In Concert: Nick Mason Pours Chicago a Saucerful

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, The Chicago Theatre, April 4, 2019.

“After twenty years, I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring.”

Always quick with a quip, drummer Nick Mason tossed off that one during the first lull in his new band’s voyage through Pink Floyd’s early catalog.  Dryly diplomatic and subtly duplicitous (it’s actually been 25 years since Mason last played in North America, 14 since the Live 8 Floyd reunion), it was nonetheless revealing.

In recent years, Roger Waters has trotted his favorite era of Floyd (first The Wall, then a Dark Side of the Moon through Animals-based set) around the globe; David Gilmour toured his solo album Rattle That Lock, then decided to auction off his guitar collection for charity, keeping the door firmly shut on nostalgia following Rick Wright’s passing.  Mason, on the other hand, has dug deep into the history of the band he co-founded — prepping the massive box set The Early Years with Gilmour, then working on the touring memorabilia exhibition Their Mortal Remains.   So when Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris and post-Waters Floyd bassist Guy Pratt suggested a group focusing on the pre-stardom Floyd repertoire, Mason was itching to give it a whirl.

It’s a great idea.  Freed from the expectation of playing the hits, Saucerful of Secrets dives headlong into a rich stream of psychedelia, prog and pastoral balladry, setting back the clock to when Pink Floyd’s audience had no idea what was coming next.  And there’s something for everybody here: trippy blues barrages “Interstellar Overdrive”, “Astronomy Domine” and “One of These Days”; the whimsical Syd Barrett-led singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, along with Barrett’s later, profoundly disturbing “Bike” and “Vegetable Man”; hushed, acoustic post-Barrett meditations like “If” and “Green Is the Colour”; the bludgeoning rock of “The Nile Song” and “Childhood’s End”; and extended free-form explorations of “Atom Heart Mother”, “Let There Be More Light” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.

Tackling this wide range of material, the quintet was tight enough to keep the audience engaged, but loose enough to veer into clamorous group improvisation as the mood (frequently) struck them.  Pratt and rhythm guitarist Gary Kemp (best known as the main songwriter for Spandau Ballet) divvied up the lead vocals and drove the tunes forward, with Pratt cracking occasional jokes about absent Floyds during breaks; Harris spun off one obliquely creative solo after another on a bevy of guitars; Dom Beken captured Rick Wright’s spectrum of tasty keyboard colors and open chord voicings to perfection.

But ultimately, it was Mason’s show.  Sometimes damned with faint praise like “the best drummer for Pink Floyd,” his fine playing reminded me of Ringo Starr  (another criminally underrated drummer) onstage.  Self-deprecating about his lack of technique in interviews, Mason turns any limitations into assets by laying down an immovably solid beat, leaving plenty of space for his fellow players, and embellishing the grooves in simple, ear-catching ways (his malletwork on tom toms being the most famous example).   His reward?  Finally getting to play the gong on “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun” for this tour. (Mason’s spoken intro: “Roger Waters is one of my best friends, a brilliant musician, a brilliant songwriter — and not good at sharing.”)

So unlike later Pink Floyd tours, including The Division Bell outing I saw in 1994, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets isn’t about the spectacle (though the light show was fabulous), or the star power.  Rather, it’s about the music — and about the accomplished crew of players that bring these neglected Floyd gems alive in the moment, headed by the drummer who’s somehow become the most stalwart conservator of his band’s legacy.  For the 3,000 appreciative fans that rewarded Mason and his compatriots with a tumultuous standing ovation, that was enough.

Setlist:

  • 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

— Rick Krueger