Each year in St. Louis, the official kick-off to the holidays becomes more and more synonymous with the series of shows performed by the local Pink Floyd tribute act El Monstero y Los Masked Avengers. It's a seasonal reunion of sorts for the aging KSHE crowd who grew up with Floyd's haunting psychedelic rock -- but it's also a primer for college kids home for winter break who may have just recently delved into the band's mood-setting music.
The former probably had the chance to see Pink Floyd live and might fully understand the immense task that El Monstero takes on every year: It tries to duplicate not only these ambient classic rock overtures but also the spectacle, grandeur and theatrics that one expects from a Floyd show. Since 1999 the core group of musicians involved in this tribute has slowly and steadily built it into an epic St. Louis entertainment tradition that easily packs the Pageant for multiple nights.
And so last night, as with every opening night since El Monstero's inception, fans of the act waited with baited breath, pondering what new bells and whistles awaited them behind the white curtain draped over the front of the Pageant stage. The anticipation was thick as ominous symphonic music played over the PA and propaganda messages urging the audience to comply! were projected onto the curtain.
The tension built higher as someone lit two flaming torches on either side of a catwalk, which projected about a quarter of the way out onto the venue floor. After what seemed like an eternity, several uniform-clad, Gestapo-like figures began marching through the crowd, shining spotlights and chanting orders through megaphones. One troop was stationed on the floor and seemed to feature vocalist Mark Quinn as its ring-leader -- but just then, a second patrol appeared in the balcony with another megaphone shouter who looked eerily the same. It's hard to say which one was the real Quinn, but it made for a nice theatrical prelude.
Just then, the curtain dropped and the band exploded at a deafening volume into "In the Flesh?" the first cut from Floyd's monumental 1979 concept album, The Wall. Jimmy Griffin and Bryan Greene's dual lead guitar lines were syrupy and woozy, as John Pessoni and Kevin Gagnepain built a thunderous, chest-rattling rhythm section groove.
As was the case last year, ring leader and lead vocalist Mark Quinn made his entrance perched high above the stage. But this year, instead of placing the lift out directly in front of the audience, the production opted to place it further back behind the band. It was a great move, as it made the maneuver more mysterious; Quinn looked as if he was floating behind the rest of his mates and the lift was hidden from audience view.
It's these little improvements that make it easy to see why El Monstero has grown into such a successful production. Each year, the spectacle becomes a little bit more ridiculous. In fact, the sheer amount of lighting on stage last night bordered on overkill. It was an amazing display of candle power, but at times there were so many lights pointed out into the crowd that the audience was blinded. It didn't take much away from the show, but it made one wonder how much longer a venue the size of the Pageant can hold this ever-growing monstrosity.
But as any band worth its salt knows, all the pyrotechnics and moving lights in the world won't make up for a shoddy performance -- and musically, this was one of the best years for El Monstero. The sound was as good (if not better) than almost any touring act to come through the Pageant this year, and with the exception of one wireless microphone issue, the production seemed to go off without a hitch on its first night.
Vocally, Quinn and Griffin were spot-on, and b rought emotion and grit to their performances. Quinn belted the high parts of "Hey You" with ease and Griffin sounded great and looked as though he felt at ease in his role as pseudo-Roger Waters for the evening. He exuded a cool confidence that is hard to find on a national stage (where Griffin should probably be), much less on a local level.
The theatrical element of the show is what really sets this tribute apart from others such as the Australian Pink Floyd Show, though. The use of actors and stage props kept the audience's attention through such a long and involved set that included over three album' worth of material. For instance, when guest vocalist Ryan Jordan turned in an energetic performance of "Have a Cigar" from the 1975 album Wish You Were Here, he strutted back and forth across the stage throwing stacks of "cash" into the audience.
After the band completed The Wall, and intermission was over, the players returned to the stage in street clothes and performed a few stripped-down, acoustic-based numbers and other album tracks before launching into its trademark, top-to-bottom performance of Dark Side of the Moon.
Although it was incorporated briefly in the first act, this portion of the show made heavy use of a new addition to the show. A large, "moon"-shaped video screen perched high above the band streamed everything from Wizard of Oz clips to fireworks displays as the band hit the biggest crowd-pleasing parts of the show. "Money" sparkled with spot-on sound-effect samples and a deep pocketed 7/4 time-signature groove, while the band drifted perfectly down into a spacey, stirring rendition of "Us and Them," building the crescendo to its full potential at song's end.
After completing Dark Side, the band briefly returned to the stage for a list of introductions that more-or-less read like a who's-who of badass area musicians. At a time when the local music scene is in a bit of a lull, it was nice to see so much local talent put on display.
As with each year, the band returned to the stage for obligatory performances of "Wish You Were Here" and show closer "Comfortably Numb." It was a fitting end to a night of music that held the audience at relative attention the whole time considering its epic nature and at times somewhat obscure caveats. Considering this was just the first night of six, it's probably safe to say that anyone attending one of the other five shows is most likely in for an even better display.
Shine on, El Monstero. Shine on.