Before Roger Waters even took the stage Wednesday (Aug. 31) night for the second Madison Square Garden show on his This Is Not a Drill tour, the British rocker’s genial yet prickly voice issued forth a pre-recorded warning from the speakers: “If you’re one of those, ‘I like Pink Floyd but I can’t stand Roger’s politics’ people, you might do well to f–k off to the bar night now,” he said with a laugh.
It was a fair warning, as the 78-year-old legend’s current tour – rescheduled from 2020 due to the pandemic – is as heavy on no-holds-barred political commentary as it is on music from the influential psych-rock band that made him famous. And there’s certainly no shortage of Floyd songs (which account for more than half of his setlist) over the course of his generous two-act show involving harrowing dystopian visuals, remote-controlled floating animals and a ton of smoke. (Well, the smoke wasn’t so much from Waters’ 140-person crew as it was the gray-headed fans who sparked up the moment he began singing “Another Brick in the Wall” near the top of the show.)
If there were any “shut up and sing” types in the audience that night, they were either strangely silent or took his advice about f–king off to the bar. The crowd’s response was either supportive or respectfully neutral to images branding everyone from Ronald Reagan to sitting President Biden a “war criminal.” There were claps, and even tears, when he ran footage of police officers mercilessly beating unarmed, nonviolent civilians along with the names of murder victims from George Floyd in Minneapolis to journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Palestine. All of that went down during a driving, funky take on “The Powers That Be” from his 1987 solo album Radio K.A.O.S., which sounds pretty dated if you’re listening to the studio version (the MOR ’80s rock production is strong on that one) but boasts a weightier urgency when delivered by his current touring band.
Waters deserves credit for forcing 20,000 nostalgia-seeking Floyd fans to face uncomfortable realities that most concerts serve as an escape from. He reminded everyone that MSG (and all of New York City) sits on land stolen from the Munsee-Lenape people centuries ago. And during a thumping version of “Run Like Hell” that segued into an acoustic “Déjà Vu” from his most recent solo effort, Is This the Life We Really Want?, he made us Americans confront the bone-chillingly blasé footage of U.S. troops gunning down two Reuters journalists in a peaceful public space after they mistook cameras for weapons back in 2007. (After Chelsea Manning’s decision to leak the footage caused a reckoning three years later, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said, “We regret the loss of innocent life,” although no one was ever punished for the deaths. A “Free Julian Assange” message accompanied the footage).
Significantly less laudable, however, are Waters’ ongoing comments on the war in Ukraine, which he doubled down on Wednesday night. Fresh off a euphoric, laser-laden performance of the entire second side of The Dark Side of the Moon, Waters chided the U.S. and NATO for not ending the war in Ukraine. “What we are doing, poking sticks in Russian bears, is completely insane,” he offered, while seated at a piano toward the end of the show.
The audience, at that point, was either too hypnotized by the music or stoned off second-hand smoke to do much other than exchange quizzical glances, wondering if they’d heard him correctly; presumably, not everyone in attendance was familiar with Waters’ recent comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where he has faulted both Biden and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy for insufficient negotiations with Russia, which many have seen as a victim-blaming stance, considering that Russia was the invading aggressor. He’s also insisted Russia was pushed into this war, saying, “This war is basically about the action and reaction of NATO pushing right up to the Russian border,” a line of logic not too dissimilar from someone trying to say Nazi Germany was pushed to invade Poland because of stiff reparations imposed on the country after World War I — as if explaining the cause of a hostile invasion somehow frees the invading country of moral responsibility.
The muted response to his cringe-worthy Ukraine comments could also have simply been a result of the crowd giving him a pass, considering how astonishing This Is Not a Drill looks and sounds; it’s an arresting spectacle complemented by an equally immersive sonic experience that manages to be loud as hell without veering into head-splitting levels that have you reaching for earplugs. And when that inflatable sheep made the rounds above the heads of fans during, naturally, “Sheep,” the visible delight on everyone’s face was as life-affirming as the darker imagery was depressing. (Plus, there’s a delicious irony in watching hundreds of people reflexively pull out their cell phones the moment a giant sheep appears above their heads.)
All in all, Waters’ This Is Not a Drill tour serves as a reminder of two important truths: His visual and musical art remains as vital, timely and invigorating as ever, and if someone talks politics at you for two hours, they’re eventually going to say something that does indeed find you wishing you were at the bar instead.