Halfway through a note-faithful performance of Pink Floyd’s 17-minute “Dogs,” Roger Waters and his band took a wine break. They put on grotesque swine masks – Waters’ looked a bit like the singer from Slipknot – gathered around a table and went about their piggily business, until the singer-songwriter lifted up a giant sign that read, “Pigs rule the world!” There was a moderate rumble among the dozens of thousands of fans assembled. Then he held up another – “Fuck the pigs!” – and the audience erupted.
For more than a year, Waters has been on less of a “rock tour” and more of a campaign for civility and humanity. He’s dubbed the run “Us + Them,” after his former band’s song about divisiveness, but the theme of tonight’s show was about unity through resistance. Waters and his band spent around two-and-a-half hours (including a 20-minute, opinion-filled intermission) skewering Donald Trump, highlighting recent injustices around the world and proselytizing people to come together to a soundtrack of Pink Floyd classics and songs from his solo career. It worked.
The gargantuan crowd, which consisted mostly of Brits but with occasional European tourists calling out in their native tongues, cheered Waters’ emasculation of the U.S. head of state and, with few exceptions, cheered a brief speech in which the singer voiced his support of Palestine. Giant screens about the size of half a football field showed drone warfare footage, the story of the recently deceased Palestinian nurse Razan al-Najjar and, during “Pigs,” imagery of Donald Trump vomiting, driving a child’s wagon, wearing makeup, revealing a micropenis and wearing a KKK mask. At every turn, the crowd was rapt, but that was to be expected.
Ever since the Rolling Stones attracted some 250,000 fans to see them a couple of days after Brian Jones’ death, larger-than-life Hyde Park concerts have been a London mainstay. Over the years, the park has also hosted Pink Floyd and Waters as a solo act many times. Tonight’s show – which was part of the British Summer Time festival and featured opening performances by Squeeze and former Verve singer Richard Ashcroft, among others – was destined to be special since it represented a homecoming for Waters and it was a rare outdoor show on a tour designed for arenas.
The production, in the Waters and Pink Floyd traditions, was an outright spectacle. Although the gig had an inauspicious start, as daylight blanched a hearty chunk of the visuals, it became formidable by the time the sun went down and felt even more overwhelming than it did in U.S. arenas last year. At indoor shows, a screen comes down to bisect the audience (demonstrating the “us and them” mentality); the screen grows smokestacks to resemble the Battersea Power Station on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals LP and an inflatable pig and mirror-like moon float over the crowd. Since you can’t put a screen over a festival audience, Waters had to rely on a standard screen behind him at tonight’s show, but it was big enough that you didn’t question it. When the smokestacks began rumbling up during “Dogs” – only to produce real smoke and complete with a miniature flying pig – it was dramatic enough to make you feel like you’re falling right into a surrealistic scene. And both the moon and pig (which bears the graffiti “Stay human … or die”) are supersized.
Even the songs sounded bigger. With a head-spinning surround sound setup that can make helicopters sound like they’re overhead and can throw a voice well enough to convince you to eat your meat, so you can get pudding, you feel at one with the sound. And even though much of the set list is around four decades old, the presentation of it – thanks, in part, to Waters’ smartly assembled backing band, which includes the singers from Lucius – makes it feel fresh. “Money,” which got an assist from a greedy Donald Trump sample at the beginning, had a walloping bass line that shook the field, while “The Great Gig in the Sky” featured a slightly more aggressive vocal by the women of Lucius.
The material from last year’s Is This the Life We Really Want?, like “Déjà Vu” and “Smell the Roses” (during which Waters inexplicably acts as though he’s been shackled and hung up) already sounded like distant cousins of Waters’ Pink Floyd swan song The Final Cut and in the context with the other songs, they fit right in and sounded cohesive. When coupled with the visuals, it was enough to inspire massive sing-alongs on “Wish You Were Here” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” When Waters sang “The lunatic is on the grass” in “Brain Damage,” it was more like 65,000 lunatics and the grass was Hyde Park’s. By the time a pyramid of lasers formed over the audience for “Eclipse,” the show had become its own unique psychedelic odyssey.
But for as avant-garde as some of the staging was, there was no illusion about what message Waters wanted to walk away with. The first act ended with school kids from Portobello in London. They started out dressed in orange like prisoners but wore execution-style masks over their head. By the end of the song, they broke free and revealed T-shirts that said, “Resist.” The entirety of the 20-minute intermission was visuals parsing what people should resist. These topics include Mark Zuckerberg (“He is slowly trying to eliminate any website that doesn’t conform to his consumerist world view”), anti-Semitism and “Israeli anti-Semitism” (“Yes, Israel discriminates against Palestinians on the basis of religion and ethnicity”), Nikki Haley (“All she needs is a Darth Vader helmet and she’d be the perfect representative for the evil empire”), neo-fascism, alliances with tyrants, the military industrial complex and profit from war and so on.
Waters isn’t afraid of hiding his agenda. Right before the evening’s final song, “Comfortably Numb,” he came out with a Palestinian keffiyeh and put it around his neck. “We’re all faced with a choice – all of us – and that choice is whether or not we believe in the contents of the Universal Declaration of Human Right in Paris in 1948,” he told the crowd. “The Declaration states that all of us here in this beautiful park, all of us in this country, all our brothers and sisters all over the world deserve equal and civil rights. And these rights … are irrespective of ethnicity or religion. So they would extend to my brothers and sisters in Palestine.” Only a few stray boos cut through the cheers when he was done.
Waters wore the keffiyeh draped around his neck until the end of the song, and he’d periodically stretch his arms out in a Christ-like pose, a look that was all the more impressive when fireworks exploded from behind the stage for the finale. As the throngs called out for an encore they wouldn’t get, it was clear that Waters had delivered his message, or at least presented it in a way that won them over and would inspire conversations at home. If his goal was to create something that felt like more than a rock concert in a park, then Waters is a champion.
Roger Waters set list:
“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”