Photography by Gretchen Bachrodt
“I really think we should have dropped acid for this,” a woman tells her dazed and confused husband during Roger Waters’ performance of “Welcome to the Machine”. It’s about 45 minutes into the former Pink Floyd frontman’s set at Chicago’s United Center, where he’s playing the second of three whopper nights, and the entire room is lit up with all kinds of hallucinogenic colors. It’s also loud. But not too loud that you think, Christ, I should have brought ear buds. No, it’s immersive. Kind of like if you were standing in a Roman echo chamber designed by noted psychopath Phil Spector and staring at a screen the size of the Tyrannosaurus paddock wall from Jurassic Park. In other words, no, you don’t need acid. It’s already quite an experience.
But that’s to be expected from Waters at this point, is it not? Absolutely. For decades, the singer-songwriter has made it a trademark of his to be as visually spectacular as the industry allows, having set the watermark for every live act years and years ago with tours supporting 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, 1977’s Animals, and especially 1979’s The Wall. His knack for creating The Live Event has only grown stronger in the new millennium, namely because: As technology advances, so does Roger Waters. That should be a refreshing notion for all fans of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Experience — or rather, every live experience, to be fair — especially as monumental venues have become corporate headquarters, where the craziest thing that could happen is a glob of mustard spilling on to your new $75 band t-shirt. Woo-hoo, rock and roll, hoochie koo.
No, Waters has always been hip enough to know that the best experience is the one that gets critics to proudly declare to be “out of this world.” And so, that’s what he’s consistently done, getting better and better as he’s aged, and that’s why at 73 years old (74 this September, mind you), he’s at the top of his game. Drop any pre-conceived notions you might have about his live show — the walls, the floaties, the lasers, the piggies — and know that his latest extravaganza, aptly dubbed the Us + Them Tour, is another interstellar experience that will crash your Snapchats, your Instagrams, your Facebooks, what have you. Once again, Waters has orchestrated a completely transformative experience, one that embellishes every essential quality of his catalogue. There’s so much to take in that’s it’s admittedly kind of overwhelming.
It’s also very political, and that’s something that should surprise absolutely nobody. Waters has never been a stranger to controversy, and his recent political views (especially those involving the Israel-Palestine conflict), have certainly been turning all the right and wrong heads across the world. But he sounds revitalized again, and if you couldn’t tell from all the rage and angst that radiates from his latest record, Is This the Life We Really Want?, then he makes that pretty clear with the Us + Them Tour. Unlike his recent reprisal of The Wall, which toured the world for the better part of the early 2010s, Waters sounds less like he’s dusting off older material and more like he’s rewriting them for a new era. And in a world that’s as savage and dour as ours right now, we’re also singing louder than ever.
Click ahead for some major highlights from his second night in the Windy City…
Welcome to the Machine
The 360 Experience
Because everyone takes forever to find their seats as they’re getting drinks or god knows what, especially at concerts with traditionally older crowds (sorry, but it’s true), Waters sets up the evening by igniting what we’ll keep calling the T Rex Paddock Screen with a video of a woman watching the morning coast. It’s peaceful. You can hear distant seagulls, howling wind, the rustling of the dunes, and the occasional fog horn from off-screen cargo boats. It lasts over 15 minutes, but that’s the point, as it helps everyone acclimate to the rousing 360 experience they’re about to … um … experience. In addition to the T Rex Paddock Screen, there are multiple speakers set up across the floor that allow for a more nuanced surround sound, the likes of which are timed with rows and rows of lights that accent the rest of the arena. So, when the skies finally turn red over the beach and we’re warped into a messy asteroid field, we don’t even realize the band has hit the stage.
We’re somewhere else entirely.
Don’t Meddle With Me
“One of These Days”
Look, it’s great to hear the most ubiquitous hits from Floyd. Naturally, everyone’s going to lose their shit during “Breathe” or “Time”, as they’re staples that deserve the stage on every tour run, but when Waters started thumbing his way through Meddle single “One of These Days”, the night truly started. That adventurous bass line is like every chase scene from Miami Vice rolled up into one fiery montage, and aside from “Money”, it’s arguably the grooviest moment for Waters behind the four-string. Plus, it was a little unexpected, and surprises go a long way at rock shows.
The Great Twins in the Sky
Lucius Owns the Night
Fun fact: Jessica Wolfe and Holly Laessig sing backup vocals on Waters’ new album. Why do those names ring a bell? They’re the guiding force behind Brooklyn indie pop quartet Lucius. Well, Waters loved working with them so much that he invited the two on tour, and it was a very, very wise decision on his behalf. Both Wolfe and Laessig were the unspoken MVPs of the show, offering a helping hand not only behind the mic but also on percussion alongside studio wizard Joey Waronker. The two made quite a statement for themselves early on, however, when they ran away with “The Great Gig in the Sky”. Their dueling harmonies ricocheted off one another like Hunt and Paxton, and they soared as high as the CGI cow in Twister. Sorry, can’t help but think of tornadoes when it come to this song, but rest assured, Lucius were a goddamn force of nature up there.
Wish You Were Never Here
The Terrifying Artwork of Gerald Scarfe
With “Welcome to the Machine”, Waters indulged in a little science fiction for the night, and his performance was no doubt bolstered by the accompanying iconic visuals by Gerald Scarfe. Now, the video for this certifiable gem off Wish You Were Here has been around for years, but seeing it up there on the T Rex Paddock Screen was just downright chilling. Those colors, the way Scarfe turns flesh and blood into this chummy pink, looked so grotesque and haunting as they washed over the crowd. It was a mesmerizing reminder of the powerful iconography that Pink Floyd has worked from over the years, and how those icons will likely never cease from feeling relevant. They’re timeless.
If You Don’t Eat The New Stuff, How Could You Have Any Hits?
“Déjà Vu”, “The Last Refugee”, and “Picture That”
It doesn’t matter if you’re Springsteen or Madonna, McCartney or Shania, new material is traditional a hard sell for any veteran artist. But man, these new songs by Waters sound great, especially when surrounded by the Floydian hits. It helps that they’re only a stone’s throw away both conceptually and musically, but even so, the guy could have added two or three more and the crowd would have been fine. He kept it to four, though, and chased through three of them in a row about 75% of the way through the first set: “Déjà Vu”, “The Last Refugee”, and “Picture That”. These were arguably the best of the bunch — apologies to “Smell the Roses” that had the unfortunate pleasure of following “Us and Them” during the second set — especially “The Last Refugee” which was elevated by spirited footage of an interpretive dancer. Michael Mann, take note of this one.
Hey Lucius, Leave Them Kids Alone!
Chicago Locals Obliterate “The Wall”
“Another Brick in the Wall” is the grilled cheese and tomato soup of Pink Floyd. Everyone knows it. Everyone can sing it. Everyone has used it. In pop culture, it’s like this giant horse carcass on the side of the road, beaten to death so many times that’s it’s essentially a smelly pile of bones. So, expectations were low when the familiar beats sprung up towards the end of Waters’ first set, and the local children started marching out to stand at the lip of the stage. After all, he did the same thing for The Wall only a few years ago. But, you know what? It still works, and it’s even better now. With Wolfe and Laessig serving as the administrative bookends to the line of children, and the surround sound blaring all kinds of unnerving riot sounds, the whole thing started looking less like Alan Parker’s dystopian future and more like one we’re about to know.
Woof Woof, Oink Oink, Wrong, Wrong
“Dogs”, “Pigs”, and Trump
“I’m not going to get political,” Waters joked towards the end of the night. “Ooo hoo, how awful would that be? You know, to engage with society? Sorry, I went a bit confrontational there, I didn’t mean it because I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here with you guys in this room tonight.” Sh’yeah, too late there, Chet.
Maybe it’s because we’re in Chicago — scratch that, it’s because we’re in Chicago — but Waters received very little backlash from all his anti-Trump iconography. And that’s saying something, too, because Waters didn’t just tackle the tyrant to the ground, he shoved a big ol’ muddy boot to his face. Granted, the guy isn’t exactly subtle, as evidenced by the two sets that were clearly split between songs about “Us” and songs about “Them,” but then again, we’re an idiot nation that elected a megalomaniac who ran on a platform of being far too transparent.
So, yeah, Waters’ political rhetoric went down easy as he revisited the sprawling epics off Animals, specifically “Dogs” and “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”. In addition to wearing masks and sipping champagne at a dinner table, the two performances were also splattered with all kinds of hellish Trump imagery, from his miserable quotes over the past year to some incredibly perverse Warhol-esque recreations. It was hilariously poignant, especially seeing that micro-penis of his. What a funny micro-penis.
Hey, That’s the Title of the Tour
“Us and Them”
Despite the night’s dour political overtones, both sets were really heavy with material off Dark Side of the Moon. Yet no track off that album connected better than “Us and Them”. Sure, it’s the namesake of the tour, and so there was a degree of expectation from everyone who arrived hoping to hear it, but the song’s sultry vibes went over like buddah. All of a sudden every soul in the room was standing up, as if they were holding hands like they were recreating that video for “We Are the World”. It was a really peaceful moment that probably led to a lot of grab ass between lovers on the way home. We blame the sax.
Dark Side of the Waters
Lasers, Eclipses, and Brain Damage
Photo by McKenzie Gerber
You’ve seen Laser Floyd at some point in your life, no? Sheesh, your college days must have been fun. Ha. All joking aside, Waters took that concept to another level, and when the band shifted into “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse”, the entire arena turned into the closing moments of 2001: a space odyssey. Or rather, that scene in Ghostbusters II where they catch that jewel thief. Okay, let’s go with 2001.
Eddie and Roger, Together Again
If anyone’s going to replace David Gilmour, very few will argue against Eddie Vedder. When Waters finally reached the end of the night, tripping straight into “Comfortably Numb” from an emotional two-hit punch of “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home”, the crowd was wrapped up in the moment — and for good reason. At this point, everyone was admittedly exhausted from the onslaught of visuals, so captivated that they probably didn’t see the Pearl Jam frontman sauntering up to the night. (Confession: This writer didn’t until he saw senior writer Justin Gerber going nuts in the crowd and pointing to the stage.) So, when those familiar vocals of his washed over the song’s chorus, it was as if Waters had revealed his final magic trick. Of course, this was a special one-off and doesn’t speak for the overall tour, but it was enough to send this writer over the edge. Judging from the reaction of the crowd, he was hardly alone in that feeling. We were all comfortably stunned.
Speak to Me
One of These Days
The Great Gig in the Sky
Welcome to the Machine
The Last Refugee
Wish You Were Here
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
Another Brick in the Wall Part 3
Pigs (Three Different Ones)
Us and Them
Smell the Roses
Bring the Boys Back Home