Roger Waters has been touring his Pink Floyd-era double-album "The Wall" around the world for the last two years, giving the 1979 warhorse a long, lavish victory lap that landed Friday at Wrigley Field.
Perhaps only Waters could build a wall without ivy in the Cubs playground. He unleashed massive inflatables that likely gave high-rise dwellers in Wrigleyville the shock of their lives. It's not every evening you see a fascist pig the size of a bus drift past your window bearing Big Brother slogans such as "Trust me" and "Everything will be OK." What's more, this particular pig covered more ground than any Cubs centerfielder in recent memory, eventually crashing in the grandstand behind home plate.
This is a show about ideas and visuals as much as music, and Wrigley Field provided an appropriately epic setting for one of the most over-the-top rock operas ever staged. Wrigley made the United Center, where Waters first staged the tour in Chicago in 2010, seem rather quaint by comparison. With listeners filling the rooftops and the streets outside the stadium, the setting was the equal of the show's outsized ambitions.
Waters didn't play the traditional rock front man, and how could he? For a good part of the show he was obscured by that 35-foot-tall, 424-cardboard-brick monstrosity, which doubled as a massive video screen and art canvas upon which bombers buzzed, hideous cartoons marched and slogans were flashed like Times Square billboards.
The bassist and conceptual mastermind in Pink Floyd wasn't content to merely replicate the original 30-date "Wall" tour from 1980. Back then, the album could have been subtitled, "Roger's Difficulties With Authority Figures," including his mother, ex-wife and schoolteachers. His narrator becomes a paranoid recluse prone to sociopathic fantasies. "If I had my way I'd have all of you shot," he shouts.
But "The Wall" tour Mach II tries to come off as less solipsistic, with Waters at one point mocking "miserable, (messed) up little Roger from all those years ago." Strumming an acoustic guitar, he performed a duet with a 1980 video of himself singing "Mother," and it remained one of the night's most moving moments in a show otherwise brimming with monsters, demons, psychotics and gun-wielding tyrants.
In trying to update his most ambitious album and make it more universal, Waters gave it a socio-political spin: the wall as a symbol of the barriers that divide nations. The wall was transformed into a memorial for war victims of the last century, starting with Waters' own father, who died in World War II. Violent set pieces threaded through the show, beginning with a spectacular plane crash into the wall, complete with flames, and finishing with the wall's destruction. In between Waters played one of his most convincing roles: the lean, gray-haired dictator in a trench coat and shades with red arm band.
Subtlety was not a strong suit in this rather cartoonishly broad evening of multi-media entertainment – the cartoonish hammers that marched across the wall are Waters' favorite instruments when driving home an idea. But even if the connection between rock stars and despots isn't particularly novel, Waters made it in memorably chilling fashion. As the familiar chords of "Run Like Hell" rang out, he led the crowd in a cross-armed salute, than swung his arms overhead, the fans dutifully following suit, as if to prove their leader's point. "Follow me! All together now," Waters commanded. "Good! Enjoy yourselves!" Later he was firing a toy machine gun, wearing a maniacal smile, then removed his gloves with a self-satisfied smirk.
It added up to one of the darkest evenings of "entertainment" that $250 could buy. There was just enough vulnerability and humanity, and a handful of truly memorable songs, to keep things from sliding into nihilism: the 15 dancing children who shooed away the demon-eyed teacher in "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," the poignantly unanswerable questions of the bewildered son in "Mother," the desperate cry of "Bring the Boys Back Home."
Three guitarists took the place of Waters' old sidekick, David Gilmour, who wrote some of the most indelible melodies on "The Wall." When it came time for Gilmour's showpiece, "Comfortably Numb," one of the stand-ins replicated his solo note for note, while Waters played cheerleader. Like everything else during the two-hour show, it was scripted and executed precisely – a near replica of the concert Waters first played in Chicago two years ago.
In the end, when Waters and the band played in front of the wall's ruins as a scruffy acoustic street band, they celebrated the "bleeding hearts and the artists," presumably much like the Waters of three decades ago who poured out his anxieties in what would become one of the best-selling double-albums of all time. It may be a relic of a more grandiose era, but "The Wall" still saturates the senses and invades nightmares like few stadium spectacles ever have.
Roger Waters set list Friday at Wrigley Field:
Part 1 (60 minutes)
1. In the Flesh?
2. The Thin Ice
3. Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1
4. The Happiest Days of Our Lives
5. Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2
7. Goodbye Blue Sky
8. Empty Spaces
9. What Shall We Do Now?
10. Young Lust
11. One of my Turns
12. Don't Leave Me Now
13. Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3
14. The Last Few Bricks
15. Goodbye Cruel World
Part 2 (55 minutes)
16. Hey You
17. Is There Anybody Out There?
18. Nobody Home
20. Bring the Boys Back Home
21. Comfortably Numb
22. The Show Must Go On
23. In the Flesh
24. Run Like Hell
25. Waiting for the Worms
27. The Trial