London, Royal Albert Hall
We’ve come full circle.
London’s Royal Albert Hall looms like an architectural sundial, its monolithic shadow pointing inwardly in the direction of timelessness. Tonight marks the apotheosis of this metaphysical high-noon as the last great guitar sheriff rides into rock’s chronometric frontier to suspend the clocks.
Neither turning back nor lunging forward, David Gilmour, now touring fourth solo album Rattle That Lock, seems to have squeezed unscathed through the timehole that has brought him here. As we’re shepherded into the great Hall for a soundcheck photoshoot (a pit embargo is in place for all RAH shows), the stage is adorned with a clock-face lighting rig – the time-honoured staple of Pink Floyd shows – which stands like a totem blurring all divisions between past and present. Gilmour himself seems not to have aged a single day since The Division Bell; his grass is apparently still very green. And the moment he takes to the mic, the baritone abyss of his voice sweeps darkly through the empty auditorium like a prodigal ghost.
Imminently, a couple of other spectres drift onstage in the shape of David Crosby and Graham Nash – the former a walrus-moustachioed time wizard channelling Sheriff Strickland from Back To The Future III; the latter, an even spookier proposition, is a gene-splice super-croon experiment fusing Burt Bacharach and, unbelievably, Roger Waters. It really is a double-take situation here; either Gilmour is all reconciled with previous acrimonies, or he’s oblivious to the Watered-down Roger-dodger doppelganger standing next to him.
Another head-scratcher is the fact Sheriff Strickland-Crosby spends the entire soundcheck with his hands in his pockets, giving the appearance that either he’s about to draw his pistols, or is in fact already playing with one. With Nash in vocal tandem, who has mastered Waters’ trademark ejaculation face during the impassioned parts, it’s a toss-up over who’s going to shoot first.
And speaking of shooting, while the image-hungry collective go all clickety-click-click as soundcheck gets underway, yours truly steals away to the front row and makes a one-man audience of himself beneath Gilmour and friends.
The choral sound that issues forth is hauntingly sepulchral, coming as it does from the father-son-and-holy-ghost silver-streaked apparition of Crosby-Gilmour-Nash. When seated directly below this harmonious triumvirate, it’s like breathing your last after being run over by the Bee Gees. “Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!” indeed. But we’re stayin’ alive, here; what was lilting us into a Heaven-bound reverie is abruptly defibrillated back to earth as Crosby starts fluffing lines.
On An Island, one of the few older solo Gilmour offerings in the set, is being ceremoniously tripped over like a slapstick comedian in a banana plant, the song’s tightrope harmonic balancing being offset by an adamantly pocketed pair of hands. At one point, Gilmour emphasises the song’s rhythm to his peer by pounding his fists. Either that, or a different kind of division bell is about to toll for round one.
Meanwhile, comfortably oblivious, Nash-Waters is almost trance-like as he waltzes around the stage like a pent-up Lionel Blair, lending his jizz-face a more sinister edge. The accompanying musicians – including Floyd collaborator Guy Pratt on bass, guitar legend and producer Phil Manzanera, and a razor-sharp collection of young session players on sax and BVs – seem to feed off the Nash man’s restive enthusiasm. Sheriff Crosby, on the other hand, is gunning down Comfortably Numb with all the tentative clunkiness of a karaoke virgin. Vocally, he’s growling and groping in the dark (and still groping the contents of his pockets), as if he’s forgotten this is a timeless classic. The irony is that the really tricky part seems to be the line: “I do believe it’s working… good,” which it ain’t – the pause between “working” and “good” showing evidence of neither.
And by the end of a soundcheck dichotomy that pitted jubilant against jarring, what we’re feeling is pretty close to numb, and quite a fair distance from comfortable…
The Royal Albert Hall is a carousel of revellers, all blissfully unaware of an afternoon practice session that took issue with the very components of the word soundcheck. Sound emerged, yes; but, from where we were sitting, a few checks went, er, unchecked. It remains to be seen, and heard.
As the lights go down, so too does the anticipatory hubbub. Contrary to a regular gig, which at this point is feeding time at the zoo, a hushed reverence descends. The occasional tentative “whoop” is as isolated and awkward as a fart.
Electric blue light bathes the stage in a brooding wash, out of which a single note from Gilmour’s six-string superconductor – quite possibly the most distinctive guitar sound ever – splits the silence like a wailing angel. Portentous and full of hollow nostalgia, it’s a sound in stasis that makes you feel equally aligned and alone. Opening with instrumental 5 A.M. makes for an atmospheric but hesitant start – a toe-in-the-water rather than bombing the deep end, and it’s understandable. The decision to open with the first three (relatively unknown) tracks from the new album shows admirable determination to turn the page and spread his newfound wings, but with a planet-sized albatross in tow, Gilmour’s emancipation will forever be a flight of fancy.
Rather than being imposed, then, the new songs are woven into the set in such as way as to make the stitching almost imperceptible. With the exception of the lead-off title track from the album, which is jarring early on and tends to rattle the cage of Tom Petty’s jaunty mid-range-pop enclosure, much of Rattle That Lock melds congruously with the back catalogue. Waltzing in homogenous tandem with Division Bell’s surreal romance, lugubrious anti-ballad Faces Of Stone is set against a blood-red backdrop like a Dante play, but the song’s dramatic ascent/descent is brought pirouetting back to earth with the impish whimsy of an accordion wig-out. You can’t say David Gilmour doesn’t have a playful side, even with a back catalogue with the gravitational pull of an imploding star.
“Hope you enjoyed my new album,” Gilmour asks almost sheepishly; the muted response is uncomfortable, though it’s likely the majority of the audience have yet to hear it. Soon after, the opening notes of Wish You Were Here break the silence, feeling as welcome as they do intrusive. For while the song’s yearning sentiment appeases the Floyd faithful, the nostalgia is perhaps too soon into the set, and the classic regality of the song counters the gradual osmosis starting to filter through with the new material. And whether it’s down to performance or context, the song, usually a colossal curtain closer, feels quite pedestrian and fails to elicit much of a reaction from a crowd still collectively wondering who dropped their guts earlier.
As if to settle this, a portion of the crowd rises to its feet like a scene from I, Farticus as Crosby and Nash drift onstage to the patchwork ovation. Fears laid down by a creaky soundcheck are allayed at the sound of pitch-perfect duelling vocals, and the sight of Crosby’s hands. With Gilmour’s slide guitar soaring over the mournful piano-led pulse of A Boat Lies Waiting, the Nash-Crosby harmonies ebb and flow with tidal grace, their voices like sirens from a long-forgotten sound (quelling sirens activated at a near-remembered soundcheck). Nash, eyes ecstatically squeezed, is immersed in the song’s undercurrent, an emotive tsunami waiting to erupt; with fingers literally and figuratively pulled out, Crosby is now waving, not drowning. It all makes for the most haunted sea shanty, whose waters run deeper than any Rogers; it’s also an album highlight that shows Gilmour can, at times, eclipse his past.
As the song recedes into the distance, the mood segues from desolate shoreline to The Blue’s emollient embrace, the stage suffused in oceanic colour and Gilmour at the centre strapped in spotlights and hammering out metallic guitar shards like a prisoner forging his own shackles. Occasionally, Gilmour’s freefalling fretwork can feel somewhat incarcerated – what has defined him has also confined him – and the prolonged noodling here coils itself bombastically around the outro like a chain of irritable serpents (rattled snakes?). But ultimately, it’s a pageantry that thrives in its confined space and doesn’t attempt to rattle its own locks. After all, why try to shed the chains when the key is forged from the same metal?
One such cast-iron link with cast-ironic lineage comes in the shape of Money, a tap-dancing cash cow last seen parading in Floyd colours at Live 8. Here, the song’s typical affluence feels compromised by a parsimony of sound, its normally lavish structure and unrelenting bass lacking the voracious ambition the song demands. It sounds rich, but content – like a retired stock broker. Gilmour’s investment with the Waters-penned tune also seems hedged, with a couple of lines going astray and a pedestrian a cappella guitar break that – pun intended – treads thin Waters.
The neat little segue from Capitalist cupidity to Humanist futilty, as per the album from whence they came, sees Us And Them’s everyman rally call rise like a phoenix from an emotively bankrupt Money and transform the Royal Albert into a cathedral (from den of thieves to God’s gaff). The vertiginous chorus ascends into the field of acoustic mushrooms suspended from the doomed roof above, weaves some impossible far-out magic, and then rains down a storm of commandments from the new world order of fungus gods. Our complete sobriety (God’s honest) is being compromised at this point, the impossibly angelic backing vocals burning and searing like everlasting truths, as the colossal chorus splits the song’s subject matter in two, before being pulled back into itself as gravity gives out to a saxophone’s heavy-hearted implosion. Music this transcendent suspends all searches; when you’re standing this still, Heaven is never far away.
Which all makes for a disappointing end to the first half (it’s the theatre, dahling, so there’s an interval). The usual show-stealing grandiosity of High Hopes dashes its titular premise the instant a decidedly matted tintinnabulation of the division bell peals weakly at a staunch theatre-like audience. While Gilmour’s resonant baritone gushes darkly forth like an oil spill, the bare bones of the song (usually spine-chillingly febrile) feels just so – a skeletal carcass stripped of all muscle and sinew. For whom this song tolls should be hearing the dinner rather than division bell; what is usually a sonic banquet is gala for anorexia, and the audience sedation here could be down to chronic malnutrition.
But hey, it’s the interval. Where’s the cake?
We’ve come to an empty circle.
There’s nary a morsel of baked goodness to be had in the Royal Doughnut, even though the place is sufficiently jammed. But there’s a definite hole to be found – a nagging void that feels like hunger and has not been satiated. It could be the sense of anticipation that’s rendering impossible the concept that we’re so far underwhelmed. That the show’s lowest anticipated high point was the aptly titled High Hopes makes it harder to swallow. Was there too much expectation after such a prolonged absence? Did the grass become too green in exile?
Whatever the grass is, it’s as if we’ve smoked a whole harvest of it as part 2 lands like an alien visitation. In a twist to Gilmour’s dalliance with Floyd’s repertoire, the second section opens with Astronomy Domine, a Syd Barrett-penned space-rock headfuck lifted from debut album Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – in the days before Dave.
It’s an interesting context in which this time-traveller places himself: going not full circle but beyond it, visiting the days before he existed. In this instance, it’s like a sip of primordial soup – a spaced-out, tribalistic, ritualistic return to the primitive source – the incipient womb from which all of this formed. But instead of returning to the (Atom Heart) Mother with Oedipal intentions (ie. shag mummy; kill daddy), Gilmour attempts not to conquer but to emulate, channelling the soul of Barrett’s astronomical musical anatomy and breathing life – ungovernable, irrepressible, diamond-shaped life – into a crucial fundament. It’s a mature reckoning with the Pink amniotic source, full of a thrust and penetration that manages to avoid Floydian slips.
Bringing us to another neat segue in the form of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a tribute to Barrett’s irrepressible character, and testimony to his enduring influence. As Gilmour stands alone centre stage, plucking Close Encounters-style space-bound notes like cries from the past, it’s as if the ghost of Barrett is standing at his shoulder, a microcosmic entity bringing cosmic and macrocosmic presence to what is still at the pinnacle of classic blues intros. The solitary opening, sparse and poignant, then bleeds with a sanguine rush into a choral cornucopia of colour and sound, a boundless essence that creates sonic universes. It is the lofty plateau from which the best of Pink Floyd’s output was delivered, and from on high is where the song is both delivered and aimed, its timelessness impervious to the vagaries of trend. In fact, if this were Barrett’s eulogy, his resurrection is assured – a precious stone that is shinier, crazier and infinitely more precious, particularly in a musical climate replete with fools’ gold.
Thus titillated, the crowd, getting warmer by the minute, are attended to with more precious things, rarely performed hidden classics like Fat Old Sun rising and falling with nostalgic ambivalence, like a memory that basks in the afterglow of a dying sun’s promise. Set against a golden backdrop, Gilmour engages playfully with the rest of his band, who themselves are joining the party atmosphere, as if the ghosts of yesterday are the flammable source of this euphoric uprising.
All of which makes the melancholy interludes feel something of a needless diversion. The seabound shanty of A Boat Lies Waiting sails on smoother waters than the turbulent soundcheck, its slow-burning harmonies – perfectly performed by Crosby and Nash – like flames from Prometheus’s torch, handed down as templates on which the likes of Fleet Foxes built a career; the late-night blues of The Girl In The Yellow Dress, with its whiskey-soaked, sax-laden seduction, is a soporific smoke-filled anachronism put to music, containing all the meandering lack of direction of a pisshead ploughing into a plotless film noir. Only the colossal mantra of Run Like Hell, a towering bastion from Floyd fortress The Wall, brings the adrenaline rushing and the blood flowing, its call-to-arms insurgence built on an industrial gothic architecture that brings to mind early Simple Minds, filling the room’s now tidal crowd with tsunamic ambition with its dark celebration of life’s urgency.
A party mood is officially here, now paraded by an actively limbed Bez-like figure who occupies the aisles with some full-on crackhead callisthenics; pretty soon, his infectiously spacey endeavours have conscripted some recruits, and before long the Royal Albert Hall is in spaz-dance tandem, even those who remain seated. There’s an electrical surge at play, and harbingers are left hanging in the air as the lights die down, sending newly awakened expectations hurtling into the promise of a binding encore – one that closes and completes this incendiary circle.
Time: tick-tock tick-tock…
If you know the time more than five times a day, you’re not living; if you know the time less than five times a day, you’re dead.
Take what you will from this homemade homily, but for my part (the cut of my jib), life truly happens when time is suspended, and purity of being lies in blissful chronological ignorance. The paradox therein means life is closest when mortality is furthest.
The time now is here o’clock (or quarter-past-then/quarter-to-gonna). The omnipotent clock-face commanding the stage is flickering with ticking timepieces that portend a timely appearance. The incessant sound of seconds flirts and tickles madly; ominous, guttural basslines strike with eleventh-hour authority, and the hollow raindrop thump of the syncopated drums pitch and toss with restive, directionless anger. Time is upon us.
Up until now, the show has been one progressive build-up, a prescription of small doses, the effect of which was perhaps nullified by expectation. Like frogs in an oven that can’t detect gradual rises in heat, and will happily sit there and bake to death (or croak it), this gradual filtration has slapped our patience awake during the encore, screaming “FROG!” at us and pointing to the thermometer. How long have we been here? Time and temperature seem to have caught up.
On stage, the formidable architecture of a timeless classic called Time is towering above us with an altitude that makes you hold on – for dear life, and for the preciousness of moment. As Gilmour sings what seems to be a national mantra “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”, and the entire Royal Albert Hall is arms aloft in solidarity, the moment reveals itself, wherein time becomes suspended and the mortal remains of the song breathes its last with nostalgic, solipsistic sweetness.
The respiratory reprise of Breathe follows, a deep exhalation that, in terms of Floyd’s music and Gilmour’s playing, feels just as effortless as its title. Soon after, a sharp inhalation occurs as Watered-down Roger and the Sheriff of Pocketwank return, reawakening some ear-agro inflicted at an earlier soundcheck.
But at this point, the atmosphere both on and off the stage is supercharged, the first strains of Comfortably Numb being swept along by a surge of reciprocal energy that is breaking down barriers. In the true spirit of pardon-me English reserve, it’s like a stage invasion without a single transgression. With band and audience now an amorphous ensemble, Gilmour and friends are basking in the brilliant afterglow of a moment’s end, the singer in particular exuding a seldom-seen air of contentment and genuine happiness. Beside him, a clench-eyed Nash-Waters seems to be coming; Crobsy-not-Cosby (he always keeps his hands to himself) has apparently arrived. And though the good sheriff might still be croaking obliviously away like a frog in a microwave singing Baby, It’s Cold Outside, it really doesn’t matter – the song’s ethereal sentiment has taken on a life of its own.
This is sheer performance – a thing that surpasses the sum of its parts. What we’re experiencing is not so much a song as a state of consciousness in liquid musical form, an organic drama in the truest sense: a surrender to moments; the suspension of disbelief.
By the end, as Gilmour encourages his band to share the spotlight – but fails to coax Crosby back, who perhaps has some loose change waiting backstage – a collective sense of accomplishment seems to be wrapped around them like a blanket. This is something that jars slightly. The blanket seems to be all-enveloping, and at this climactic point, it feels ever so slightly like being invited into a bed wherein English reserve (and quiet desperation) are laws of physics and the only thing on which to hang. It’s a kiss goodnight in wakeful mood; it’s a sentence met with a full-stop when we’ve got a semi-colon on. We seriously want more.
And therein resides the profundity of this performance. In contrast to a conventional gig, Gilmour’s (and Floyd’s) alchemy is in the slow build. In parallel with the original group as performers, neither of whom were trained musicians, the music – and consequently performance – is a journey of discovery. And once discovered, via a string of misadventures, blind alleys and crocking Crosbys, there is added poignancy at journey’s end.
So tonight, after all the dodgy soundchecks, faltering starts and a frog-discombobulating rise in temperature, the end greets us bittersweetly. Our expectations confirmed, we leave the cocoon of the Hall comfortably and combustibly numb, our souls still in the rafters and feeling as galvanised by promise at the end as we were at the start.
We’ve come full circle.
Photos by James Cooney
*An edited version of this review is published in Record Collector
Rattle That Lock
Faces Of Stone
Wish You Were Here
A Boat Lies Waiting
Us And Them
In Any Tongue
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)
Fat Old Sun
On An Island
The Girl In The Yellow Dress
Run Like Hell