian, described Waters as a “bucket list” act and thought a road trip north to see the show and check out the new downtown arena might be fun. We got in touch with our friend Roy, a stone-carving wildlife artist and self-proclaimed aficionado of “all things related to The Wall.” Last year, my birthday gift to Roy was a gently used The Wall coffee mug and a cinema ticket for Roger Waters: The Wall.

The three of us met almost 30 years ago in the advertising department of a major corporation. One of the conundrums of advertising is easily described by imagining a simple linear scale that extends from one to ten. The designer’s mind is at ten. The available software is either a seven or an eight. The budget and production resources usually register around four.

Waters’ departure from the progressive band was so acrimonious as to be petty. In return for ceding the name of the group he co-founded to remaining members he demanded the rights to The Wall and his inflatable pig. He’s often perceived and portrayed as a cynical crank. Now, reimagine the advertising graph. Substitute Waters for the designer. An analogue recording studio becomes the software. Live performances transform into the means of production. We’ve wormed into a lobe of his brain and the neurons are firing frustration.

In 2017 technology caught up with much of what must go on in Waters’ head. The floating pig is now a drone. Through some miracle of ticketing Rene was able to acquire us seats the venue described as “lower-drink rail.” We were cordoned off above and behind a lower bowl section on comfortable chairs before a shelf to rest and bend our elbows on. The soundboard island down on the hockey rink’s floor was larger than Canada’s smallest province. I counted a baker’s dozen of lit laptops before struggling to remember what number follows 13.

The focal point for the audience was an immense video screen which dwarfed my perception of the depth of the stage. The boards to be trodden were maybe two planks, nothing wider than a window washer’s gantry. Pose some of your children’s action figures on a cribbage slat in front of your 60” flat screen TV and you’ll get the picture. Band members were uniformly dressed in black. The bearded guitarist and co-vocalist bore a curious resemblance to a young, unshaven David Gilmour.

A rock critic once acidly and rather amusingly described the Eagles as “loitering” on stage. There was no Freddie Mercury in Pink Floyd either. The Floyd relied on special effects, lights and backdrop slides. If complex compositions were not road worthy, well, a movie could be filmed in a Roman ruin. Waters is more charismatic in interviews than performance, as snide and opinionated as his lyrics.

The evening’s sensory assault was casual fan friendly. The set list was stuffed with material from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. I assume the sole song I didn’t recognize came from Is This the Life We Really Want? his latest release. Mercifully, we were not required to reassess The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. Because a $12 Rogers Place beer is processed at the same rate as the buck-a-can variety, I scurried off to the men’s room during ‘Money’ because I’m okay if I never hear that track again. If there was a theme to the performance, it could be summed up succinctly: “Mother, should I trust (insert personal bete noir here)…”

As the US + Them extravaganza marched toward its climax, I was glad I was wearing my glasses though I didn’t know where to look. A second video screen, perpendicular to the first dropped from the ceiling, its supporting cables rendered as white smokestacks. It stretched from goal line to goal line. A remote controlled pig flew around the upper tiers past an image of the Battersea power station snuffling after a silvery, remote controlled moon. Down on the floor the prism from the cover of Dark Side was recreated as a pyramid, Giza sized, with white lasers. The multi-media surrealism was a parsec beyond anything Waters could’ve imagined let alone orchestrated and staged during Pink Floyd’s prime.

Fittingly, the show ended with ‘Comfortably Numb.’ Rene, Roy and I walked over to the Hotel Macdonald to have a beer under the portrait of the Fathers of Confederation. I felt overloaded, hungover almost, battered by the volume of everything: the music, the effects, the visuals. Minds blown. We reached a questioning consensus. “What the hell did we just go to?” If we still smoked up our brains would’ve melted. There had been a few whiffs of skunk in the arena and the olfactory trigger had made me grin, thinking about the 70s for a fleeting moment, rock shows, basements with wood paneling and shag carpets, rolling papers, record sleeves and black vinyl, and clunky stereo headphones.

Roy examined his phone. “How do we get Uber?”

I said, “There’s a taxi stand right outside the door.”

“Old school,” Rene said to me. He turned to Roy, “I think you have to download the app.”

“How do I do that?”

“We could just grab a cab, you know.”

“No, we’re taking Uber.”

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