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Roger Waters and the politics of music at Toyota Center

Politics and music: Keep them separate, right?

I once felt that way, not because the politics in music typically ran contrary to mine, but because I felt like political time stamps left a song trapped in amber. Country Joe’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag” is an extreme example, perhaps. But the minute the Vietnam War ends, such a clearly-defined Vietnam War song loses some degree of relatability. But add a few miles to your life’s odometer and the road looks different. The underlying themes of political music can sometimes carry their resonance across decades – maybe a song isn’t about the Vietnam War, but rather it’s about misguided conflict or colonialism or nationalism any number of things.

Occasionally they bear a serendipitous gift. Case in point: When Roger Waters sang “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” at the Toyota Center Thursday night, he sang it as he sang it in 1977: “Hey you Whitehouse, haha charade you are.” In 1977 the Whitehouse referred to a British activist from the era. Fast forward 40 years and that word once again fit Waters’ visual accompaniment for the song, which was his most pointed barb directed at a guy sitting in a White House far from England.

The response to “Pigs” was largely rapturous, though I heard more than a few grumblings while exiting the show about how it should have been more sensitively customized for Texas.

But should it? I’ve received some commentary critical of Waters, a few emails grousing about, and I paraphrase, “Another rich musician telling us how to feel.”

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Well, no. It’s another rich musician telling you how he feels. That’s what musicians do. If you feel the same way, you become a fan. If you don’t, you set up your tent on the dark side of the free market moon.

The issue becomes prickly because music creates emotional connections, whether we like to admit it or not. So when an emotional connection is formed and then one side of the conduit feels betrayed by the other, the response can resemble that of a jilted lover.

Waters has been doing this a very long time, which makes it confounding that his provocative commentary still leaves listeners upset. I suppose if you got laid to “Fearless” or just stared at Ricky’s felt poster while baked in his basement while “Breathe” played, the music of Pink Floyd could seem apolitical. But with the exception of the early psychedelic stuff and much of the elegiac “Wish You Were Here” album, Floyd made music about resisting those who abuse power; about the enormous life-spanning debts caused by war; about struggles with emotional disconnect. If the band’s music is just an accent color in Ricky’s basement, you’re hearing and not listening.

So Waters’ set was structured like a Broadway production rather than a concert. To my ears the songs were sequenced in a nearly linear narrative way that ran from conflict through resistance toward some strained feeling of peace. There was an intermission. There were no encores. No tap dancing, but there were theatrical interludes with pigs.

I left disheartened that “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” never found its way into the set. But I also realized it didn’t fit the narrative of the Us + Them Tour. That song is too personal and too much about one person. Waters leaned heavily on Floyd’s songbook to craft a 24-song set list that pecked away at the idea of abuse of power. “RESIST” showed up on the lone jumbotron and on T-shirts worn by some kids who danced during “Another Brick in the Wall Part II.”

Each and all would have their own highlights. Before getting to the songs, I feel like Jonathan Wilson bears some mention. Just 42, Wilson nevertheless comes across like one of those well-seasoned journeyman producer and session player. He admirably stepped in for Floyd guitarist/singer David Gilmore’s vocal parts, and handled partial guitar duties. His 2013 album “Fanfare” is ripe for discovery. He and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius provided a bright youthful energy to Waters’ band of veterans.

As for the songs, thematically it may have been the most out-of-place song of the night, but I liked the gentle contrast that “Wish You Were Here” provided in the first set. Amid the large visuals – walls, pigs, etc. – the song was void of façade, and all the more effective for that. And coming out of intermission with “Dogs” and “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” was a visceral and powerful choice. The whining guitar crescendo in “Dogs” is testament not to what Gilmore could do as a guitarist, but as a composer. With just a few notes the little passage is full of anguish and melancholy and longing.

And he got dirty with “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” singing with an angry sneer as his “Animals” factory set piece provided a screen for projections of a world leader he views alternatively as a pig and an infant. The visuals, not coincidentally, had a Russian propaganda poster quality to them.
Should the point not have clinked home, he followed those two songs with “Money.”

Then he started to nudge the performance back toward a less bile-soaked vibe. “Us and Them” is an anti-war song, no matter what Ricky tells you in the basement. But it’s not one of those masters of war, dogs of war type songs. The song is biting lyrically, but its tone is mournful. “It was only a difference of opinion, but really, I mean good manners don’t cost nothing do they, eh?”
“Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home” bring conflict toward resolution.

Tonally “Comfortably Numb” was an obvious choice to close the night. The song’s tempo is pensive but it still possesses an anthemic quality. In the context of Floyd’s “The Wall” it’s a turning point, when the song’s protagonist reaches a moment of willing isolation.

In the context of this show, Waters’ placement of the song at the end felt less a call to tune out the ills of the world and seek oblivious peace in isolation. Instead it felt like a personal declaration to seek some graceful solution to the two-plus hours of troubles that he’d just sung about. Not a rich guy telling you how to feel. A rich guy telling you how he feels.

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