Roger Waters: a politically charged – yet sublime – show from rock's pariah

Roger Waters performs at Altice Arena in Lisbon
Roger Waters performs at Altice Arena in Lisbon

On the opening night of his This Is Not a Drill tour’s European leg, the beleaguered ex-Pink Floyd ideologue gave an emotional performance after being reduced to a pariah in recent weeks.

Though a pre-recorded message advised concert-goers with no appetite for political content to “F--k off to the bar”, the 79-year-old firebrand carefully avoided the kind of inflammatory comments which have landed him in hot water in recent weeks – most notably his apparent endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and “victim-blaming” of President Zelensky’s country.

In early February, Waters’s public image took a hammer blow from Polly Samson, novelist and wife of Floyd’s ongoing singer-guitarist, David Gilmour, who set Twitter ablaze excoriating him as “anti-Semitic to your rotten core”, further fuelling the ugly beef between the two former bandmates. Thanks to his views on Israel and the war in Ukraine, Waters is currently fighting to save his concerts in Frankfurt and Munich from being banned outright by local authorities.

It all throws up an intriguing question: could the co-author of the fourth-biggest selling album ever, 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, who has enjoyed top-flight rock stardom throughout the intervening half-century, actually get cancelled, in the broader, 2020s sense?

Certainly, nobody inside the 20,100-capacity Altice Arena was voicing opposition, as their musical hero, along with his seven-piece band and two female backing singers, took to a crucifix-shaped stage in the round, and struck up his broadside against complacency in maturity, Comfortably Numb.

Roger Waters performs at Altice Arena
Roger Waters performs at Altice Arena

As an arena curtain-raiser, however, the song was unsettlingly muted (it’s certainly no Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones), and the show’s opening 45 minutes proved unrelentingly hard work, as the screens suspended overhead spewed footage of police brutality, and branded every US president since Reagan (even the Democrats) a “War Criminal”.

When the performance finally rollercoastered into poignant reminiscences of Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett via selections from 1975’s Wish You Were Here, it acquired a heart – an emotional thread which ultimately saved the day.

After an interval, though, Waters donned Herr Flick gear for some heavier material from his 1979 Floyd masterpiece The Wall, and soon we were back under a barrage of slogans – “Free Julian Assange”, “F--k the Supreme Court” – amid some of the most non-crowd-pleasing material (from Waters’s last solo LP) that this writer has ever witnessed in a enormodome setting.

The show’s flaws were stacking up – five too many sax solos; more “f-words” than a lame contemporary pop idol – but all could be forgiven, when Waters suddenly rendered Dark Side’s latter half in its entirety. For Money, guitarist Jonathan Wilson provided the yowled voicing while the man himself focused on his swinging R&B bassline, and by Us And Them, it was as if the arena had passed into a state of grace, with literally just one or two phones visible as the entire 20,100 listened in the moment, rapt.

Pushing midnight, Waters paused at the piano to ruminate urgently on the “the most dangerous times we’ve ever lived through”. Perhaps invalidating his position as a commentator by having to ask his Portuguese audience if their country is in Nato, he pleaded for peace in “that situation with America, Russia and the Ukraine”. A couple of minutes later, he spoke about losing his brother earlier this year, and dedicated some lyrics he admitted nicking from Bob Dylan to his wife, Kamilah Chavis, 44, in the audience.

Whether by design or not, here tonight was Waters’s best defence in the furore surrounding him: a generous and often sublime sharing of his best music, and convincing displays of warmth and humanity to prove he hasn't been entirely consumed by politics.

On tour until June 10. Tickets: