Video: Roger Waters Played A Shockingly Good United Center Show, With Surprise Eddie Vedder Appearance

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 24, 2017 5:03PM

Roger Waters' Sunday night Us + Them show at the United Center was billed as an evening featuring songs off four Pink Floyd albums released in the 1970s, but anyone who came expecting a nostalgia trip probably stumbled home in shock. It's saying something when an evening featuring a surprise appearance by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder singing the choruses to "Comfortably Numb" is not one of the most powerful moments of a show. (Watch the video of this surprise near the end of our review.)

Sunday's show was an immersive experience, taking stadium clichés and warping them to wrap the crowd in a dizzying mixture of sound and visuals, sometimes trading on the imagery of yore to deliver a message firmly reflecting the message of today. The first half of the show served as a place setting, using a certain amount of music and visual sentimentality to get the crowd acclimated. Instead of some blaring introductory music, the band's entrance was preceded but a 20 minute video of a lone figure siting on the beach, soundtracked by crashing waves and the occasional seagull cry. A slowly reddening sky was the almost imperceptible sign that something was about to happen before the house lights shut off and the opening strains of "Breathe," off The Dark Side Of The Moon filled the arena.

Celestial imagery and the occasional projection of Waters or a band member on a huge screen behind the spartan stage mimicked the tropes one would expect from a really big show. "One Of These Days" followed, ramping up the tension but still using familiar visuals including the slow push down a dilapidated hallways towards a mysterious door in time to the sinister pounding that punctuates portions of the song before giving way to full freakout.

"Time" included familiar clock imagery interspersed with projections of Waters and his rhythm guitarist Jonathan Wilson—channeling the good looks and tasty licks of '70s-era David gilmour—trading vocal parts. As "The Great Gig in the Sky" began, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius—who also provided vocals for Is This the Life We Really Want? and are touring as full members of his band—tackled the acrobatic vocals in a spectacular fashion, managing to pay homage to original singer Clare Torry's version while pushing the song into new areas. By now the audience was in Water's thrall, comfortable.

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Lucius with Roger Waters at The United cCnter, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

"Welcome to the Machine" followed, mixing new animations with vintage work by the artist Gerald Scarfe, and it was here that the show began its subtle shift as Waters mixed the familiar with the new, and started slipping in signs that the message was growing to grow more pointed and less reflective. In case anyone missed the hint, the new songs "The Last Refugee" and "Picture That" focused the message on modern worries, and "Wish You Were Here" delivered the fan favorite over a projection of two hands reaching to make contact only to explode into a million shards. The vibe in the room was growing more ominous, and for the first set's closing trifecta of "The Happiest Days of Our Lives," "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" and "Another Brick in the Wall Part 3" made it clear that we weren't in Kansas any more.

For these three songs the band was joined by an initially creepy line of kids—all from local Chicago schools, Waters would later announce—in orange jumpsuits, who stood motionless with their heads hung low, suddenly jolting into a synchronized dance during the pounding disco choruses featuring a children's choir on "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2." As the trio of songs grew to a close though, the kids threw off their jumpsuits to reveal T-shirts reading RESIST and began dancing with joyful abandon. It provided a visual and emotional wallop, and a release I didn't realize was needed from a tension in the show that had been creeping into the set, by design.

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Roger Waters, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

After the set break, the room plunged into darkness as sirens blared from all corners. If the first set was ushered in by waves and a restful beach scene, the second set saw patrons stumbling confused through the aisles searching for their seats and feeling an edge of panic. Waters was wasting no time letting everyone know that the previous hour was just an appetizer for what was to come next. The band launched into "Dogs" off 1977's Animals, a long paranoid freakout, and led into "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" as as huge screens, topped my smokestacks, descended to bisect the center of the arena.

Images of President Donald Trump with the word "Charade" stamped over his face, and Vladimir Putin holding Trump as a baby made it abundantly clear Waters was going to use the oddly prescient refrain of "You’re nearly a laugh / But you’re really a cry" and "Big man, pig man / Ha, ha, charade you are / You well heeled big wheel" to rail against the current leader of the free world. Waters didn't need to work hard to make his point; while the visuals were shocking and direct, they couldn't beat his usage of soundbites from the president, interlaced with written quotes, to get across his thesis that the U.S. president was a hypocrite of mammoth proportions.

Given Waters' history of provocation through his art, this shouldn't have been a surprise. But what was bracing about this performance was the sense it gave us that, in a climate where people are being lulled into a certain complacency by the slowly boiling world around them, it can take moments of nearly obscene directness, delivered from an outside observer, to jolt people to attention. I don't think anyone left the show simply chuckling over the projections.

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Roger Waters, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Perhaps at that point is when people began to realize that earlier imagery in the evening wasn't abstract animations of blossoms but actually footage from drones dropping bombs. And that a lovely image of a girl running through a town from overhead wasn't meant to be restful, but was a direct overlay of other footage of bombed out aerial views. As people laughed at the ridiculous images of Trump, we could see the slow realization creep cross some faces that this wasn't all just fun and games. Waters was using every tool to build an emotional argument, and the second set made his viewpoint abundantly clear.

But there were flashes of hope. "Us And Them" showcased people experiencing solitude, despite the crowds packed in the United Center, and it interspersed films of '70s commuters on their way to work with images of modern protestors to show that we can bring our voices together in unison to form community. And "Money" was an unexpected joy, still taking jabs at Trump, Putin, and others that have built wealth using methods Waters doesn't agree with, but Joey Waronker's drumming managed to provide tempo shifts and flavor that transformed what has long been a chugging blues into something far more dynamic and groovy. I've heard that song thousands of times, and this was the first time it sounded exciting and different since the first time it hit my ears.

"Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" saw the screen finally raise up to make way for a pyramid built out of lasers and rainbow lights and warm vibes. The tension of the evening was giving way to something more positive. A tender reading of "Vera" and "Bring the Boys back Home" provided the lynchpin of optimistic resolve that lead directly into a triumphant "Comfortably Numb," featuring that surprise appearance by Eddie Vedder.

Throughout "Comfortably Numb," those two hands from "Wish You Were Here" that had previously splintered and shattered reappeared, reaching towards each other, only this time they actually clasped by the songs end, restoring hope; though human connection we can fight against these horrors of the world around us, Waters seemed to say.

As I left the arena, the opening movie returned to the screen, only now the lone figure on the beach was joined by a little girl, and the two sat embracing. I looked down at the floor and spotted a piece of confetti that fell from the rafters at the show's finale and saw that it read "RESIST."

Full setlist for Roger Waters at The United Center, July 23, 2017

First set:
Speak To Me / Breathe
One of These Days
Time
Breathe (Reprise)
The Great Gig in the Sky
Welcome to the Machine
Déjà Vu
The Last Refugee
Picture That
Wish You Were Here
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
Another Brick in the Wall Part 3

Second set:
Dogs
Pigs (Three Different Ones)
Money
Us and Them
Smell the Roses
Brain Damage
Eclipse
(Band introductions)
Vera
Bring the Boys Back Home
Comfortably Numb (with Eddie Vedder)