The veteran guitar hero's tribute to the late pop genius would have been worth the price of entry in itself, says Neil McCormick
Pink crossed with purple at the Royal Albert Hall, as a purple orb shone over the stage like a purple sun, spotlights bathed the imperious Victorian interior in luminous hues of violet, and David Gilmour segued Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb into Prince’s Purple Rain. In the midst of the longest, brightest burning coda to the Floyd rock classic you could ever wish to hear, the band shifted seamlessly into the Prince chord sequence, Gilmour showering his rapt audience at this Teenage Cancer Trust benefit gig with a cascade of glittering guitar notes while a trio of backing singers delivered descending, “Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh’s”. No words were said or needed to be, as one incredible guitarist paid tribute to another.
It was a fantastic and unexpected conclusion to another reliably impressive performance from Gilmour that hit all the right notes to satisfy fans whilst only intermittently setting pulses racing. Comfortably Numb is perhaps a risky title to have hanging around your neck. The elegiac epic from Pink Floyd’s 1979 double album The Wall has become something of a signature song for the 70-year-old Gilmour. The elegant, yearning melody suits his dry, thin, clear voice, which has gained a bit of welcome rasp in old age, adding tonal weight. The way the narcotic numbness of the track is counterpointed by the extraordinary beauty and elegance of his soaring solos perfectly exemplifies his talent. But the sentiments of his old colleague Roger Waters’s lyrics seem increasingly to suit him too.
If I have a criticism of Gilmour, it would be that for such a master musician he rarely ventures out of his comfort zone. With his nine-piece band, he offers gleaming, note-perfect recreations of Floyd classics and selections from his excellent 2015 solo album, Rattle That Lock, with all the reverence of a self-tribute band. They can certainly build up a densely textured stew of sound with exquisitely layered backing vocals, but with musicians of this calibre it would be fantastic to hear them really let loose and play something that hasn’t been rehearsed almost to death, which in turn might propel Gilmour into new spaces. The blistering attack of early Floyd psychedelia on Astronomy Domine is a brief reminder that Gilmour did not always play it so safe.
But it feels churlish to carp, because every time Gilmour unleashes a solo we are reminded that we are listening to one of the all-time greats. There are certain things that he does better than any other guitar player: those long, tremulous, sustained notes that seem to rise up out of the ether and bleed off into eternity. But he also finds places to take those weeping notes, his fingers roaming freely over the entire fretboard, bending and twisting strings at will. He rips it up with rock drama on Fat Old Sun and Run Like Hell and stirs new life into an old classic like Wish You Were Here with eloquent, emotional figures.
Gilmour may have little of the swagger and daring of the artist he paid tribute to at the end, but that final sensational solo would have been worth the price of entry in itself.