Graeme Thomson

A joy – mostly: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, at Usher Hall, reviewed

If you close your eyes, it could be 1971 all over again

A joy – mostly: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, at Usher Hall, reviewed
Every four or five songs, Mason makes a wry speech in the manner of a retired solicitor at the local Rotary Club, then he sits back down and bashes along to some often deeply strange sounds. Credit: Alan Rennie / Alamy Live News
Text settings

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Drummers are patient chaps, in the main. Think of Ringo in Peter Jackson’s recent Beatles docuseries, Get Back. Lolling around peaceably for days on end as Lennon and McCartney bash about, looking for clues. Drummers twiddle their thumbs behind their kit while the musos fret over chords and key changes, waiting for the moment when they will be called upon to hit skins with sticks and make a song worth hearing.

In 2018, admirably urbane Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason finally lost patience. The band has effectively been finished since 1994, and following the death of keyboardist Rick Wright in 2008, Mason was caught between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, the two rutting stags of the group’s legacy. Growing tired of polishing his Porsches, he resolved to dust off the gong and beaters and embark on a bit of active curation. Hence, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, formed with the intention of revisiting the earliest years of the band, before Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here made them a (rather dull) super group; the days of Syd Barrett, half-hour psychedelic freak-outs and ‘happenings’ swathed in dry ice. The connoisseur’s choice, in other words.

That said, Mason is no one’s idea of a flashy drummer. Considering his passion for cars, a motoring analogy seems appropriate: he’s more family saloon than Ferrari, happiest locking down a head-nodding groove. The rest of the band comprise session bassist extraordinaire, Guy Pratt, who played in the latter stages of Pink Floyd and has a bouncy, mischievous energy; Spandau Ballet guitarist and songwriter Gary Kemp, on lead vocals and guitar; former Blockhead Lee Harris on multidimensional second guitar; and Dom Beken on (lots of) keyboards.

This unlikely grouping works fantastically well. They are fans, doing this for fun, and with love, and it shows. Kemp might be the star – charismatic, lithe, full of bonhomie – yet without Mason it wouldn’t work. At 78, his low-key presence gives this endeavour an umbilical link back to the source. Every four or five songs, he stands up behind his kit and makes a wry speech, much in the manner of a retired solicitor drawing the raffle at the local Rotary Club. Then he sits back down and bashes along to some often deeply strange sounds.

A precision-tooled approximation of the music of late 1960s counterculture could feel as mechanical as Royal Academicians trying their hand at primitivism. Thankfully, this is not what transpires. Digitised film footage depicting grainy oil-slide projections summarises the exchange: the old, weird and handmade has been made smarter and sharper, shaped but not quite tamed by the expertise of the musicians. They do an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of it all, both playful and intense.

The skew-whiff, acid-fried pop songs of Syd Barrett – ‘Arnold Layne’, ‘Candy and a Currant Bun’, ‘See Emily Play’, ‘Bike’ – dovetail with more expansive open-ended pieces. ‘If’, with ‘Atom Heart Mother’ sandwiched in the middle, goes from pretty to spacey and back again. As the screens ripple with flames during ‘Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun’, Mason beats out an ominous tom-tom tattoo and bangs his gong (Pratt has a bash later in the song, taking the role of ‘junior gongmaster’). Kemp and Harris conjure squalls of noise as the track crests to full power.

Though they became a byword for drifting atmospherics, there are frequent reminders of how dynamic early Pink Floyd could be. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ has a punky energy. ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘The Nile Song’ are the heaviest of heavy rock. ‘Lucifer Sam’ has a riff Motörhead would have killed for. ‘Vegetable Man’, an unnerving Barrett song that Mason claims ‘was never finished’, still transmits a transgressive charge.

Inevitably there are a few incongruities, as there must be when revisiting music which was made more than 50 years ago in the spirit of improvisation and experimentation, powered by youthful curiosity. Very occasionally, the sound of men of a certain vintage singing as psychedelicised young adventurers feels a little off. Grandad takes a trip, indeed.

Mostly it’s a joy. The big news for Floyd aficionados is that the band are for the first time performing ‘Echoes’, the 23-minute track which fills the entire second side of Meddle. They save it until last. As it creeps into our hearing, a murmur of excitement ripples through the crowd – a few of whom are under 60. Harris expertly recreates the bell-like peals of David Gilmour’s guitar and Pratt and Kemp brew up a truly beautiful vocal blend. There is tapping, scraping, noodling – all that jazz. If you close your eyes, it could be 1971 all over again. Looking around at 2022, that’s no small endorsement.