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Live review: Roger Waters and 'The Wall' at Staples Center

Everyone else in the music business may be content to think smaller these days.

Not Roger Waters.

Pink Floyd’s erstwhile lead singer and songwriter not only remembers when rock music could also function as grand-scale theater, he helped arrange that whole marriage.

In an era in which grand-scale ambition at times seems to be diminishing hand in hand with record sales, Waters wants to perpetuate the notion that rock can offer not just eye-boggling spectacle, which has become the alpha and omega of so many of today’s big-budget pop-R&B concert tours, but spectacle coupled with equally big ideas.

So Waters, 66, has resurrected his old band’s 1979 opus in excelsis “The Wall” for a new generation, and Monday at Staples Center, at the first of five Southland performances over the next few weeks, he made it bigger, broader, harder, louder and more dazzling than ever. And that was just the first two pyrotechnics-heavy minutes.

But neither Waters nor “The Wall” offered much in the way of nuance to begin with.

It’s a brooding, blaring, fiercely proud wallow through the roots of youthful fear, anger and alienation,  one that touched a deep nerve with legions of listeners. You have to believe most of them let its dark themes unfurl in the privacy of their bedrooms where they sat alone, late at night, probably in the dark.

All the lonely people, however, ultimately formed a global nation of their own, pushing “The Wall” over the last three decades into a tie for third place (with “Led Zeppelin IV”) on the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s list of the biggest selling albums of all time, logging a comfortably mind-numbing 23 million copies in the U.S. alone. (Only Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits/1971-1975” have outsold it, with 29 million copies each according to the RIAA.)

Waters has said in recent interviews that he’s come a long way from the fearful 36-year-old he was when he wrote most of the songs for the album. But whatever he’s gained in the way of self-understanding hasn’t softened his hammer-over-the-head way of putting a message across.

As an idea man, Waters is as subtle as a goose-stepping mallet, one of many blatant images of a monolithic and militaristic society that flashed on the literal wall that was erected out of what looked like giant cardboard Duplos across the broad Staples stage as the performance unfolded.
“The Wall,” then and now, is the Who’s “Tommy” without Pete Townshend’s poetry, or most significantly, his wicked sense of humor.

But it was obvious long ago that Waters will embrace subtlety and ambiguity when pigs fly -- and yes,  the flying pig is back, this time painted black and decorated with slogans suggesting Russian propaganda as it floated ominously by remote control through the arena.

There’s no denying that this staging of “The Wall” is as visually striking, especially the two-story tall inflated marionettes representing three key characters in the story, as it is musically lush. Indeed, Waters’ saving grace is his hauntingly melodic, often elegant, periodically funky rock music, which he delivered on Monday with precision and chest-rattling force with backing from a committed squadron of six instrumentalists and five singers. Absent that music, “The Wall” would simply be a screed of left-wing agitprop that rounds up the usual suspects to rail against: rampant commercialism, militarism and societal indifference to the suffering of its least powerful members.

But the narrative of the rock opera, in being expanded to further point up the connection Waters wants to make between individual fear and societal dysfunction, periodically gets lost in the shuffle.

The strong autobiographical elements of the original concept album -- tracing Waters’ birth in England at the tail end of World War II and the death of his father in Italy during the war, which resulted in all sorts of psychological trauma for the fatherless boy-turned-tortured-rock-titan -- are muddied in the playing out of Waters' understandable antiwar position.

In the new production, that takes the form of names and biographical details of dozens upon dozens of people killed in various wars around the world, also projected onto the titular wall. He also employs footage of children being reunited with their soldier parents, a tact both moving and manipulative. The destruction of the wall that symbolizes an emotional breakthrough, brings the whole thing to an undeniably impressive climax.

Few would argue with Waters’ overarching message that war and fear are quagmires that are best avoided. But he makes it hard for a thinking person to get past the ham-fisted way he often expresses that message.

And yet. And yet. Despite the sometimes awkward and bellicose tone of “The Wall,” as the godfather of rock critics Robert Christgau once so aptly wrote, “For a dumb tribulations-of-a-rock-star epic, this isn't bad.”

That was then. Now it’s the tribulations of a war-weary, corporate greed-despising member of what Mark Twain gleefully called “the damned human race.” And still, it’s not bad.

"The Wall" continues Tuesday and Sunday at Staples and concludes its U.S. tour leg on Dec. 13 and 14 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Roger Waters at the Staples Center. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Comments () | Archives (35)

Greatest show I've ever seen, and I've seen tons.

It's amazing how the Wall continues to inspire generations, picking up young listeners 30 years out from its release date. The longevity is more like that of a classical composer, never really aging. I think it's really Waters and Gilmour's knack for melody that is the culprit there. If you listen to the Wall, pay attention to those vocal melodies. Mesmerizing.

No band besides the Beatles, Zep, or the Stones could tour a single album and fill arenas 30 years out. That says a lot about how this music has held up, and most likely how it will continue to hold up.

Make no mistake about it, Waters really is the greatest live rock pioneer of all time, and his little tweaks and tricks are on full display for this Wall tour.

It's being rightly heralded as easily the greatest tour of the year, and at least the decade.

The writer makes an interesting point about subtlety, but that's not what the Wall was about. You want subtlety; go listen to Wish You Were Here. But Pink Floyd was never about making the same album over and over. Any good art rock band can't get stuck repeating themselves. The Wall is massively different from Dark Side or Wish You Were Here, and that's a good thing, bombast and all.

I thin Kanye West would be happy to have people still fill arenas for his work 30 years out. But we know that isn’t going to happen. It takes something very special to do that. This is rare air.

What a show, what an album.

In the end, Waters is hammering us because he was hammered when his father was ripped from him by the Germans in WW II. He's been through it. War is madness. War is bombast. There's no subtlety there.

This isn't a pretender. This isn't Ryan Adams.

The "footage of children being reunited with their soldier parents" that you found "manipulative" played as a prelude to the song "Bring the Boys Back Home." If there's a better match of an artist's personal story with song and image, I'd love to hear about it. And without changing a single lyric, the visuals let us know that Waters now places his loss as but one of countless children whose fathers will never come home.

Oh, and the pig first flew as part of the "Animals" tour in 1977, not "Dark Side of the Moon." But the plane that hit the stage during the opening number did date back to "Dark Side."

In this bloated, preening, look-at-me review of a concert - a live performance of a musical touchstone - there is no mention of music, musicians, songs, sound, SQ, SFX or how the show was received ... it's one-a those columns where the writer wrote most of the article long before the first note ("In The Flesh") was played. It may be - it appears to me, and I was a newspaperman - that the writer didn't even attend the show, he simply used the concert as a hook, and submitted this bit of ... self-absorbed "scholarly writing" to the Los Angeles Times. A review it ain't, just so you know.

I was there last night and it was spectacular. Going again in Anaheim in a couple weeks.

I was 2 years old when they first performed The Wall in Los Angeles. This is probably Roger Waters' last tour. I understand, he's getting older, but I can't help feeling a little sad about it.

I do think that Dark Side of the Moon is a better work, and I had the privilege of seeing that in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006. But this was a pretty spectacular production.

There is NO contemporary band that comes close to Pink Floyd in the power, grandeur and piercing articulation of their vision. These guys were incredible and I don't know if there will ever be another band like them. You nail it early on in the piece - "spectacle coupled with equally big ideas." Lots of people can do spectacle but who's coupling the two anymore? There seems to be an inverse relationship between the two as of late.

Guess I'll have to be content with my Pink Floyd concert DVD collection with the sound cranked up and a perennial outing to see one of the (surprisingly decent) cover bands out there.

I assume that you did not attend the show.

I'll ignore the reviewer's non-review.

I attended last night and found the show to be one of the greatest I have ever experienced. I did see Dark Side a few years ago and if I enjoyed that more it is only because the venue (The Hollywood Bowl) is a much better place to see a show than Staples center. Still the power of the music, lyrics, performances and the dazzling visual element along with the singular artistic voice and vision that is Roger Waters made this a staggering to experience.

If I have one criticism it is not about anything actually related to the show, but from where I was sitting I was astounded how many in the audience could not sit still for any length of time to take in the show. Come on, do you really need that California Pizza Kitchen pizza while Roger Waters is playing Mother live right in front of you? Do you really have to take a piss during Goodbye Blue Sky? Rather than just experience the emotion of Comfortably Numb do you really have to get another beer? (There was an intermission, after all...)

At least the 5 year old kid sitting next to me (with his mother and father) stayed in his seat through the whole show and seemed to appreciate what he was experiencing far more than so many that crowded the aisles the whole night...

Anyway, sorry for the rant. Great show nonetheless!

i ws lucky enough to see this show in hartford CT back in October. It was awesome, i would recommend anyone who lives near Anaheim to try to get tickets.....it is unbelievable how good this tour is

Well, well said.

Re: Waters and Gilmour, I've listened to the whole Pink Floyd collection, from Piper at the Gate and Saucerful of Secrets through to Gilmour and Waters' solo works. I love it all; but to me the real glory days came after Syd Barrett (RIP) and before the big rift between the two egos.

Gilmour and Waters combined created music that resonated both melodically and thematically. This makes even more sense when you consider their solo work in the latter days. Gilmour's music is still powerfully melodic, but lacks the sharp and insidiously keen lyrics and themes that marked the run from Dark Side to WYWH to Animals to The Wall and lent Pink Floyd's albums such gravity and resonating impact. Waters' music is still filled with social commentary and bitter, piercing sarcasm, but is sometimes too vitriolic and lacking in subtlety (thinking of "Leaving Beirut"), and not nearly as pleasant to listen to for the most part.

And speaking of subtlety, I agree completely with your point. The Wall is a flawed production, but not really due to its lack of subtlety - I don't think that was ever a goal. I think the narrative starts to break apart a little in the second half. Nonetheless, the music remains superb and gets arguably even better. This is canonical Pink Floyd, canonical rock and roll, and canonical, in my opinion, on the grand scale of music history.

I did find the footage of children reunited with their parents to be moving, and did not find it manipulative. And I've got a pretty sensitive antenna to contrived emotional manipulation.

I found it powerful, especially thinking about the fact that Waters never had such a reunion with his father. I also thought it showed an evenhandedness - it would be easy for the criticism of war to spill over to the men and women fighting those wars, but we see that's not the case. His opprobrium is uncompromising, but measured. I found that meaningful, and even a bit surprising.

And one more thing - I love "Tommy", but "The Wall" kicks the pinballs out of it.

The Wall shows seems to have gone on an interesting transformation over the years. The shows when the album released had the feel of personal introspection and struggle. Contrast that with the Berlin show, which had more of a celebratory feel for obvious reasons. And now, in what appears as the final book in the trilogy, a feeling of global perspective. Same music, same songs, but vastly different contexts in they're played in.

That, to me, speaks more about the timelessness of this piece more than any supposed heavy-handed message the reviewer may feel. Although, I had laugh in recognizing that person listening to the album alone with the lights off in his review. Nowadays, I don't listen to the Wall album because I necessarily want to. I listen to it because I need to do so at times.

I shall be attending the shows in Anaheim, with a mixture of feelings. One thing is certain however. I'll come away from those shows with the same feeling of catharsis as I've done listening to the album all those years ago.

I thought the show was totally self indulgent. Who were those people singing and playing. Felt like a vegas show by Cirque

So...um. How was the show? Got a minute to tell us what you thought of it? I'd hate for you to have to, ya know, "review" it or anything.

"moving and manipulative"??? This is what we get for rock criticism? The whole point of all music is to move, and one cannot be moved without ones emotions being "manipulated". You would think that an LA Times article, of all places, would be more sympathetic to "manipulation" toward a dovish position.

I have never let Roger Waters' politics, both very different from mine and imo hopelessly naive and somewhat hypocritical (anti-corporatism within a tour that will gross in the neighborhood of $200 million?), interfere with my love of the music, and an understanding and appreciation of his positions.

I saw the original Wall at Nassau Colliseum in 1980...3 times. Make no mistake, this is far better. Despite the absence of David Gilmour and the rest of Pink Floyd, what has always been Roger's sole vision is much more completely realized in this incarnation. In 1980 the technology was fighting the music, now it complements the music, without overwhelming it. The musicians are faithful (sometimes a bit too faithful) to the original charts, and GE Smith deserves a bit more face time, but this is a highly structured show without a lot of room to branch out, so those are minor quibbles.

Dave Kilminster channels David Gilmour extraordinarily well, and the singers, especially Robbie Wyckoff, are terrific. Roger's voice, as idiosyncratic and identifiable as ever, only improves with age.

One can only hope that this isnt Waters' swan song. While we have been treated to Dark Side and The Wall, and most of WYWH over the last 10 years, more of his post Floyd work deserves revisiting, and a complete Animals/WYWH show would highlight his most "moving and manipulative" work. He is rightly ranked with Dylan and Lennon for his lyrics, and even approaching his 70s (the new 50s?) the Show Must Go On.

I saw the show last night and fully agree with the commentors above. INCREDIBLE.

BTW,Mike--You left out Springsteen...

Waters is a GOD! He seemed like a man on a mission to open people’s third eye. His mission was to make people aware of the real villain’s in the world and tare down those walls. We need to expose big money, religion, corporations & greed, along with the main stream media. He was like Bill Hicks with his message, the Beatles with his music & a saint with a mission. Thank God for people with balls & bravado to say what needs to be said. We need more artists like this and sad part is they are a dying breed. People are like sheep, they are passive and weak! Tool & Radiohead are the new generation of artists with a message, but it all going back to Waters! Someone who can be called an artist and that word truly applys! TARE DOWN THE WALL!!!!!

Really dude? Come on now.... "manipulative", "awkward", "it isn't that bad".....????

Wow... were you even there for the show? And to say that "all the lonely people" ultimately pushed the album to #3 in the all time list in the US...... come on now, do you really think that all in all it was just 23 million lonely people who did that? Clueless and naive.

I attended the Nov. 30th show. My first Roger Waters show was at Radio City Music Hall in 1985.

I find it amusing when people get upset at other people's opinions. Uniformity of opinion is the antithesis of Waters. Not everyone gets Waters. Art is less interesting when it's non-controversial.

My friend, with whom I attended last night's show, was irate at the many attendees around us who remained seated during the majority of the show. He and I stood for almost the entire show. I finally had to mollify him by reminding him that those who remained seated should not have any bearing on his enjoyment of the show. He did have a valid point that the energy exchange between the performers and the audience is diminished by a seated audience, and in fairness to the audience, my one complaint with the band was their lack of movement around the stage. They certainly did not engage the audience meaningfully other than their virtuoso musicianship, which was more than sufficient for me.

The star of the show was the music itself. The most enjoyable moments for me were when I shut my eyes and simply listened. The sound and musicianship were perfect. The musical highlight for me was "Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2," which is unusual because it is their greatest commercial success and is so overplayed. The children's choir and the extended improv guitar solo entertained beyond all expectations. "Mother" was very moving. "Goodbye Blue Sky" was fabulous.

Beyond the music, the video projection was phenomenally inspired and provocative. Using the wall itself as a rear-projection screen and coordinating the images with the music, lighting and staging was a triumph of organization and imagination, as was gradually walling off the band during the course of the opening act.

Waters himself was genial and humble throughout and it was easy to forget we were watching a senior citizen on stage.

It was a very memorable evening, probably the best Tuesday evening I've ever spent in my life. All the damning with faint praise by critics and the variation in energy from the audience (which might just be a West Coast thing) could not dampen my enthusiasm. Pink Floyd is unique in music -- I'm not sure whether to pity or envy those who don't get it. It is quite dark, introspective material and its naked reality is probably more than most can handle, perhaps should handle for psychic health.

Thank you Roger. The Wall was amazing, mesmerizing and touching. Blew me away! If you dont have tickets get them, this is once in alifetime show!

No doubt about it. This is the show of the year. There is so much going on, that one needs to see this show a couple times to fully appreciate the beauty of this production. I've been to two LA shows so far and am going again to one of the Anaheim shows.

OC JIMI - "I finally had to mollify him by reminding him that those who remained seated should not have any bearing on his enjoyment of the show." They sell SEATS for a reason. As long as YOU enjoy the show, that's all that matters I guess. No worries about the people sitting behind you that can't see and enjoy the show because of YOU. Typically self indulgent behavior.

I seen the show twice in Toronto and it was amazing,does this guy review all shows in LA,what a moron!!!

There has been pigs since 1977 Animals /WYWHThey were always cool and on a wire.. I know as I was there,. But the pig in the new show flys by remote control' without wires and is one of the coolest things I have EVER seen. It flys over the top of the wall right around the arena and sometimes hovers pretty low. You feel a little nervous it might be running low on helium and be devoured by the crowd. But the operator has become skilled and it doesn't happen. One of the awesome things in this "The Greatest Show Ever!!"

Was that you behind me Big Cadillac? Sorry old chap. Stand up next time, it's an effing rock show. But I see your point. At 6' 3" and 215 lbs., not many people are going to ask me to sit down. I could understand how you'd lack the courage.

i saw the show and completely agree with the reviewer. this doesn't compare with the 2006 and 2007 tour roger waters did. and i like the wall a lot better than dark side of the moon but this was children's theater. totally bad broadway nonsense. embarrassing generic messaging that completely lost the original, more personal roger waters vision.

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