There is a startling moment near the beginning of the DVD version of “Live at Pompeii” that quickly defines what a remarkable achievement this concert recording is. After the brief instrumental “5 A.M.” defines the stadium-size guitar sound of David Gilmour in far warmer layers than the dark psychedelia he ground out decades earlier with Pink Floyd, a battalion of lights surrounding the outdoor venue erupt, fully awakening the oldest Roman amphitheater in existence. Overseas reviews tell us that no public event has been staged there since AD 79, when the entertainment of the day consisted of a gladiator fight. The venue was suddenly closed shortly afterward by the cruelest promoter in history — Mount Vesuvius, which buried the amphitheater, not to mention much of the city, in 16 feet of volcanic tephra.
So you could call Gilmour’s July 2016 concert at Pompeii the ultimate return engagement. Part of that, strangely enough, includes his own history. The guitarist and the rest of Pink Floyd set up shop at Pompeii for four days in October 1971 to film an entire concert. But there was no audience involved, just the “ghosts” that Gilmour readily acknowledges during one of the few spoken moments of “Live at Pompeii.”
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But the sheer novelty and visual grandeur of the new CD and DVD/Blu Ray set (available together and separately in multiple packages) would be worthless if the music didn’t hold up. The simple truth, then, about “Live at Pompeii” is that Gilmour, who turned 70 a few months before these performances, has never sounded better.
You hear vitality in the aged but profound vocal warmth of “A Boat Lies Waiting” (a eulogy for Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright) and the antsy immediacy of “What Do You Want From Me” (one of three tunes rescued from the 1994 Floyd album “The Division Bell”). But it’s when Gilmour speaks with guitar that “Pompeii” truly roars. The nearly 11-minute “Sorrow,” from 1987’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” (the record that, for the record, brought Pink Floyd to Rupp Arena 30 years ago this fall) opens with guitar expression so heavy, clear and slow that it recalls Black Sabbath more than Gilmour’s former band. Nonetheless, he provides a humane voice to the tune’s otherwise turgid cast, creating a work of remarkable emotive strength. It terms of pacing and purpose, Gilmour delivers a master class.
Those who want the Floydian jukebox hits won’t be disappointed. All are here, sounding remarkably vital — even “Comfortably Numb,” a song so weather-beaten by rock radio that one would expect Gilmour to simply sleepwalk through it. Instead, a guitar break following the same instinctual flight pattern as the one on “Sorrow” emerges, awakening the song to a new age in the same way Gilmour and his ghosts bring Pompeii itself back to life.