Sunday, July 30, 2017

Roger Waters: A concert review

On Saturday night, to a nearly full house, Roger Waters proved to be the rare arena rock act that can be everything to everyone. Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials, and the kids that the millennials will eventually get to complain about all gathered to hear one of classic rock’s great catalogues. I suspect no one went home unhappy.

If you are the sort that takes pleasure in the pure aural experience that Pink Floyd’s music provided once upon a time, this was the concert for you. Waters and his crack backing band -- and the sound system they played through -- sounded excellent. The rumbling opening bass line to “One of These Days” sounded particularly menacing. The acoustic guitar that starts off “Wish You Were Here” was pristine. The wordless backing vocals from “The Great Gig in the Sky”, courtesy of the ladies of indie-pop band Lucius, were absolutely gorgeous. Though Roger Waters ceded much of the lead vocals to his guitarist (who just so happened to sound just like Waters and David Gilmour), his weathered voice fit the music and gave it gravitas.

For the more visually oriented / stoned out your gourds of us, the second set in particular scratched that itch. Video panels dropped down from the ceiling to just above the people on the floor, dividing the crowd in half. The screens first displayed the power station from the cover of Animals, complete with smokestacks sprouting from the top, and a tiny inflatable pig floating off in the distance. Later in the set, the screens stretched and retracted, practically pulsating to the beat of the song, while colorful patterns along with overlaid live images of the band playing were displayed.

The second set was capped off with a laser-show interpretation of the Dark Side of the Moon cover during “Brain Damage/Eclipse.”

The colored prism shot out seconds later. People on LSD probably freaked out. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that Roger Waters is an outspoken opponent of conservative politics, Donald Trump in particular. He delivered most of this unsubtle political commentary during the 11-minute epic “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” Images shown on the aforementioned video panels included, but were not limited to: Trump vomiting; Trump as Hitler; Trump as KKK member; and the ever-popular meme of Vladimir Putin holding up Donnie Two Scoops like a doll. Near the end of the song, an image of Trump smirking and looking off in the distance and holding a huge dildo appeared; when his likeness turned to face the crowd, the dildo shrank.
The Trump-bashing during “Money” was less biting, but no less amusing.

The famous inflatable pig, this time featuring an image of Donald Trump with eyes crossed out with dollar signs.

Of course, for all the overblown media coverage surrounding this part of the set, it did only account for 20 minutes or so of the 2-hour performance.

Roger Waters’ lyrics are responsible for starting (and continuing) my -- and probably many attendees’ -- Floyd phase. They may not be complicated or even poetic, but they hit where they’re supposed to hit. When he sang “You run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking / Racing around to come up behind you again / The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” I got chills, the same as one hundred times before. (“Time” is my favorite Pink Floyd song by a mile; its theme of the helplessness and utter inevitability of mortality is something I can’t help but get hung up on.)

All of these experiences were wrapped up in the songs of classic-era (Dark Side through The Wall) Pink Floyd. Minus the new material from so-so new album Is This The Life We Really Want?, it was hit after hit. Show-closing “Comfortably Numb” featured a communal singalong, which is somewhat ironic considering that the song is just as much about as the distance between performer and audience as it is about drugs. But it was just as awe-inspiring as most of the 20-plus songs before it.

In the end, tour namesake and Dark Side deep cut (if there is such a thing) “Us and Them” summed up the live Roger Waters experience nicely. Images of Black Lives Matter protesters, refugees, and the like were juxtaposed against pictures of riot police, soldiers with guns, and drone strikes. The message was pretty clear: we’re divided as fuck, perhaps further away from each other than we’ve ever been, and that’s not a good thing. But for one night -- for just two hours -- it didn’t actually seem like Us v. Them. There was only an Us, and it was excellent.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Car Seat Headrest, Ludacris, and Me: A Summerfest Review

Once the forecast cleared up early Sunday evening, I decided to embrace my inner outer creeper and plunge alone into the madness that is a weekend night at Summerfest to catch a couple of acts that I like but don’t love. This is how that went.

Up first was indie rock band Car Seat Headrest at the Johnson Controls Stage.

You know a band is small-time -- and that is almost certainly on purpose -- when they are on stage 15 minutes before showtime doing their own sound check. This is not a knock on them, merely an observation.

After a short introduction by Dori Zori from 88.9 the band took the stage to some pretentious, Bon Iver-esque vocal samplings before launching into “Vincent” from their current album Teens of Denial. Immediately apparent was the fact that the band set out to put the “rock” in indie rock. The faders were definitely pushed up to 11. Unfortunately this meant that the feedback-drenched guitars and thumping drums drowned out singer/guitarist/brains behind the band Will Toledo’s mumbly vocal delivery. He simply doesn’t have the pipes to cut through the crap.

Approximately half an hour into the set they played what was one of my favorite songs from last year, “Destroyed By Hippie Powers,” and it was excellent. Even though I think the crowd was enjoying the show overall, it also seemed like the arms-crossed, hipper-than-thou indie kids there didn’t give the song the moshpit freakout the song calls for. It is what I came to hear, though, so after it was done I bailed to see…


You know the song “Too Many People” by Paul McCartney? It was like that. By the time I made it to the Miller Oasis stage, the crowd wasn’t so much a crowd but a college kegger writ large: (nearly) everyone young, dumb, full of come. Blunts were everywhere, and so were teenagers grinding on each other to the jams.

Luda, to his credit, obliged the party scene by pumping out hit after hit.

My criticism of most modern rap shows applies here: he didn’t perform entire songs. Verses from “Money Maker” (with admittedly one of his all-time best lines: “Let me give you some swimming lessons on the penis / Backstroke, breaststroke, stroke of a genius”) blurred into “What’s Your Fantasy” which then eventually collided into “Rollout (My Business)”

Of course, nobody fucking cared.

Despite a total lack of personal space, everyone seemed to have a good time. My personal highlight was indicative of the rest of the set in that “Move Bitch” was awesome until Ludacris stopped after two verses and promptly dove into “Stand Up.” (I get it, Mystikal wasn’t in the building to do his verse, but still, it was disappointing to hear his best song cut short.)

Ultimately I’m guessing my opinion of both artists’ performances is in the minority. Car Seat Headrest is perfectly capable of rocking your socks off, if you don’t mind squalling feedback and garbled vocals. Ludacris is a legitimately fantastic rapper that has a string of unassailable party jams to his name - if only he’d perform them in whole. But I’m sure the amount of “amazing” and “unbelieveable” descriptions on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram will far outnumber the objections from old grumps like me.