Guitar Hero David Gilmour Turns Hollywood Bowl Into Visual Canvas at Tour Opener

Randall Michelson/Hollywood Bowl
David Gilmour and David Crosby perform at Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on March 24, 2016.

With apologies to maestro Gustavo Dudamel: If ever the Hollywood Bowl and an artist were made for each other, that attraction would have to be David Gilmour. This might seem obvious enough on the face of it, even though he hadn’t actually set foot in the storied venue since -- well, Pink Floyd fans know the date from their venerable bootleg LPs, but let him do the math. “It’s been a little while,” Gilmour said, briefly surveying his surroundings Thursday. “1972 -- right!”

Besides how his guitar sound seems epically overscaled for venues holding fewer than 18,000 -- and notwithstanding the Bowl’s specialized capability to have its searchlights converge in a perfect Dark Side of the Moon-style pyramid -- the former Floyd frontman scored extra points for being certainly one of the few acts, if not the first, to use the entirety of the storied Bowl bandshell as a visual canvas for extended animations. Between his six-string heroics and all the projected razzle-dazzle, the inevitable Bowl fireworks toward show’s end were nearly anticlimactic for a capacity crowd that was by then quite comfortably, sensually numbed.

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This was not the first time in 44 years that “Time” had been performed at the Bowl; eternally estranged bandmate Roger Waters brought his Dark Side solo show to the ravine a decade ago. But a Gilmour tour is a rarer thing: This is the 70-year-old musician’s first stage outing of any kind in 10 years, and the North American leg of his tour covers a whopping total of four cities. (After a second sold-out night at the Bowl and one at the Forum in Inglewood, Gilmour does two nights in Toronto and three each in Chicago and New York City before moving on to Europe.) Given the severe minimalism of that U.S. routing after such a long layoff, it’s safe to say there are an inordinate number of guys in psychedelic prism T-shirts looking for their Uber at LAX this week.

Speaking of band splits: When Gilmour premiered this show at the Royal Albert Hall last fall, he had David Crosby and David Nash on hand as guest vocalists for a few numbers, just as the duo appeared on Gilmour’s 2015 album, Rattle That Lock. Given recent CSN-is-done events, it was a sure thing that would not be repeated at the American tour premiere, “but we do have one of them tonight,” Gilmour announced, bringing Crosby out for “A Boat Lies Waiting.” Although Crosby’s voice blended in with the backup mix on that and “On an Island” (the title track of Gilmour’s previous album, from 2006), he took over Waters’ lead part on the encore-closing duet of “Comfortably Numb” (presumably taking some ironic delight, given his recovery history, in playing the part of the song’s drug-pushing doc).

Crosby wasn’t the only Hollywood bonus that won’t be included at other tour stops. Longtime Floyd collaborator Marc Brickman is responsible for the extra visuals at the Bowl shows, which involved installing about 30 additional projectors at points midway back in the venue to ensure every inch of the bandshell was frequently utilized as screen space. This outlay was first used to startling effect at the end of “Rattle That Lock,” which had birds appearing to disperse into the audience, just as they fly off on the cover of the album of the same name. The version of the early Floyd classic “Astronomy Domine” that kicked off the post-intermission second set appeared to have the entire stage area immersed in lava -- lots and lots of cosmic lava. The best use of Brickman’s elaborate lighting conceit, however, came during “Money,” as hundreds of giant coins appeared to roll down the curves of the Bowl’s proscenium.

But if Crosby’s and Brickman’s work is done here, what attendees will get on the rest of the tour is no slouch. Gilmour does without the enormous props that are Waters’ stock in trade, but they seem to have gotten joint custody of the old Floyd films, which appear in the age-old, trademark circular screen above center stage. The early-'70s footage of businessmen walking in slow-mo during “Us and Them” is still a weirdly effective counterpoint to one of the most beautiful pieces of rock music ever composed. Gilmour has also commissioned his fair share of new footage to accompany the show, including some startling pencil-sketch animation of urban combat that helps elevate the new album’s “In Any Tongue” to the same level of musical drama as, say, “Run Like Hell.”

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Interestingly, the Bowl’s own video screens sat dark on either side of the stage, with any close-ups of the musicians saved for Gilmour’s own single screen, when it wasn’t occupied with other footage. Of course, in the old days, it was quite possible to be a Pink Floyd fan without having the slightest idea what the members looked like, so few devotees were likely to complain about having to focus on films or color schemes instead of grins or grimaces for extended periods. And when Gilmour’s cameras did zoom in, it was on his fingerwork at least as often as his face, which surely pleased thousands of guitar students intent on finding improved ways to re-create the exact string-bending on display over a 20-foot fretboard.

As for those fingers, they merit a public display more frequent than appearances of Halley’s comet. Even with a third of the show devoted to new material, Gilmour still has a fair number of the consensus Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time to reproduce in one evening, and he finds just the right balance in concert -- adhering fairly closely to the specifics of solos that everyone of a certain age, guitarist or not, knows by heart, while also finding subtle ways to play with tone that take the playing well away from the realm of Pink Floyd self-tribute act. He may not be a touring monster, but he is Godzilla when he does land.

Set list

Set 1:
5 A.M.
Rattle That Lock
Faces of Stone
Wish You Were Here
A Boat Lies Waiting
The Blue
Money
Us and Them
In Any Tongue
High Hopes

Set 2:
Astronomy Domine
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)
Fat Old Sun
Coming Back to Life
On an Island
The Girl in the Yellow Dress
Today
Sorrow
Run Like Hell

Encore:
Time
Breathe (Reprise)
Comfortably Numb