When punk rock reared its spotty little head back in the late '70s, its socio-political agenda and minimalist sensibilities were supposed to bury "dinosaurs" like the Pink Floyd that Roger Waters was fronting at the time. Thirty years later, punk is a fashion you can buy at the mall and Waters is still performing a body of work more brave, groundbreaking, indignant and politically incisive than all but a few of punk's true heroes were ever able to conjure.
Waters' appearance at Darien Lake on Thursday evening -- before a full house, to be sure, and an eager one well-versed in the man's music -- couldn't have been timed any better. Last weekend, Waters was one of the headliners of the Live Earth concert, and pretty much stole the show from everyone, save Al Gore.
Waters dove headlong into material that has not only aged well, but is in fact more relevant today than it has ever been. Waters' topics -- alienation, madness, war, the deadening aspects of complacent society -- and his targets -- corrupt politicians, fascist-leaning leaders and the sheep-like masses willing to do their bidding -- are dressed in elegant symbolism and bathed in the forgiving light of arrangements at turns grandiose and spacious, subtle and intimate. It's impossible to miss the righteous indignation in these songs, however, even if Waters has been known as "classic rocker" or purveyor of psychedelic trip-out soundscapes. It's even more impossible to miss the man's intent when a giant inflatable pig adorned with slogans like "Torture shames us all" and "Impeach Bush" is unleashed to cruise around the arena's ether.
A pair from "The Wall" kicked off set No. 1, "In the Flesh" finding Waters calling out in the character of the song's fascist narrator -- "Are there any queers in the theater tonight? Get 'em up against the wall! . . . There's one smoking a joint! And another with spots! If I had my way, I'd have all of you shot!" -- while "Mother" lamented the emptiness of conventional wisdom passed from parent to child.
Mid-period Floyd gem "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Part I)," which segued directly into "Have A Cigar," Waters' appropriate riposte toward the music industry. (Thirty years old, it makes much more sense today than it did then.) "Shine On" afforded the band's trio of guitarists -- former Thin Lizzy picker Snowy White, the bluesy and emotive Dave Kilminster and longtime Waters and Eric Clapton utility man Andy Fairweather-Low -- an opportunity to stretch out over the slow, stately and gradually unfolding chord progression. The song, a paean to the late Floyd founder and avant-pop genius Syd Barrett, was impeccably performed and sung with hair-raising emotion by a clearly moved Waters.
The first set ended with some heavy political hitting, as "Southampton Dock" and "The Fletcher Memorial Home" made mincemeat of Thatcher and Reagan, and the heart-rending, anthemic "Perfect Sense" railed in a more universal sense against the war-mongers in our midst. The new "Leaving Beirut" found Waters recounting an evening spent with a family in Lebanon, and offered a moving, humanist sentiment. It also offered the most direct dissertation on the political doings of the last few decades. "Sheep" closed the set, as the inflatable pig cruised over the heads of audience, and Waters spat out his timeless parable of the meek inheriting the slaughterhouse.
We could've gone home then and still have witnessed one of the more stunning marriages of music, lyric and visual presentation ever mounted. But after a break, Waters and band came back to perform the epic, timeless "Dark Side of the Moon" in its entirety. That album -- certainly one of the ten best in rock history -- is concerned with madness, but it's also concerned with transcendence, as its spine-tingling coda makes clear. Though certainly a Pink Floyd piece in every sense, Waters' post-Floyd band brought a nuanced, elegant approach to it. How could this music still sound so fresh, new and vital?
Waters, both with and without Pink Floyd, has ably inherited the mantle of a few of his heroes -- Bob Dylan and John Lennon -- as a writer capable of distilling and viscerally emoting the hopes and fears of his era. That he has also managed to make arena rock a meaningful exchange for both performer and audience is only further testament to his significance. These days, it seems like it won't get any better than this. But it should. Is there anybody out there?
WHO: Roger Waters
WHEN: Thursday night
WHERE: Darien Lake Performing Arts Center