Roger Waters - This is Not a Drill

Roger Waters – This is Not a Drill

O2 Arena, London
Tuesday, 6th June 2023

Everything is meticulously planned: nothing – absolutely nothing – is left to chance. From the occasional rumbles of distant thunder echoing around the arena as we entered, to the overt countdown at 15, then at 10, then at 5 minutes to the ‘show’ beginning, to the prepared statement by Waters about the recent reporting of his German shows, the palpable sense of anticipation and expectation has been carefully prepared and executed. Yet even though I have well and truly bought into the psychology by the time the lights go down, I still can’t help thinking: now, let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Without doubt, I’ll be picking the bones out of this remarkable evening for a long time to come. Indeed, please accept my apologies if what follows is not so much a ‘review’ but more an initial flush of sometimes euphoric, sometimes bewildered and sometimes seemingly contradictory thoughts which have yet to crystallise after the onslaught and, at times, painfully overwhelming experience Waters delivered to a captivated arena. The next day it still feels raw, sensitive, confusing, even troubling.

Roger Waters, photo by Rob Fisher

Make no mistake about it, however, this is exactly what the evening had been painstakingly, intelligently and above all devotedly engineered to create: a quite unique, singular experience which had the sheer power – along with no small amount of deft wiliness – to be able to reach out, speak to people, resonate with people, on all levels. It was a quite breath-taking sensory overload which brilliantly integrated a seamless blend of music, technology, visuals, story-telling, history, politics, bar talk, auto-biography and nostalgia to forge an immersive and engaging sense of genuine camaraderie, community and solidarity. Despite ourselves and despite any initial misgivings, we were – initially at least – all one together.

It was, frankly, staggering. To be seduced so completely. To allow oneself to get so caught up and carried along by the tide which swept the arena. A dizzying, euphoric enchantment.

The first set opens with a sombre, dystopian rendition of the now iconic Comfortably Numb, subdued, dark, menacing, the visuals bleak, forlorn, lacking in colour. No soaring, triumphant guitar solo here. It sets the scene, establishing the dark undertone of the evening. Another Brick in the Wall is an explosive contrast, thundering momentum has people out of their seats dancing with delight and punching the air with buoyant exuberance. The scene is set, the trap nicely baited.

To powerful, often shocking images and words relating to brutal cases of death, murder, assassination, slaughter, racially motivated violence, we are then led through The Powers That Be and The Bravery of Being Out of Range. Words cannot describe the emotional force – I will even go so far as to say (in hindsight) borderline trauma enabled by the sequence of the setlist to this point. The point is well and truly made.

Waters follows it with a 10-minute spiel, asking us to imagine we are at a bar, while he comments on the human touch of being in a pub and the way we talk and react to each other. The O2 is our pub for this evening. Another astute strategy. Clever. Chummy. Cozy. Puts us at ease. Defences down. Malleable for the message which continues in a powerful but not unexpected segment where he retorts with some gusto and righteous indignation to widely reported political comments on the tour generally and Waters personally.

Roger Waters, photo by Rob Fisher

Three absolute gems follow; Have a Cigar, a profoundly moving tribute to Syd Barrett, their friendship and history together with Wish You Were Here and the glorious Shine on You Crazy Diamond. The opening set closes with what for me is the unexpected triumph of the evening, a fabulous, tumultuous, foot-stomping rendition of Sheep, with a large inflatable circling the arena while the video screens recap the main themes of the evening.

The interval comes at precisely the right point. Set 1 was as close to perfection as I think it is possible to get. I actually wish I had left at that point. It was already ‘enough’. So rich, so much stimulus, so much input, so many thoughts, words, images, feelings, emotions. Perfect sound celebrating the very highest musicianship delivering a grim but consistent message, provocative, challenging, hard-hitting, in your face with no chance (or choice) to avoid it. As a gold standard template for protest, resistance, anti-establishment education, you will never see, hear or encounter anything better as long as you live.

Roger Waters, photo by Rob Fisher

Set 2 opens with that song, with Waters wearing that outfit and firing that machine gun against the backdrop of marching hammers on the video screens. The clear parody and obvious mockery of authoritarian regimes should make quick and easy work of dismissing the unwarranted noise and manufactured outrage surrounding the performance. Of course, it helps if you know what Pink Floyd were all about in the 1980s and the story which is The Wall. Yet by the same token, it is easy to see how it could be misconstrued by folks not ‘in the know’ and/or manipulated for different purposes even if they are.

Indeed, there is a warning here, one which to my mind begins to pervade the entirety of the second set. Run Like Hell and Is This the Life We Really Want? mark an almost frenzied return to the themes and images of the first set. What was provocative and challenging starts to become tiring and tiresome. Protest movements across the world understand all too well how quickly they need to adapt and change their strategies. Several times Waters references the fact he has been doing this for sixty years. Perhaps he should reflect that, if so, perhaps his and this particular form of protest hasn’t and isn’t achieving what he hopes for. Or, being cynical, perhaps his status makes him now as comfortably ‘establishment’ as those he decries.

Roger Waters, photo by Rob Fisher

The appearance of Money is welcome but ultimately disappointing; the bludgeoning narrative of state murder, drones, surveillance, oppression and sticking it to those in power and/or the rich now rules all musical and visual expressions on the stage, a feeling enforced with Us and Them, tributes paid to Chelsea Manning, calls to free Julian Assange and Any Colour You Like. Songs old and new are massaged to fit the relentless spinning of the message.

Long before the end, I feel emotionally and psychologically exhausted. Drained. Overwhelmed. What started so brilliantly ultimately ran out of ideas and lost the power to either inspire or provoke. Repetition isn’t an act of resistance. Plastering ‘fuck’ over a video screen isn’t a form of protest. And when, finally, the message starts to betray the music, then you know, with certainty, surely something is starting to go wrong.

Roger Waters, photo by Rob Fisher

I have spent my life’s work exploring the ways in which we creatively, artistically and even joyfully inflict all manner of terrible things upon each other. There is certainly something to be said about a show which deals with it so explicitly, which refuses to look away, which seeks to give a voice to injustice, inequality and human rights. But when you look at the world through what I suspect has become, for Waters, a slavish allegiance to a single lens through which you interpret everything, then you lose the critical distance so vital to giving those who need it most a voice which can be heard.

For one glorious set, he showed us exactly the way this can be done in breath-taking magnificence. For one inglorious set he showed us exactly where it can go so wrong, when enlightened entertainment and intelligent commentary becomes a blunt, bludgeoning tool of indoctrination sitting ill at ease at the table of those it decries.

It was beautiful. It was monstrous. I think I enjoyed it. I’ll let you know.

Set 1:

Comfortably Numb
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3
The Powers That Be
The Bravery of Being Out of Range
The Bar
Have a Cigar
Wish You Were Here
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-VII, V)
Set 2:
In the Flesh
Run Like Hell
Déjà Vu
Déjà Vu (Reprise)
Is This the Life We Really Want?
Us and Them
Any Colour You Like
Brain Damage
Two Suns in the Sunset
The Bar (Reprise)
Outside the Wall

Roger Waters – Bass Guitar, Guitars, Vocals
Amanda Belair – Vocals
Seamus Blake – Saxophone
Jon Carin – Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals
Shanay Johnson – Vocals
Dave Kilminster – Guitar, Vocals
Gus Seyffert – Bass Guitar, Guitar
Robert Walter – Organ
Joey Waronker – Drums, Percussion
Jonathan Wilson – Guitars, Vocals

Roger Waters – Website | Facebook | YouTube