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Home arrow Reviews arrow Albums arrow David Gilmour Live in Gdansk � in-depth analysis
David Gilmour Live in Gdansk � in-depth analysis Print E-mail
Written by Wayne Shelor   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008

Live in Gdansk 5-disc edition For no other reason than the sheer scope and length of David Gilmour's epic album "Live in Gdansk" (released September 22nd in Europe, and September 23rd in the USA, the morning after the one night-only showing of the companion movie in a handful of theatres nationwide), the expansive audio/video album lends itself to over-analysing and too-deep interpretation.

In deference to Brain Damage's visitors' time, and own interpretations of All Things Floyd, what began as a definitive track-by-track review of the 3CD/2DVD and attendant 5LP album (after two weeks' listening and watching) has been edited and whittled and expurgated into a hopefully readable and illuminating (yet still quite lengthy) abstract of a remarkable document that is as much an homage to the history of Pink Floyd as it is a self-indulgent paen by David Gilmour to David Gilmour (that's a subjective observation, not a condemnation). This Brain Damage feature was written by a decades-long fan, for the millions of others around the globe whose lives are enlightened by … The Pink Floyd Sound...

In years past, special products from The Brothers Floyd – think of the Shine On, Echoes, Is There Anybody Out There?, P*U*L*S*E and Oh By The Way boxed sets (CD and LP) – were exercises in Big Ideas that came up short, incomplete or flawed. With an album (available in five different versions) that offers as much insight into his recent reach and growth as it does to his musical history, David Gilmour's Live in Gdansk is a change-up pitch hit well into the upper decks; it's a monster hit in both execution and presentation. Largely live recordings of his On an Island album tour that concluded August 26, 2006 at the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland - helping mark the 26th anniversary of Solidarity - Live in Gdansk also includes studio work and live audio and video from other locales, ranging from London's Mermaid Theatre and Abbey Road to performances in New York, Munich, Venice, Paris and Florence. The special CD set also includes a 5.1 Surround Sound version of On an Island, which is stunning.

gdansk 5-disc contentsAn overview: included in the CD box is a two-sided poster (nothing special); a well-thought out, full-colour, intimately detailed booklet flush with pictures, credits and The Story of the Solidarity Movement; a packet containing a concert peel-and-place sticker, a marvellous, colourful, numbered reproduction ticket to the Gdansk concert, a guitar pick emblazoned with Gilmour's new Wire Man logo, seven packet-sized photographs (including a solo portrait of the recently deceased Rick Wright), a picture postcard of the Gdansk concert poster and a backstage ARTYSTA laminate (authentic, I presume, since it's numbered – mine is #000315). Click the thumbnail to the right to see them in more detail.

The raison d'être for Live in Gdansk was the final show from Gilmour's 2006 On an Island tour, featuring the Baltic Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zbigniew Preisner, who did the arrangements on Gilmour's On an Island disc. Quite a few Pink Floyd classics - and not-so-classics - are included in the set, and Disc 1 (69 minutes) begins with Speak to Me, Breathe (In The Air) and Time (with the Breathe reprise) from 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon. As expected, this live presentation is note-perfect, but with a foreshadowing of Gilmour's frequent variations-on-a-theme of the re-noodling of his own guitar work.

What follows is On an Island live; good stuff, well-recorded, presented a little out of sequence from the album – but no worries. (The first two LPs of the vinyl version mirror CD 1, and the sonic qualities of the LP version will be addressed later on).

Disc 2 (79 minutes) – all Pink Floyd, no Gilmour solo work, begins with the haunting sound of fingers-on-wine glasses … the opening single-note strain of Wish You Were Here's Shine On You Crazy Diamond is done with crystal and wine … done as it was on the original album, and it is moving. The sound of Gilmour's clarion arpeggio notes are stark, crystal clear and cutting. But when he settles into his chorus of leads, the guitar's tone is a bit different - a bit fuzzier and somewhat softer-edged - than I've ever heard. But when it comes time for the lyrics, the band drops out and David – strong of voice – is accompanied by only himself on guitar. It's deeply quiet and deeply moving, especially in light of the then-recent death of Syd Barrett and now, last month's passing of keyboardist Rick Wright. But with "You wore out your welcome …," the band returns (along with long-time sax man Dick Parry), and it's an absolutely enjoyable version.

Syd's Astronomy Domine is done in attack mode (Steve DiStanislao is an inventive drummer who adds – worthy and often – to this album) as David (and fellow guitarist Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music fame) does a bit of raving with his guitar. Fat Old Sun (1970, Atom Heart Mother) has become a popular live event at Gilmour concerts, and it's clear, here, why; it's a song that seems timely and timeless, and the guitar work here changes the one-time folkish meditation into a racing guitar jam that absolutely rocks; in a word: delightful - almost "heavy"! High Hopes - the last song on what we now know to be the last Pink Floyd album - is standard Gilmour fare, but what follows validates and elevates everything about these boxed sets: Echoes.

The song - the so-called "psychedelic" exercise from 1971's Meddle that was arguably the piece that made Pink Floyd a world-wide "cult" band - this 25-minute, 25-second version of Echoes is the highlight of the entire 5 disc set. This is the most satisfying version of this song I've ever heard, and the assembled vocals (harmonies, if you wish, but the voices meld instead of melt together) may be the most remarkable part of this presentation. It must have been incredibly rewarding to have been at this concert, for this time-travelling sequence is sonically breath-taking. And it's clear, here, why Echoes was (as a work-in-progress) called Return of the Son of Nothing, Parts 1-24: the various segments on this live version are distinct, yet related. From the rave-ups to the more quite passages to the absolutely inventive return-to-our-blues-roots call-and-response exchanges between Gilmour's soaring, ethereal guitar work and Wright's sanguine organ trilling, this version of Echoes may the best ever. Anywhere. Ever.

Rick Wright clearly spent a lot of time preparing for this tour, for he plays chords and fills and runs and notes I've never heard on any other album. His piano work on Wish You Were Here is a good example, and it was wise of Gilmour to put this piano so high in the mix. WYWH is followed by a somewhat pedestrian version of the plodding dirge, A Great Day for Freedom, from 1994's The Division Bell. I'm told this was the only time this song was played on the tour; too bad, for it was well done and warmly received.

As melancholy as is the quietly gearing-down coda of Echoes, hearing Rick Wright sing the verses of Comfortably Numb (The Wall – 1979) is downright sad. Rick's voice is parsed and drawn, but seemingly emboldened by Gilmour's singing of the familiar choruses of this most popular of Floyd songs. Comfortably Numb probably is the best example of how the Polish orchestra (primarily its string section) was gently integrated into the night's music. There's never a moment where the orchestra takes centre stage, but it adds a sonic texture (especially in the absence of a female backup chorus in this song) unlike any previous live recording. Gilmour's guitar work this night, on what is acknowledged universally as one of rock's most famous and inventive guitar solos, is reaching without overarching; accelerated while staying the course; and pleasing in its familiarity and clarity. This is easily my favourite of the 3 musical CDs.

(Disc 2 of the CD set is mirrored by LPs 3 and 4 of the vinyl set, with the addition on LP 3 of Wot's … Uh The Deal? from 1972's Obscured by Clouds. Although W…UtD is not listed as a track on the CD special set, it does play over closing credits on a DVD. The fifth LP in the vinyl version has five songs (including another live version of Echoes), and the final two are from the so-called "Barn Jams," which will be detailed below. The LP set is pleasantly packaged, pressed on 180-gram "audiophile" vinyl and sounds magnificent. It came with an LP-sized booklet, two identical posters (somewhat larger than that with the CDs) and a "laminate" (not a backstage pass) that allows the buyer to download free - once - all tracks for replay via MP3. I could go on about the vinyl version, but I'll save that review for another, more parochial, forum).

The third CD – defined as Disc 5 (77 minutes) – is compiled of bonus tracks recorded at various locales from the European leg of the On an Island tour, and begins with yet another live version of Shine On …, but this one - an amalgamation of two dates, two weeks apart - pales in comparison to the Disc 2 piece. Again, David sings almost unaccompanied, but the despair - the plaintive timbre of longing and mourning - is absent in his voice. David introduces the next song ("This is a song by Syd Barrett - it's called Dominoes"), which is an excellent choice for documenting the band's legacy. It's followed by Gilmour's The Blue and Take a Breath, before another offering of WYWH. Gilmour's Coming Back to Life is an arresting version - the orchestra adds sublime colouration to this song - of what may be his most "Floydian" solo song. But that is followed by the distracting, and wholly un-integrated, Stephen Stills' penned-and-sung Find the Cost of Freedom. I realize why (politically and thematically) this song is included, but it detracts, rather than embellishes, this album. This Heaven and Rick Wright's Wearing The Inside Out (from The Division Bell - he did have a thoroughly distinctive and edgy voice) are viable and worthy inclusions to this "bonus" CD (which, curiously, has no digital identity: no album title, no track-listings or other information when played). But Gilmour's A Pocketful of Stones and Where We Start (which conclude 2006's solo On an Island) sound tinny and compressed here; they may be the weakest recordings on the album. (The information on the rear of the box says they were both recorded in Vienne on July 31, 2006). Disc 5 concludes with a song whose inclusion leaves me perplexed: On The Turning Away. David's voice is weak, coarse and unsure. One of my absolute favourite Pink Floyd/Mark III songs ever, this particular night's sombre and musically muddied edition is sullied by his raspy and scratchy voice and other distracting elements (forgotten lyric, wrong notes, etc.) and makes me wonder why it was included in this package. But let not this flaw detract from the overall sublime creation that is … Live in Gdansk.

Musically, sonically, revealingly and tantalizingly pure of sound, nuance and clarity, this is an album Pink Floyd and David Gilmour fans should own, even if one buys just the less-inclusive 2-CD version. The production (sound, mixing, etc.) is top-flight, and the execution of the boxed sets was, for a change, up to par and worth the price.

Disc 3 (152 minutes), the DVD of the Live in Gdansk concert itself (cobbled together out of sequence of the presentation), is playable in seven languages and even has a link for "Bonus Web Content." The nighttime film is clear and sharp, and is the best way to "hear" all that the orchestra added to the sound. It's when you see the violinists and cellists that you realize the texture and vibrancy of a different sound. Beginning with Castellorizon and through the On an Island album, the DVD has more band member close-ups than did Sarah Palin during the recent vice presidential debate, and just enough smoke, mirrors, lasers and effects to pass as a legitimate Gilmour/Floyd concert.

Then I Close My Eyes is an intelligently filmed piece that shows Gilmour playing different instruments, and playing differently. And the orchestral strings make this song even more beautiful than initially written. Seeing Dick Parry and Rick Wright playing with Gilmour in the night is a special moment for one who has watched musical icons grow grey. And die.

Take a Breath is always an arresting piece, and even more so here. Bassist Guy Pratt makes this song work, and keyboardist Jon Carin's lap guitar work makes me think of him as I do of Richard "Dicky" Betts, an absolutely brilliant guitarist who is forever overshadowed by the work of band-mate Duane Allman. Imagine how ego sapping it must be to be such a versatile and accomplished musician and to only rarely stand in the spotlight. But Carin is rightly known to many as a virtuoso.

Then comes the dit-dah Morse-codeish prequel to Astronomy Domine, and when Gilmour hits the low-dropping dum-dum-dum-dum guitar notes - mirrored by  DiStanislao's tom-tom thumping - the laser-lit night erupts into the joy of familiarity. The visuals include pulsating oil-and-water slide illumination on a screen behind the band - think UFO Club circa 1967 - and Rick and David playing decades-old guitar and organ bits. If you weren't there August 26, 2006, this film will take you there. And it's the constant-but-invisible work of Phil Manzanera that makes the Pink Floyd "sound" complete, here. The crowd loved this piece.

If ever you've tried to envision how David Gilmour makes the weeping, warping, keening sounds he pulls from his guitars, this documentary will more than answer your wonderment; constant close-ups of fingers bending strings, long shots of toe-tapped effects pedals, in a concert lit and filmed perfectly. From the six giant overhead video screens (the circular Mr. Screen was left behind) to the special effects and lasers, this is visually legitimate Gilmour/Floyd. Throughout the evening, Gilmour prefers his famous black Stratocaster, but he pulls out Dave's Red Guitar, an acoustic guitar and even plays the saxophone on Red Sky at Night.

Echoes begins with a lipstick camera close-up of Rick Wright hitting that famous PING, followed by some remarkable plinked keys that are distorted just enough to return listeners to the 1970s. Again, the melding of voices on this song is something special to hear (and to be seen in many "two shots" of David and Rick). The band races from an erupting rave-up of guitars and drums to the funky dung percussion-and-organ groove with David's searing, screaming guitar counter-pointing Wright's keyboard races. It's as entertaining to watch, as it is to hear. They conclude with the expected A Great Day for Freedom (the fall of Communism, so integral to the events associated with Solidarity) and, finally, Comfortably Numb. As is the case with the CD, Echoes is the do-not-miss high point of this DVD.

Throughout the night the band is smooth, accomplished and dovetails easily and evenly with the orchestra. Also on Disc 3 (the DVD) is a 37-minute documentary called "Gdansk Diary," with interviews with the band and crew, rehearsal footage, and Gilmour's meeting with Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and leader of the Solidarity movement.

Disc 4 (137 minutes) – the second DVD – is a visual abstract of live concerts around Europe and again is a must-see for fans of David Gilmour's style and fretwork. With yet another offering of Shine On … (unique guitar work and notes) and Comfortably Numb and Wearing the Inside Out (filmed at London's Mermaid Theatre, visually a very Floydian-yet-intimate presentation) and then additional songs from other venues, this is something for the completist. The acoustic version, here, of Echoes, is from the Live from Abbey Road television broadcast, and is an abbreviated version of the song. Like the rest of this DVD, it's a chronicle - a behind-the-scenes look - of how the band prepared and practised. This DVD concludes with the thoroughly enjoyable three-part "Barn Jam" (versions 166, 192 and 121), essentially band working out patterns and grooves.

For those wondering about the expense associated with the special versions of Live in Gdansk, the information, music and visuals included on the bonus CD and DVDs is priceless. It's every bit as adventurous and unique as it is reassuringly familiar. And there is nothing else like it anywhere.

David Gilmour spent almost two years gathering many moments of magic and earnestly played music as he compiled and produced this very special album. Every drop of blood, every bit of sweat and all the tears of joy are evident in a document that is illuminating, entertaining and affirming.

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