Pink Floyd fans attending the Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets concert at New York City’s Beacon Theater got an unexpected surprise on Thursday night, when another founding member of the legendary psychedelic rock band appeared on stage: Roger Waters. Waters, who was Pink Floyd’s bassist, vocalist, and one of the band’s chief songwriters during its first 20 years, rarely makes guest appearances at other Floyd side projects, but joined Mason’s new band to provide vocals (and gong) on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from 1968.
While Pink Floyd frontmen David Gilmour and Roger Waters have had lucrative solo careers over the last few decades, Nick Mason’s public appearances as a drummer have been incredibly sparse. Last year, the drummer announced the formation of Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, a project devoted to performing Pink Floyd songs that have been nearly forgotten by all but the band’s most devoted fans. With a repertoire that leans heavily on the work of founder (and legendary rock n’ roll casualty) Syd Barrett, as well as lesser known works from the band’s pre-Dark Side of the Moon heyday, the Saucerful of Secrets are a harder rocking, more adventurous live show than the multi-million dollar, note perfect extravaganzas that defined latter day Pink Floyd tours, not to mention the similarly ambitious scale of Gilmour and Waters’ respective solo careers.
Mason, of course, remains at home behind the drum kit, and appeared to be in even better musical shape than he was on the last Pink Floyd tour 25 years ago, especially considering that the Saucerful of Secrets setlist is decidedly more uptempo and heavy than most of what constitutes Floyd greatest hits. Joining Mason are Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris, Spandau Ballet guitarist Gary Kemp, keyboardist Dom Beken, and none other than Guy Pratt on bass. Pratt replaced Roger Waters on bass in Pink Floyd in 1987, remained with the band through its eventual death by neglect, and has since remained a fixture in David Gilmour’s live band. Pratt is a remarkable bass player, and clearly seemed to relish both propelling the tunes and acting as the band’s de facto frontman, all while adding little flourishes of his own (notably quoting The Who’s “5:15” bass riff during the bonkers instrumental section of Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” or throwing in a John Lydon-esque “holiday in the sun” during an appropriate lyrical moment in “The Nile Song”).
Waters joined the band near the end of the set. After pointing out the presence of a gong on stage, Mason quipped that Waters was never very good about sharing that particular instrument with Nick, and then on cue, Waters appeared on stage to thunderous, shocked applause. Waters sang on “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (and sounded great) before retreating behind Nick’s drum kit to attack the gong, much like he did in the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii concert film. He returned after the final encore to take a bow with the band. Floyd fanatics may note he even embraced his replacement, Pratt.
Pink Floyd fans are always eternally hopeful for any signs that members might reunite, however fleeting. The band’s acrimonious split after the release of The Final Cut in 1983 is the stuff of rock legend, with Waters famously taking his former bandmates to court over their own use of the Pink Floyd, and with both Floyd camps trading barbs in the press for over a decade. Things began to thaw in the early part of the 21st century, with Mason and Waters reconciling, and eventually the final performance of the four core Floyds at Live 8 in 2005. Since then, getting more than one member of Pink Floyd in a room was as rare as a comet sighting, with Mason appearing to guest on drums at the occasional Waters or Gilmour concert, original Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright touring with Gilmour in 2006 before his death in 2007, the occasional charity gig with Gilmour and Waters, and the like. For Roger Waters to take the stage with Nick Mason, and at a relatively small (by Floydian standards) venue like the Beacon Theater, was quite an occasion, and one that brought the audience to its feet.
And while Waters and Mason sharing a stage is a rare moment in recent Pink Floyd history, it was only one highlight in a night that had no shortage of them. The Saucerful of Secrets are a terrific band, willing to rock in ways that neither late period Floyd nor Gilmour or Waters have been willing to do in recent years. Freed completely from the confines of classic rock radio “greatest hits” the band brought an ever so slightly modern edge to a setlist that didn’t contain a single song recorded after 1972. Far from a nostalgia act or a cash in, Mason and his band offered a glimpse into an alternate universe, one where perhaps Pink Floyd didn’t go on to become a stadium rock megaband, but instead followed its early trajectory, focused a little more on “traditional” rock songwriting, and achieved similarly enduring, if slightly more modest success.
The songs by Syd Barrett still sound incredibly vital, and heard in this environment by players of this caliber, even the deepest of cuts, the b-sides, and the songs lost in the shadow of the band’s biggest hits sound like they could go punch for punch not only with their contemporaries, but all the punk and indie rock bands who have nodded to the early Floyd over the decades. The arrangements were faithful without devolving into “play it like the record” tedium, with ample room for both guitarists to stretch out, playing recognizable parts where necessary, and in styles that evoked both Gilmour and Barrett, while also being given the freedom to make their own mark. Kemp handled most of the lead vocals, and never appeared to be doing a Barrett or Gilmour imitation, with Pratt and Harris chiming in on harmonies and leads as necessary.
The setlist was culled primarily from the band’s first two albums, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets (from which the band takes its name), with selections from More, Obscured by Clouds, Atom Heart Mother, and the occasional b-side (notably the discarded/unfinished Barrett opus “Vegetable Man” which was given spectacular life). Marvel fans may even recognize the opening song in the set, “Interstellar Overdrive” which was used to great effect in the Doctor Strange movie (I wrote much more about the Doctor Strange/Pink Floyd connection here).
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets will continue their US tour through April 22, after which they’re shipping off to the UK and Europe for summer dates. If you get the chance to see them, do it.