Madison Square Garden briefly became an 18,000-seat hotbox when David Gilmour ended his short North American tour there Tuesday night. The first thing you noticed as you walked through the halls was the dense, nearly physical cloud of weed wafting around you. The next thing was the floating orb above the stage; a staple of Pink Floyd concerts since 1974, it’s a circular projector screen that’s studded with lights to cut through the fog onstage. And then, once the concert began, you found that it was the round, warm notes of Gilmour’s guitars that were the most overwhelming. The experience was pure sensory overload, and since this was the Pink Floyd leader’s first tour in a decade, also a rare treat.
In late March, Gilmour launched a modest North American tour of the States to support his most recent solo album, last year’s Rattle That Lock, playing arenas and theaters in Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago and New York. He played a nearly identical set list at all of the shows – mixing 14 Pink Floyd favorites with seven Rattle That Lock selections, a splash of On an Island and an intermission for the perfect cocktail – but it was a winning combination that wowed the Big Apple on the last date of the tour. There were thousands of lost souls swimming in a fish bowl (even if they all did sit down for most of the concert), and they were all rapt by his and his band’s performances of songs that date back to 1967, the year he joined Pink Floyd to sing, play kazoo and fill in on guitar as his college chum Syd Barrett spiraled into the ether.
Although the 70-year-old rarely spoke to the audience, other than for the occasional thank you and to introduce his 10-piece band, the night seemed like a celebration of nearly 50 years of cosmic rock. The show began with three Rattle That Lock tunes, which found the screen projecting gritty Wall-like animations, as the band settled into its groove. By the fourth tune of the night – Floyd’s bittersweet, poetic anthem to loneliness “Wish You Were Here” – the arena welcomed a new light source: pinpricks of cellphone flashes piercing the dark. Gilmour voice sounded as it did on the original – husky, sandpapery, weathered – as he mouthed notes along with the acoustic guitar solo. “Do you think you can tell?” he sang to an audience for possibly the thousandth time and, again for possibly the thousandth time, they roared back that they did.
Despite the fans’ obvious ardor for the hits of past decades, Gilmour’s solo selections won over the crowd. During “A Boat Lies Waiting,” he played a gorgeous, soaring lap-steel guitar lead that sounded like a theremin, elating the audience’s amateur photographers, and on “The Blue,” he yanked at his Stratocaster’s whammy bar until it created the sort of eerie, ghostlike wailing that Tom Morello uses pedals to duplicate. When he played Rattle That Lock‘s jazzy “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” – accompanied by its whimsical animated video – concertgoers took video of the whole song as though it were a classic.
But the times Gilmour indulged the Great Ghost of Pink Floyd, picking songs from nearly every decade of its existence, the audience audibly and visibly swelled. His performances were reverent to the original recordings, avoiding the schmaltzy, showbizzy “woo-woo” backup vocals Floyd added to the already-funky “Money” on its Eighties tour, with the occasional welcome extended guitar solo and eye-popping light show. A stratus cloud of smoke (dry ice? weed that’s trailed him for 40 years like Peanuts‘ Pigpen?) made the visuals all the more striking, making each song its own unique experience.
“Astronomy Domine,” a Piper at the Gates of Dawn track that predates Gilmour’s tenure in Floyd, opened the evening’s second set and paid tribute to its two late songwriters, Barrett and keyboardist Rick Wright, with strobing psychedelic lights that changed every half-second. “Fat Old Sun,” an early Gilmour original from Atom Heart Mother, saw him swapping an acoustic for an electric to solo in front of a yellow orb. The evening’s Dark Side of the Moon cuts, which included a perfectly echoey “Us and Them” and harrowing “Time,” saw the stage draped in stark colors as the audience howled. The first half of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” with its chilling guitar refrain, featured trippy video of a man diving into a pool of flowers and (at one quiet point) a concertgoer shouting “Syd!”
Although he skipped any selections from Animals (Floyd’s most stellar guitar album), Gilmour made up for it with some rockier cuts off The Wall. “Run Like Hell” featured lighting so bright that he and his bandmates all donned sunglasses, and the final song of the night – “Comfortably Numb,” his last great composition with erstwhile Floyd songwriting partner Roger Waters – featured one of the most brilliant guitar solos he’s ever played while ensconced in lasers.
Even Gilmour’s later-era Floyd songs – the ones on which he needed to prove he did not need Waters as a foil, while he battled him in court over the band’s name – sounded fresh and vital in the arena. He wrested deep, acidic notes from his guitar for “Sorrow,” the closing track off A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and of the three tracks he played off 1994’s The Division Bell, the clipped guitar hook of “What Do You Want From Me” and the melancholy ringing bell of “High Hopes” (which got its own spotlight) still sound like cutting declarations of independence.
When the night was done, and he waved goodbye with both hands and told the audience he’d see us again “one of these bright days,” the only question that lingered was why doesn’t he tour more? It’s been a decade since he supported On an Island, and it was more than a decade before that since he took Floyd out for what turned out to be their last hurrah. Meanwhile, Waters has staged his own stunning productions of The Wall and Dark Side hundreds of times.
It’s a shame Gilmour is playing such few dates, but if this was his last go-around for a decade, it was enough to satiate the New York crowd. Gilmour’s voice is still in great shape, he still commands one of the most recognizable guitar sounds in rock history, and the Floyd-style light show is still worthy of the puffs of smoke it inspires. He played for nearly three hours, and yet, with such a rich catalogue, it still felt like he could have played longer. It’s something that had to be experienced to be believed.
“Rattle That Lock”
“Faces of Stone”
“Wish You Were Here”
“What Do You Want From Me”
“A Boat Lies Waiting”
“Us and Them”
“In Any Tongue”
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”
“Fat Old Sun”
“Coming Back to Life”
“The Girl in the Yellow Dress”
“Run Like Hell”