Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Australian Pink Floyd Show: Eclipsed by the Moon (PBS, filmed 2013, aired 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was a KPBS pledge-break special with the rather awkward title The Australian Pink Floyd Concert: Eclipsed by the Moon. The Australian Pink Floyd are a Pink Floyd tribute band founded in Australia in 1988 (which seems pretty early in the day for a Pink Floyd tribute, given that the real Pink Floyd — though without their principal songwriter, Roger Waters, who’d had a hissy-fit with the others in the mid-1980’s and had angrily left — were still a going concern at the time), and I suppose I should give them credit for a relatively simple name instead of “The World-Famous Pink Floyd” (Charles and I still can’t get over the absurdity of a PBS New Year’s special that featured a Glenn Miller tribute band called “The World-Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra,” which suggested to us that there might be rivals called “The Intergalactically Renowned Glenn Miller Orchestra” or “The Universally Acclaimed Glenn Miller Orchestra” — names that actually sound science-fictional enough they might be better applied to bands doing tribute to Pink Floyd, or Sun Ra for that matter). Their three core members were vocalist and guitarist Steve Mac, bassist and vocalist Colin Wilson, and keyboard player Jason Sawford, who’ve been with the project since its founding even though drummers and others have come and gone. In 1996 they got some sort of ultimate accolade for a tribute band by being hired to play a private gig at the 50th birthday party of David Gilmour, lead guitarist for the real Pink Floyd (“Well, it was his birthday — he wanted the evening off!,” Charles joked). Gilmour had seen them perform in Croydon in 1994 and been sufficiently impressed to invite them to the party celebrating the end of the tour for The Division Bell, the last “official” Pink Floyd album. I had seen the promos for this show on KPBS — they’re also heavily pushing a gig The Australian Pink Floyd are doing at the San Diego State University Open-Air Theatre on September 5 and giving away tickets to that show for people who respond and make donations (at that show their opening act will be another tribute band, Led Zeppelin 2 — a billing that boggles the mind because one can’t imagine the real Led Zeppelin being invited to perform on a bill with the real Pink Floyd, not only because both were mega-draws on their own but their musical styles were too different to make them a logical pairing) — and it sounded vaguely interesting even though I’m somewhat back of scratch watching a Pink Floyd tribute since I’ve never been that big a fan of the real Pink Floyd. I never actively disliked them but they weren’t a band I went out of my way to keep track of (or buy their LP’s) either, and I don’t think I’ve ever in my life heard The Dark Side of the Moon straight through, start to finish. (Then again, I’d never heard Michael Jackson’s Thriller start to finish until I got the boxed set on Sony right after Jackson died — though the Thriller songs were so ubiquitous, with seven of the nine album tracks becoming single hits, I really didn’t need to.)

For me the most interesting Pink Floyd was the early stuff with their original vocalist, lead guitarist and principal songwriter, Syd Barrett, who until his acid-fueled meltdown just a year into the Floyd’s career (David Gilmour was brought into the band for the same reason Paul Whiteman hired Andy Secrest in 1929 — just as Secrest was brought in to fill in for Bix Beiderbecke whenever Bix either missed a show or was too “under the influence” to perform, Gilmour was brought in to backstop Barrett and ended up replacing him) contributed most of the band’s material and brought an edgy sensibility that when he left got replaced by an exquisite dullness only occasionally broken by moments of fire, as if occasionally the Floyds got bored by their heavily self-referential music and wanted to remind the world that they could still rock. Though some of the Australian Pink Floyd shows perform a single Pink Floyd album start to finish (they did a DVD of their performance of The Dark Side of the Moon and have also done complete concerts of the next two Floyd albums, Wish You Were Here — the band’s quirky tribute to Barrett — and Animals), this one was a sort-of greatest-hits medley containing “Money” from Dark Side, the title track of Wish You Were Here (though, alas, not the album’s signature song, “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond”), “Another Brick in the Wall — Part 2” and “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall (Roger Waters’ mega-concept which he performed as part of an elaborately staged event during which the titular wall was built between the band and the audience as the show progressed, only the band members smashed through it at the end) and a few other songs I didn’t recognize. The show came from two concerts filmed in Trier and Oberhausen, Germany on April 12 and 13, 2013 (ironically Trier was also the birthplace of Karl Marx) and on TV it looked like a competently staged modern rock concert, with a circular video screen as part of the stage set that showed film clips, including one of the wall being constructed during “Another Brick in the Wall,” and a few laser beams at the back of the stage but nothing especially spectacular-looking in the staging (though it’s possible the experience is more exciting “live”). I was hoping — but really not expecting — that they’d do the real Floyd’s first breakthrough hit, “See Emily Play,” as a tribute to the Barrett years. They didn’t, and by leading off with “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Money” (the two strongest Floyd songs they played all night) they risked a precipitous drop in the energy level from which the rest of the show suffered.

To me it was ironic that one of the hosts for the KPBS pledge breaks said what she liked about Pink Floyd’s music was how emotionally intense it was — Pink Floyd was about the last band I’d go to looking for emotional intensity (after all, the second single from The Wall — and a song that was on The Australian Pink Floyd’s set list last night — was called “Comfortably Numb”!), and though I can’t really assess how well The Australian Pink Floyd compares to the original I did get the impression that if anything they were erring by trying to add emotion to songs that didn’t originally contain it (whichever one of their singers did “Comfortably Numb” seemed to be trying to put some soul into a song that Roger Waters deliberately wrote as a paean to disinterested detachment, and sang that way). Indeed, the best singing all night came at the beginning of an odd piece called “The Great Gig in the Sky” (though I’d have had no idea what the title was if one of the pledge-break hosts hadn’t thoughtfully provided it) which doesn’t have any lyrics, and didn’t feature any singing by the band members, but did feature wordless vocalizing by three or four women backup singers, and the one who sang at the beginning was tall, white, with long blond hair, and had one of the greatest white soul voices I’ve ever heard — enough for me to want to hear her do more conventional repertory for her kind of voice. The other songs were “Into the Sun,” an instrumental that was probably from Animals because the band brought in an inflated balloon of an animal (a kangaroo, says PBS’s official program note, though it looked more like a rabbit to me) and lowered it from the flies to the stage during the song in a position that made it look like it was a second keyboard player, and the finale, a song called “You Better Run” that was the band’s most convincing rock ’n’ roll of the night. The Australian Pink Floyd Show: Eclipsed by the Moon was a reasonably entertaining program but, like the music of the band they were copying, aspired to and all too often achieved a level of exquisite aesthetic dullness that made me feel like I wanted to sleep — instead I followed it by listening to some old Carl Perkins records and reminding myself what rock ’n’ roll is really all about!