Usually, when people talk about "going to see a concert," what they mean is "watch the band play." Unless, of course, the band in question is Pink Floyd -- in which case, they probably are going to see the concert.
It isn't just that the Floyd has a reputation for elaborate props and visual presentation well beyond the usual array of flashpots and varilights; truth be told, such special effects constitute a large part of the band's concert reputation. So it probably shouldn't have come as any surprise that the first burst of lasers at the band's RFK Stadium show Saturday earned almost as much applause as the song it accompanied ("Learning to Fly").
Unfortunately, it didn't come as much of a compliment, either.
But then, that's the trouble with this current edition of Pink Floyd. Although its performance was often entertaining and occasionally exhilarating, there was nothing terribly involving about its sound or visuals. In that sense, it's a lot like going to see the latest Hollywood action epic -- you leave the place dazzled by the spectacle, but otherwise unmoved by the experience.
Things started simply enough, with a mere quartet -- original members David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, plus tour bassist Guy Pratt -- bashing its way through the vintage psychedelia of "Interstellar Overdrive." It was a wonderful nod to the band's past, with Gilmour's guitar wailing away at a suitably primitive three-note solo while a primitive light show squiggled and pulsed in the background, but it led nowhere, offering only the most rudimentary contrast between the band's amateurish early approach and the super-slick sound of later material, such as "Learning to Fly."
Whether the fans noticed that contrast is another question entirely. Rapt attention was certainly not the order of the evening, as the audience -- many of whom weren't even born when Pink Floyd first played "Interstellar Overdrive" -- alternately bopped along or fidgeted absently. A few appeared to be receiving signals from distant galaxies of their own, like the wild-eyed and bearded fellow who --ed into my row to inform an obviously startled woman several seats down: "We are all members, I'm telling you. . . . That's you up there, that's you up there!"
(The brown acid . . . do not take the brown acid . . . )
It's a shame the show wasn't presented more as a listening experience, because the sound Pink Floyd got was simply stunning. Crisp and clean, it had none of the crowding that usually muddies a large band's sound. Even better, the stadium was rigged with a surround-sound system that enabled the Floyd to slip a few 3-D effects into the mix, like the circus calliope sounds that bubbled in the background midway through "Poles Apart" or the cacophony of clocks that prefaced "Time."
As a result of this painstaking attention to aural detail, songs from the band's current album, "The Division Bell," came off far better than expected. True, none left any lasting impression, but they did at least make for pleasant listening as they wafted by.
"On the Turning Away," for instance, took on a warm, church-like aura in its last verse, thanks to a choir-like synth and footlights that glowed like oversized votive candles, while "Take It Back" delivered a pleasantly percolating groove illuminated by a laser display that spread its beams to allow the lightly falling rain to shimmer gem-like in the light. Perhaps the best of the new tunes, though, was "Marooned," which brought on the backup singers for soulful, wordless vocal solos that made the band's otherwise flaccid rhythm work seem almost funky.
Few fans were there for the new songs, though; what they wanted were oldies, and plenty of 'em. What they got was a reasonable sampling that touched on all the expected highlights -- "Money," "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," "Another Brick In the Wall (Part 2)" -- while tossing out a few evocative oddities along the way.
To its credit, the band didn't rely on the same staging as on its previous tour. True, there was a large, circular screen that rose, moon-like, from behind the drum risers, just as it did on the last Floyd tour. But rather than rely on the same animation, the group commissioned a whole new set of films, which ranged from a lengthy, semi-psychedelic allegory for "Shine On" to a clever, Dali-esque trip through timepieces for "Time."
Unfortunately, even they didn't always produce the desired effect. "Shine On" was wonderful, but less so because of the film than the way Gilmour's guitar built momentum for Dick Parry's rasping, throaty saxophone solos, which rambled jazzily to the song's end. Likewise, what made "Money" memorable wasn't the silly film that set it up, but the astonishingly cohesive playing that brought the song to its close (Pratt was particularly strong here, using silence to create enough rhythmic tension that the entire band seemed to throb in suspense).