*Review courtesy of The Guardian
It has been some while since the amphitheatre at Pompeii hosted any kind of audience – AD79, in fact, when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the ancient city five metres deep in tephra, only to lie undisturbed until the 18th century. But on Thursday evening, as the grass stood yellowing in the heavy July heat, it prepared to receive the crowds once more; not this time for some gladiatorial combat, execution or venatio, but for a concert by the English rock musician David Gilmour.
Notably, it was also a return for Gilmour himself, who last played this venue (if one can call such majestic surroundings a venue) in 1971, during his days with Pink Floyd. No audience was permitted then, and instead the show was filmed and released as a documentary, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, the following year. And so, long before it begins, tonight’s concert has the ring of something momentous – for the place, and the player, of course, as well as those who will be here to witness it, flying from all over the world to mill outside the gates and wait all the long afternoon.
For this run of shows, part of the Rattle That Lock world tour, Gilmour has largely spurned the vast arenas of the modern rock tour and opted instead for a run of heritage sites – Circus Maximus in Rome, a chateau in Chantilly, amphitheatres in Verona and Nîmes and five nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London this September. His reasoning is that he is less interested in the size of a performance than the desire for audiences to leave the show with a sense of unforgettable occasion. Of these venues, Pompeii is the smallest – a mere 3,000 capacity compared with 17,000 in Rome.
Hosting a modern rock concert at a Unesco world heritage site and the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre in the world is, it transpires, something of a logistical operation. For starters, the terrain is precarious – by Wednesday evening a member of the lighting crew had already broken his arm falling down a hole. Then there is the issue of toilets – tonight there are but 22 portable loos, fermenting gently in the warm air. And there is the matter of the pyrotechnics – with hours to go before the show, permission for fireworks still eludes the organiser. Once permission is finally, cautiously, granted, a group of red-suited firemen gather on the summa cavea (the higher tiers), wearily unravelling a hose. Mount Vesuvius looks on in the distance, as if she might just join in for the hell of it.
For all the air of history tonight, there is a sense of modernity too: largely in Gilmour’s recent recasting of his band. Though Guy Pratt remains on bass and Steve DiStanislao on drums, they are joined by Chuck Leavell (the Rolling Stones’ keyboard player since 1981), and Michael Jackson’s musical director, Greg Phillinganes, on keys; Chester Kamen on guitar and João Mello on saxophone; and Bryan Chambers, Louise Clare Marshall and Lucita Jules on backing vocals.
At nine o’clock, the sky a soft peach, the amphitheatre filled with the billow of smoke machines and the warm burr of chatter from the audience, lights suddenly splay out across the cavea and the opening notes of 5am fill the air.
Much of the opening set, which runs for a little over an hour, strikes a quietly momentous tone. At times, there is something spectral about it; the audience standing more in reverence than roaring fury until the unexpected performance of Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky – a song Gilmour has never played solo – causes an emotional surge to ripple across the crowd and carry on through Wish You Were Here, Money and on to the first section’s culminating track, High Hopes.
A brief interlude follows before the band returns for the second set, opening with One of These Days – the only song tonight to have been played at Pink Floyd’s 1971 performance. Despite Gilmour’s decision not to echo the original Pompeii show, there is still a sense of return and completion, of something coming full circle, there in the giant round screen, and the curve of the building, the sharp crescent of a moon above. And though he does not play bare-chested this time, Gilmour himself seems quite unchanged – his voice, still that beautiful, gravelled thing, his guitar still holding its bluesy depth and sharp wistfulness.
It is hard to stand in this amphitheatre and not to feel that somewhere old ghosts are stirring. Gilmour himself makes mention of them as he plays A Boat Lies Waiting, his 2015 tribute to Rick Wright, and, though it goes unmentioned, Shine on You Crazy Diamond seems to carry more weight tonight – 10 years to the day since Syd Barrett passed away.
It is impossible not to notice the keen emotion across the crowd’s faces, and yet there is a pervading air of politeness – the audience, one senses, somewhat overawed by the locale, and Gilmour offering a charming and quintessential Englishness: “Thank you very much indeed,” he tells the crowd, shortly after Run Like Hell and a burst of golden fireworks shooting into the night. “Thank you. We’ve had a lovely evening.”
Still, this does not dilute the passionate intensity of the occasion – much of which should be attributed to the lighting designer Marc Brickman, who in the course of the most remarkable light show unleashes lasers so bright the band are forced to wear shades, beams of turquoise and green and red that go macrame-ing across the sky during the grand finale of Comfortably Numb. As the lights die and the night rises once more, it is pleasing to recall that in its day this space was known as a spectacula. In tonight’s extravaganza, in all its beauty and bedazzlement, it appears to have earned that name once more