David Gilmour's Live in Gdansk was recorded and filmed in 2006 at the Polish city's shipyards, the very same historic location where Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement began its populist assault on the country's repressive Soviet-installed regime in 1980. By all accounts of the time it was a truly awesome multimedia spectacle. But there are strange and sad ironies that accompany this release as well. For starters, it was released in the U.K. exactly a week after the death of Richard Wright, Gilmour's longtime bandmate in Pink Floyd, and his keyboardist here. Secondly, it appears during a period of increased tension between Russia and the United States over the latter's proposed missile defense system to be placed in Poland (by the U.S.) and the country's membership in NATO. But there is nothing bittersweet about the music to be found on this double-disc package (one of six different packages that document the event and the tour -- apparently nobody told Gilmour the recording industry was in an economic crisis). On this version, two and a half hours document the entire concert. Gilmour's band -- Wright, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, keyboardist Jon Carin, bassist Guy Pratt, drummer Steve DiStanislao, and saxophonist Dick Parry -- is accompanied by the Baltic Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, including its 40-piece string section, conducted by Zbigniew Preisner (who did the arrangements on Gilmour's On an Island album).
While cynics can debate the pretentious of this date forever, everyone else can enjoy an utterly engaging, entertaining, and sometimes emotionally moving performance of Gilmour's entire On an Island album and a boxful of Pink Floyd hits to boot. The first disc begins with Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon suite of "Speak to Me," "Breathe," and "Time," and comes to a close with the reprise of the opening track. With the orchestra accompanying the band, the dreaminess and spaciness of the original music miraculously comes through, and Gilmour is in fine voice as well. The rest of disc one is taken up by an almost totally in-sequence performance of On an Island. The live version of the album rocks more, perhaps because of the steady presence of Manzanera, who adds extra punch to Gilmour's airy bluesy one on guitar. This is especially true on "Take a Breath," when his crunchy, crackling power chords come off like something from his own Diamond Head album; his solo against the counterpoint of the orchestra makes it one of the set's true rockist highlights. Disc two is comprised entirely of performances of Pink Floyd tunes from albums as diverse as Atom Heart Mother ("Fat Old Sun"), Wish You Were Here ("Shine on You Crazy Diamond" and its title track), The Piper at the Gates of Dawn ("Astronomy Domine"), Meddle ("Echoes"), The Wall("Comfortably Numb"), and The Division Bell ("A Great Day for Freedom"). The performances are not terribly spontaneous in part because of the orchestral arrangements, but they are flawless (again, Manzanera's presence adds some real muscle) and, given the sheer quality of the sound, they have plenty of presence and warmth despite being recorded in front of a concert audience. This set may be strictly for Gilmour and Pink Floyd fans, but as such, for all its packaging pomp (it's green though: carbon-neutral cardboard wallets for all the different packages), it feels like something historic and beautifully considered as well as executed. It would have been amazing to be in that audience.