Ed Lopez-Reyes for Brain Damage
On Friday, July 24th, Roger Waters played the historic Newport Folk Festival: this marked Waters' first full performance since the last show on The Wall Live tour, in Paris, France in 2013 (special performances at the Stand Up for Heroes concert in New York City, New York, at the Perfect Earth/Azuero Earth Project benefit concert in East Hampton, New York, and in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium consisted of anywhere between one and just a handful of songs); the occasion also marked the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's controversial performance at the same festival...
50 years ago Bob Dylan rocked Rhode Island's Newport Folk Festival by simply plugging in: an acoustic, folk hero made music history by dividing an audience into a manifestly polarized sea of cheers and jeers. This followed a change in his own recorded work: that same year, Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home, a half electric and half acoustic album, to the disfavour of folk purists and the acclaim of rock enthusiasts.
With all that history and its quinquagenary anniversary serving as a backdrop, Roger Waters delivered what will be remembered as one of the most iconic and unique performances in the festival's narrative - all on the same day that his 1992 classic album Amused to Death was re-released in 5.1 Surround Sound.
The Newport Folk Festival can generally divide audiences as much as Dylan himself did in 1965. The festival has a history of pulling together a range of acts that can be placed under the "folk" umbrella for a large and diverse number of reasons. This wide net was cast over Waters' own appearance as he paired up with My Morning Jacket.
Originally an unannounced addition to the festival, My Morning Jacket played a set of its own before being joined on stage by Roger Waters and guitarist G.E. Smith, transmuting My Morning Jacket's own sound into something uncannily close to what Waters' own band was projecting during The Wall Live tour. Particular credit should go to Patrick Hallahan for delivering drum-work with the precision and power of Graham Broad. A hat tip is also due to Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, vocalists for the band Lucius, whose powerful, soulful, and pronounced background vocals lifted Waters' entire set to an unanticipated level.
This was not Waters' first live performance with My Morning Jacket: Waters performed with the band on October 3, 2012 in a tribute for The Band's late drummer and singer Levon Helm, along with a cast that included Helm's own daughter Amy Helm, who also joined Waters on stage for the night's headline performance in Newport. In addition, fiddler Sara Watkins also joined the rest of these musicians on stage, giving the set an added texture that really grounded the effort around the festival's spirit.
Waters launched into a set that will be stitched in the hearts of his fans permanently: it featured new, solo, and Pink Floyd material, as well as a few covers to boot.
The first song, Crystal Clear Brooks, was an interesting choice for the opening – but a suitable one considering how Roger Waters' headline set converged into what My Morning Jacket had already played. A mellow tune featuring Waters on piano, it boasted the added bonus of being a new song (but one whose lyrics had been published as early as August of last year). The excitement of this new sound offered a healthy balance that contrasted with the song's mellow vibe.
Waters followed the quiet dignity of Crystal Clear Brooks with Mother, sustaining audience attention and focus by circling all the way from new territory to the most familiar one. But one of the set's strongest points – and perhaps the juncture that really pulled people's energy together – came when the band launched into what a true Rhode Islander would cast as a 'wicked awesome' performance of The Bravery of Being Out of Range: not only was the band's sound crisp and piercing but the momentum was underscored by the audience's cognizance that the album boasting the track had just been re-released (and for those who were able to sample James Guthrie's magic over this chef-d'oeuvre, the remix makes the album sound so new and contemporary that this in and of itself must have boosted audience appetite for these songs).
Following this high in the set's flow, Waters performed a cover of John Prine's Hello in There, which was very much in line with the broader musical thread of the festival and the emerging thematic tone of the set, particularly the resonating themes of nostalgia, age, and history. This paved the way for a track that truly nailed a few key things for Pink Floyd and Roger Waters fans – and this is a particularly salient point: the band's performance of Wish You Were Here served as a reminder that even through the complexities of production on a tour like The Wall Live, through 71 years on earth including a good 50+ as a touring musician and singer, and through the ebb and flow of battles based on personal convictions, Roger Waters' voice is still strong. It may be that the rested voice of Roger Waters boasted a particular glow during the Newport performance but his delivery on Wish You Were Here was a reassuring event for those who have followed Waters' career and still harbour an appetite for more.
Following this particular peak, Waters and the band played through a cover of Buddy Miller's Wide River to Cross and the title track from Amused to Death before bringing a powerful sense of closure to the set with Brain Damage and Eclipse – and here is one particular spot where background singers Wolfe and Laessig really hit a home-run. Brain Damage and Eclipse were delivered beautifully: rooted in an emotive acoustic introduction, the song built up toward full band participation and the background vocals truly carried the performance through. You could sense the audience's rapture as the performance began its figurative descent as Eclipse's final verses unfolded.
Given that it had been exactly 50 years to the date of Dylan's controversial performance at the same festival, it is no surprise Waters and the band decided to close with one more song: a cover of Dylan's Forever Young: not only did it fit the thematic landscape of the set seamlessly, it was also a powerfully memorable song to bid farewell to the many fans that made their way to Little Rhody for this special performance.
For additional information on the Newport Folk Festival click here. For additional photographs from Roger Waters' Newport performance, visit Marie Lopez Photography here. You can order the 5.1 Surround Sound version of Amused to Death in multiple formats here.