It's hard to imagine what the ancient Pompeiians who built an amphitheater in their region of Italy around 80 B.C. would have thought of David Gilmour's concert there on Thursday. The perimeter atop the structure was lined with light, fire pots and pyrotechnics that shot flames into the air, much like the volcano that wiped out the city in 79 A.D. The majority of the spectators were gathered on the field where gladiators once squared off against their adversaries. And one end of the structure housed a stage that, in addition to giving the former Pink Floyd singer a platform, also held a mammoth circular projector screen with enough lights and lasers to approximate the alien touchdown scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It was a concert that was virtually centuries in the making – the first-ever rock show to take place in front of an audience in the structure there – and it was a milestone, too, for Gilmour, age 70, as it was the first time he'd played there since he and his Pink Floyd bandmates shot the 1972 cult-hit concert film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, what director Adrian Maben once described as an "anti-Woodstock" picture.
He acknowledged that fact by incorporating a couple of favorite songs from that era into the set list: the galloping bass face-off "One of These Days" – a highlight from the film that Gilmour's been playing on this tour for the first time since the Nineties – and Dark Side of the Moon's soaring "The Great Gig in the Sky," which isn't in the film but still evokes the era. It was the first time he'd performed the latter since 2006. (The night's one disappointment, however, was a total absence of "Echoes," the cornerstone of Live at Pompeii. Gilmour tells Rolling Stone it's too difficult to perform that song without the late Rick Wright.)
"Grazie mille," Gilmour told the crowd after "The Great Gig in the Sky." "It's lovely to be back here in this beautiful place after all these years, amongst all you people and all these ghosts, ancient and recent." It was a nod to Wright, who co-wrote the song.
The evening – the first concert of a two-night stand – was conceived as a special event and, "Echoes" notwithstanding, it was extraordinary. The air smelled of ancient dust. The night sky slowly faded from azure to dark green to pitch black by the end of the concert. And the amphitheater itself – which once could hold around 18,000 revelers but tonight hosted only a couple thousand who were willing to pay at least €300 each for the intimate gig – was grown over with grass and looked exactly as it did in the film. There was even an in-depth exhibit of Floyd photos and memorabilia on site from their four-day stint in 1971 filming the picture. All Gilmour had to do was to divine stinging, soaring notes from his guitar and sing in his typically husky voice.
Other than the special additions, the set list closely resembled what Gilmour played on his recent trek across the U.S., supporting his recent Rattle That Lock album. A third or so of the songs came from that LP and Gilmour's 2006 solo outing, On an Island, the highlights of which included stunning, fluid, lyrical guitar solos in "The Blue," "In Any Tongue" and "The Girl in the Yellow Dress." The other two thirds consisted of Pink Floyd staples and deep cuts that dated back to 1970's Atom Heart Mother album.
What was different, however, was the backing band and its interpretations of the songs. "Wish You Were Here" now sported a funky, honky-tonk solo courtesy of journeyman keyboardist Chuck Leavell. The arrangement on "Money" now afforded Gilmour the space to experiment with a jazzy blues solo. Backing vocalists Louise Marshall, Lucy Jules and Bryan Chambers sang "Great Gig" in three-part harmony, with Jules' soprano taking a central role. And keyboardist Greg Phillinganes filled in faithfully for Wright's vocals on "Time" at the end, while Leavell intonated his voice in a way far creepier than anything Roger Waters could have imagined for his part of the stellar finale "Comfortably Numb," which contained a brilliant, soaring, extended guitar solo at the end, studded by a ceiling of lasers and lights that danced across smoke hovering above the amphitheater.
Throughout the concert, which spanned nearly three hours (including an intermission), the audience – which seemed to come from all corners of the Earth – remained mostly reverent, applauding at the end of songs and keeping quiet during the performances themselves. The crowd's only moment of dissent came toward the end, after Gilmour & Co.'s literally fiery "Run Like Hell" when the fans called out for "Echoes" and stomped their feet on the ground to no avail. If anything, the most apparent through-line between tonight's concert and the one filmed for Live at Pompeii was the number of cameras on Gilmour, as concertgoers documented most every note with their smartphones. (This, even though the show was filmed for an eventual video release.)
When the night was done, Gilmour spent much of his time saying good night, and clapping for his bandmates and the audience. From the look on his face, plastered across the giant, lit-up orb, he was as moved by the experience of returning to Pompeii as his fans were to see him. After all, it's the sort of event that only comes around once every couple of millennia.
David Gilmour set list:
"Rattle That Lock"
"Faces of Stone"
"What Do You Want From Me"
"Great Gig in the Sky"
"A Boat Lies Waiting"
"Wish You Were Here"
"In Any Tongue"
"One of These Days"
"Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)"
"Fat Old Sun"
"Coming Back to Life"
"On an Island"
"The Girl in the Yellow Dress"
"Run Like Hell"