When Roger Waters sets up shop in South Philadelphia for — count ’em — three shows at the Wells Fargo Center this week, the British songwriter’s arena rock spectacular will feature many familiar elements.
The 73-year-old bassist will have the Pink Floyd catalog in tow, with classic rock landmarks like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall to draw from. Yes, there will be flying pigs, and politically pointed lyrics that target would-be authoritarian leaders, including one he calls a “nincompoop.” Controversy will also arrive with the tour, which plays Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, with Waters facing accusations of anti-Semitism for his outspoken criticism of Israel.
But along with the familiar, the “Us + Them” tour will feature new elements. For the first time since 1992, Waters is touring behind a new album, this year’s Floydian, wordy Is This the Life We Really Want?, which features guitar work by Father John Misty associate Jonathan Wilson.
Wilson is on tour in Waters’ band, as are two other Is This the Life? key contributors: Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, the songwriters and singers who are collectively known as Lucius.
Laessig and Wolfe are Berklee College of Music grads known for their exacting harmony singing and attention-grabbing look. With Waters and when fronting their five-piece band (also known as Lucius, named after Wolfe’s now deceased bulldog, and including her husband, Dan Molad, on bass) they always dress in chic matching clothes, often by fashion designers such as Christian Joy.
Along with their own albums — the most recent was 2016’s Good Grief, highlighted by the peppy “Born Again Teen” — Laessig and Wolfe have a parallel career singing on other people’s records.
Their ever-growing credits include arty Brooklyn band San Fermin; Tweedy, the project featuring Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer; plus John Legend, Ingrid Michaelson, Jackson Browne, Dawes, Bleachers, and Shovels & Rope’s cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.”
“We’ve always sung all different types of music and we write all different types of songs,” says Wolfe, who grew up in Los Angeles and who met her Cleveland-native musical partner when they were freshmen at Berklee. The duo, who now live in Brooklyn, were talking from a tour stop in Washington last week. “So it’s been very comfortable for us to move between the lines of soul music and folk music and rock. We grew up listening to a lot of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, and then we went to school to study jazz and moved to New York and became part of the songwriter scene.”
Making their own records and contributing to other people’s “allows us to be ourselves and also be part of the world at large,” says Wolfe, who along with Laessig, also contributed vocals to the forthcoming album A Deeper Understanding by Philadelphia band the War on Drugs. “It’s fun that way. It keeps things interesting and fresh.”
But Lucius have never toured as part of somebody’s else band before, let alone in a production the scale of Waters’.
Their relationship with Waters began in 2015 at the Newport Folk Festival, when they flew in to sing with headliner John Prine, one of Waters’ favorite artists. That year, Waters was doing a surprise show with My Morning Jacket. Jay Sweet, the producer at Newport, recommended Lucius to Waters as singers.
“We showed up and sang the first song with him, and he wanted us to sing on every song,” Laessig says. “That was the day before show day, so we crammed for finals the night before and did the whole show together and he liked it apparently enough to ask us to do more.”
Laessig and Wolfe accompanied Waters at Desert Trip, the 2016 California festival known as “Oldchella,” before singing on Is This the Life? and joining him on “Us + Them.”
“I wasn’t not a fan” of Pink Floyd growing up, says Laessig. “But I just wasn’t familiar. It wasn’t something that came across my work table. So I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I relate to it. … I’ve thought, ‘This is a musical world I would like to live in.’ ”
Waters has only glowing things to say about Lucius. “They bring great vitality and a lot of talent and a staggering new interpretation of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky,’ ” he told the Washington Post. “I have nothing but the highest praise for Jess and Holly.”
“Roger is the perfect example of, if you have the means to do something, taking advantage of that to create something completely exceptional,” says Wolfe. “He’s wrapping you in a landscape and a world where you can be taken away for two hours of time to experience something incredible or special or emotional.”
Lucius and Waters see eye to eye on visual presentation. “It is sort of a perfect marriage aesthetically,” says Wolfe. “And I don’t think Roger knew that when he first met us even. He gives us such inspiration to what could be for us one day, perhaps. It’s theater, you know? I think that’s where we really come together. We want it to feel like theater.”
Laessig says that Waters is “a wonderful boss and a great friend” and that, like Lucius, he does makes a fashion statement, albeit with unchanging sartorial choices.
“He’s a mentor to everyone,” she says. “He wants to see everyone’s best, and he pulls it out of them. He throws them in the deep end and watches them swim. Everybody blossoms because of him. And I do think he only wears black T-shirts.”
Rogers Waters' Us + Them tour
8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St., $51.00-$246.00, www.wellsfargocenterphilly.com