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Concert Review: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets Dishes Up Seminal Pink Floyd Delights

At the Wiltern, the Floyd drummer was canny in basing an entire show on the 1967-72 period his ex-bandmates only sporadically dip into.

Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets -
Jason Sheldon/REX/Shutterstock

David Gilmour’s and Roger Waters’ post-Pink Floyd tours have come up against a common problem: how to deal with the songs (or parts of songs) that the other guy sang. You would think that would be a dilemma squared for drummer Nick Mason, as he undertakes his first “solo” outing, a quarter-century after the last incarnation of Floyd called it a day as a touring concern.

But he’s come up with a clever solution. The ensemble touring as Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets focuses exclusively on the band’s pre-“Dark Side of the Moon” oeuvre, playing only selections from the 1967-72 era when there were a fair number of instrumentals, vocal numbers often tended to be more of a group effort, and all but the most hardcore fans might have a hard time remembering whether it was Rog or Dave singing anyway. Ingenious, right?

And highly enjoyable, too, since Mason has assembled a crew that has some fealty to the original arrangements, but not so much faithfulness that it doesn’t feel more like an actual bona fide rock band than the Floyd itself arguably did in its later years. This is a group that has the chops to carry off the chosen mission to the satisfaction of the heartiest prog and jam-band enthusiasts, but also brings some madcap laughs and (Syd) Barrett.

As Mason and band settled into L.A.’s Wiltern for the fourth and fifth gigs of their North American tour Saturday and Sunday, there was some levity about said mission. “We are not the Australian Roger Waters,” quipped Mason (referring to top-tier tribute band “the Australian Pink Floyd”), nor are we the Danish David Gilmour, nor, as someone rather cruelly put it, the celebrity antique road show.” He gave a shout-out to Floyd’s inaugural gig at a Venice club in 1967, as recounted in his memoir. “I don’t know if any of you were present 50-some years ago at the Cheetah Club… The only thing I remember about it is I think the other band — I wasn’t even sure if it was a band or just a peculiar troupe — was (Capitol recording artist) Lothar and the Hand People. Anyone remember them?”

Later, there was some intra-Floyd dishing, of a very mild sort. “I spent the last 52 years in one particular band working with a particular group of people, one of whom is a great friend, a very talented man, but a bit picky when it comes to sharing,” said Mason. Oh, do tell. “Mr. Roger Waters was not good at sharing the gong. In the last 52 years, I never, ever got to play it. So tonight, it’s a very special night,” he announced, as a prelude to “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” in which he finally got to take his timpani mallets off the kit itself and turn around for a ceremonial clanging.

It was a heavy fan-servicing sort of night, and that service got as obscure as this tour’s inclusion of Syd Barrett’s “Vegetable Man,” a barely two-minute lark of a song that had never received any kind of official wide release before Pink Floyd’s “Early Years” boxed set of 2016, even though the Jesus and Mary Chain had made it a part of their set over the decades. Mason explained that the group had never actually finished the song back in 1967, because “we ran out of Syd.”

That was a good line, but some of the other Saucerful of Secrets players had some better ones, sometimes at Pink Floyd’s affectionately ribbed expense. Gary Kemp — yes, that Gary Kemp, the former Spandau Ballet guy — is one of two lead singers and one of two lead guitarists in this ensemble, offered a tribute to the “egoless” drummer and recalled how transfixed he was when he first say Mason perform with Floyd, “mostly because he was the only thing moving on stage. There was an aeroplane that moved at one point.”

More of the quips fell to bassist Guy Pratt, who, besides having been Floyd’s touring bassist when they resumed without Waters in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, is an actor and standup comic on the side. Pratt introduced “The Nile Song” as “some proper dumb-ass rock ‘n’ roll — who’s up for it?” He explained that, as a kid, that was the first and only Pink Floyd record he owned for a while, and “I thought that they were a rock band!” The bassist also talked about how he’d gone out on tour with Gilmour in 2006 and, at that time, the guitarist had asked him for setlist ideas. “I suggested that I’d like to play that song, and David suggested perhaps I’d like to play for another band. And now I do!”

So there was almost as much mirth as “Meddle” at the Wiltern, but also some solemnity and sentimentality for fans and band members alike for songs that mostly had not been played live by anyone in the last 50 years. In a few cases, these songs had never set foot on a stage at all, even when they fresh off of the record, or had fallen into the realm of only being performed as the occasional bizarre encore by superfan-bands like Phish or Gov’t Mule. Certainly by the time Floyd entered the early ‘70s, they had zero interest in playing earlier singles like “See Emily Play,” and by the time they entered the concept album era, there was no reviving any material from even just a few years earlier — all of which is to say, this is the first time in history any setlist remotely resembling this one has ever existed, by Pink Floyd or any cover band with or without an “Australian” appellation. The once-in-a-lifetime-ness of it all was not wasted on anyone in attendance.

Given that tracks like “Set the Controls” and this band’s namesake tune could be clock-expanding as well as mind-expanding in concert, an advance look at a setlist that includes 21 songs seemed to augur for a curfew-busting evening. Actually, those 21 songs clocked in at a brisk hour and 45 minutes, because for every small epic performed (“That was ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ by Saucerful of Secrets,” said Pratt during the encore; “you can’t get more meta than that”), there were at least two short, sweet and borderline thrashy quickies from the initial Barrett era, or right after.

Highlights included a medley of “If,” the ballad that was a strong indicator of Waters’ future personal writing style, with the instrumental “Atom Heart Mother,” which encapsulates the psychedelic-holdover era of Floyd as well as anything. That gave almost everyone in the band a chance to stretch out, with Lee Harris playing a very Gilmour-esque slide guitar solo, Kemp doing an acoustic guitar break and Dom Beken bringing the trademark Rick Wright licks. Harris and Kemp both filled Gilmour’s lead shoes during the night, while it was Pratt and Harris trading off vocals. Mason did not have any particular show-offy turns himself, although the opening “Interstellar Overdrive” was one of the numbers affording him the opportunity to bring some thunder that wasn’t always a trademark of Floyd’s latter years.

Any thought that the concentration would be on songs that were percussion showcases was put to rest as room was made for gentler choices like “Green is the Colour,” or “Remember a Day,” which Pratt introduced as being particularly sweet because it was “written by my son’s grandfather” — i.e., the late Wright, father of his ex-wife. Pratt got personal again toward the end in getting “schmaltzy” in dedicating “See Emily Play” to “a girl who till last week was my girlfriend, now is my fiancée,” British children’s book writer Georgia Byng.

As for visuals, suffice it to say that this outfit is aeroplane-free and leaving the giant puppets to Muse, who had a very Floyd-like inflatable on stage earlier in the week at the Forum. Vintage footage of an unrecognizably young Mason in various states of bearded scruffiness was seen during “Arnold Layne,” and otherwise it was a modest version of variations on the trippy slide shows of old. Even if you had an appreciation for the round screens that came into being for Floyd circa “Dark Side,” it is also a relief to hear Floydian sounds not competing with Gerald Scarfe.

And “Vegetable Man”? It was no great loss to music history that Barrett and company failed to complete it. It was also highly endearing that it’s getting a public hearing on this tour. The song itself may be a trifle, but its performance in 2019, like the encore of the lost single “Point Me at the Sky” and so many of the “Obscured by Clouds”-era obscurities, didn’t come off as indulgent. These were an act of sheer band-on-fan love.

The Mason/Saucerful of Secrets tour continues for 23 more shows in the U.S., with its only other double-header being two nights at the Beacon in New York City April 18-19. The show returns to the UK (where they had a brief introductory run last year) in May and moves on to Europe for the month of July.