Nick Mason – A Saucerful of Secrets (Cardiff)

St David’s Hall has all the aesthetic appeal of a 1980s municipal swimming complex (“complex late brutalism”, according to Building Design magazine), but it’s where I found myself on the evening of April 29th. In a rare display of relevance, I’d been lazily paging through my Facebook feed in the back yard following a particularly successful barbecue, to be greeted with an ad saying “Nick Mason: Saucerful of Secrets – Final Cardiff Tickets Released!”. Having missed the first lap of this through knowing nothing about it, this missive from the gods seemed important, and with a couple of thumb clicks I’d looped a seat in Row F! Not bad for buying the night before the gig…

As I approached the venue I wondered if I’d done the right thing – was this going to be Yet Another auditorium full of leather-jacket-and-Levis bedecked fiftysomethings, reliving the old days by shovelling cash into the coffers of skeletons listlessly going through the gear changes?

When I arrived the dress code was very much as I expected, and the foyer’s aesthetic didn’t help. I popped in to check out the support act, McNally Waters, but in spite of how good they may have been their general vibe just didn’t agree with me*, so I returned to the foyer for a beer and a flip through the upcoming programme for the venue – noting with amusement that with careful planning you could see both Tim Minchin and Kevin Bloody Wilson there within the space of a fortnight.

Taking my seat I saw that the stage was quite lavishly bedecked with psychadelia in the form of backdrop, lights and bass drum head – evocative, I’m told, of the 1960s. The rationale of this tour was not just a general trip around the career highlights of Pink Floyd, but rather focusing on the Syd Barrett era and – because that would have made for a very short concert – the Floyd catalogue prior to Dark Side of the Moon.

Taking the stage promptly the band charged into a controlled rendition of Interstellar Overdrive: my hackles about the evening to come were raised instantly… the band looked a bit like a reserve team of Top Gear presenters, and the whole enterprise didn’t so much explode on to stage as chug along at a workmanlike 4/4 pace, visibly dictated by Mason on his riser – casual white shirt unbuttoned to the 2nd hole, and eponymously cruising at a comfortable speed that placed no strain on the motor. The song seemed an appropriate enough starting point, and the 2 leads’ pedal racks appeared to be complex enough to pilot a spacecraft.

At this point I was a little worried – it certainly wasn’t a tribute band… bassist Guy Pratt being basically a backbone member of Pink Floyd since 1987 (and a very impressive musical CV otherwise); lead guitarist Gary Kemp previously fronted Spandau Ballet; keyboardist Dom Beken being one of Pratt’s bandmates; and guitarist Lee Harris faithfully but deftly completing the ensemble. Mason sat comfortably on the riser, sort of presiding over the whole affair like some sort of benevolent antediluvian goblin lord. “Who the hell wears a white shirt to a rock gig?!”, I thought.

I know this bit’s going on a bit, but the early phase of that gig really conflicted me. I mean, they were playing a song I knew & liked, but I couldn’t get past the fact that rather than watching a cohesive band, what I was mainly focusing on – and being directed to focus on – was a man who owns a car** worth £30 million. He can’t have been doing this for the money… so was it just an excuse to get out of the house?

The lights started flashing, and morse code effects whished their way around the room, and the group powered into Astronomy Domine – and in an instant any doubts I had were whisked away. The voices weren’t the voices I was used to hearing sing this (from endless replays of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Ummagumma, and Pulse), but the band were *playing* it. There was a drive, a purpose, and particularly from the drum kit, the roar of giving it some. This was no carefully-tended museum piece, this was rock music.

The band broke for a welcome, and Mason deferred to Harris to recall the last time Pink Floyd played in Cardiff – evidently as well as being handy on the guitar Harris is a Floydian superfan, recalling the 1969 appearance at the erstwhile Top Rank Ballroom (and all the Derek & Clive fans in the room snigger). A couple of seemingly well-rehearsed jokes about not being the Australian Pink Floyd Tribute band, nor the Antiques Roadshow, and then went steaming headlong into Lucifer Sam.

The catalogue referenced in the gig covered 1965-1972, and it was remarkable how many solid songs were in there – even with such a “truncated” view of the band, they displayed a great range and depth of material.

Overall the mode was rockier than recorded Floyd – which I think is what I wanted from the evening. Though I missed the dreamy tones of Dave Gilmour’s voice, I valued that it wasn’t the replaying of a moment set in stone like lots of Gilmour’s concerts seem to be. Indeed the psychedelic jam that this gig produced (in spite of the perhaps trying-too-hard digital lighting echoing the famous Floydian oil drop projectors) the closest I’d ever be able to come to those infamous 1960s moments in The Marquee Club.

There’s little point in listing the setlist, because one of the shortfallings I have as a Floyd fan is that I got into them listening to cassette copies my mate Bob had made for me, which often involved putting 2 albums on either side of a C90, and then listening to them on my car stereo – so usually I wouldn’t know the title of the album I was listening to, or any of the song titles***. However a few highlights were:

  • Remember A Day, which Guy Pratt introduced as having been written by his son’s grandfather (Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright)
  • Arnold Layne, featuring a video backdrop of a moustachioed Mason drumming from the 1960s
  • Atom Heart Mother – just cos it never seems to turn up live anywhere, probably because of its grandiose pomposity
  • The Nile Song, partially because of the silly anecdote attached to it from Pratt (involving Dave Gilmour’s solo tour), but also cos it pulled the band back into seeming like a bunch of baby boomers making music from their childhoods
  • Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, an extended and epic bit of psychedelia which really showcased the musicians working together. I don’t think you can phone that one in. Plus Guy Pratt got to belt the crap out of a big gong.
  • Bike, which to me is pure Syd Barrett
  • One Of These Days, one of my all-time favourite Pink Floyd tracks, and a stomping way to conclude the main body of the gig.

Encores being inevitable, you couldn’t tour a show called A Saucerful of Secrets without including the eponymous song, and the crowd rose to their feet (slowly, in many cases, but they were getting on a bit), before finishing with the oddly-placed but perhaps perfectly enigmatic Point Me At The Sky.

An interesting through-line in Pink Floyd’s material is the theme of mortality, or the finite nature of life, and ageing (albeit more thoroughly explored in Dark Side of the Moon) – and an interesting coda to the gig happened on the trainride home. I’d legged it from the venue immediately in an attempt to make the 10:40 Bristol train home, because the next one would’ve been an hour later and much more of an ordeal of a trip – as Spiro and I found out returning from the Robert Plant gig at the Millennium Centre in November. I quickly identified 3 chaps in the carriage who’d been to the same gig as I, and because I had no book to read and wanted to preserve my phone battery for the Uber ride home, I thought I’d chat with them. We talked over highlights of the gig, comparing experiences and expectations, and they spoke like much younger men. I was amused that they described legging it for the train, and that the last time they’d done that they’d only just caught the last one – and that was for the Robert Plant gig at the Millennium Centre in November… They talked of having seen Pink Floyd 20 or 30-odd years hence, and though they looked to me like old blokes they were speaking of a time when they were probably younger than me. As the song goes, “the memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime”. Anyway, I said “See you at the next gig then!”, and waved them off into the night.

One final observation – in writing this a month after the fact I had to cast about for a few reminders, and was intrigued to stumble on Variety Magazine’s review of the tour gig in LA in March, to realise that everything I’d just seen – including 95% of the stage banter – was pre-destined. The review read like a carbon copy of the experience I’d just had. I didn’t know whether to feel let down, or to take the experience in isolation on face value for what I perceived it to be – a solid night of thoroughly enjoyable proper rock music by some very talented musicians who’d earned their stripes.

And in the end I was CONVINCED Mason had really gotten into the swing of things. By the end I reckon he’d popped another button.

SET LIST

  • Interstellar Overdrive / Astronomy Domine
  • Lucifer Sam
  • Fearless
  • Obscured by Clouds
  • When You’re In
  • Remember A Day
  • Arnold Layne
  • Vegetable Man
  • If
  • Atom Heart Mother / If (reprise)
  • The Nile Song
  • Green Is The Colour
  • Let There Be More Light
  • Childhood’s End
  • Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun
  • See Emily Play
  • Bike
  • One Of These Days
  • A Saucerful Of Secrets
  • Point Me At The Sky

* I couldn’t place whether McNally-Waters’ inclusion in the tour was based on nepotism or genuine merit: I’d imagine most hard core Pink Floyd dinosaurs would give Harry Waters a listen due to his pedigree alone, but despite my attempt to engage their material really left my cheese out in the wind.

** a Ferrari 250 GTO, in fact. Not the 250 GT California Spyder from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

*** helpfully, Bob would ALSO fill up any space left on the tape with unexpected songs from musicals, which is why at the end of Wish You Were Here I’m often disappointed when I don’t get an earful of “GIANTS IN THE SKYYYYYYYYYY…. THERE ARE BIG TALL TERRIBLE GIANTS IN THE SKYYYYYYYYY…..”

Set List at setlist.fm

Another review I found, from someone at the same gig as me.