If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any particular field, then it’s safe to say that Peter Gabriel has spent a good deal longer than that performing on stage. There’s a reason that the one-time Genesis frontman is renowned in the industry for his onstage theatrics and performance: few, if any, artists have ever put on stage shows the way Peter Gabriel does. When the opportunity to see Gabriel for the second time in my life presented itself, I could hardly contain my excitement. And while this most recent iteration of Gabriel’s show wasn’t quite as impressive as the last time I saw him (a ridiculously theatrical tour performed in the round that was later turned into the Growing Up Live DVD), it was still downright phenomenal. Of course, any slight decline in showmanship is easily forgiven considering that the last time I saw him was nearly a decade ago and the man is now a ripe 62 years old. At this point, his mere presence would be enough for most fans, but true to form, he delivered a complete show, with all the trimmings.
With medical problems side-lining original opening act Ane Brun only days before the tour began, Jennie Abrahamson (one of Brun’s band members and a solo artist in her own right) opened the show with only three graceful piano ballads before making way for the headlining act. Gabriel took the stage and calmly explained how the night would proceed, which sounds unusual since most concert goers know how any given show will unfold, but as is often the case with Gabriel, things were not so simple. After decades in the business, Gabriel explained that he had come to find that watching how things come together is often as entertaining and enjoyable as the finished product itself. As such, the night’s concert would be divided into three sections: the first, and most surprising of the three, would be a stripped down, primarily acoustic performance made all the more interesting by the fact that this portion of the show would be performed with the house lights on. Gabriel wanted to give his viewers an eye into his rehearsal space, and it’s hard not to think that this is about the best way imaginable to do so within the context of a live performance. Dubbed the ‘electric’ set, the second portion of the concert was traditional concert fare: a smattering of songs from across Gabriel’s career performed with a full band and light arrangement (sans house lights). Finally, for the eponymous event of the tour, the third act was a full play through of Gabriel’s So record, his greatest commercial success. The tour was, in fact, promoting a new 25th anniversary four disc re-release of So, including a remastered version of the album, upon which the track listing has been adjusted to fit what Gabriel had originally intended before his label interfered and changed the track order. Tonight’s performance would follow those original intentions.
With the house lights still on, Gabriel opened the acoustic set with an as yet unfinished piano-and-vocal-only track (at his wife’s instructions, Gabriel noted that if the lyrics were unclear or confusing in this track, it was because they were still incomplete, not because he was drunk). Gabriel then welcomed his band to the stage and moved onto a simple and elegant version of ‘Come Talk to Me.’ The most impressive track from this first set though, was the bare bones arrangement of ‘Shock the Monkey,’ which somehow managed to sound simultaneously nothing like the original version of the song and exactly as the song has always been. It was a remarkable arrangement. The final track of this set was ‘Family Snapshot,’ one of my all-time Gabriel favorites and a song that defines the modern idea of prog-rock (no recurring parts, lyrics based on a book written by an aspiring assassin, and a wide array of sounds and seemingly disparate instruments seamlessly blended together). Halfway through this song, as it picked up to its climax, the houselights went out, the stage lights came on and – mid-song – we entered the second portion of the evening, the electric set.
Standing in stark contrast to the mellow, basement jam session vibe of the acoustic set, the electric set was much more in line with Gabriel’s previous performances. When the house lights went out, bright white stage lights took to flashing and illuminating the band in syncopated and rhythmic patterns. As impressive as the light show was, it was barely an appetiser for the visual feast that would soon follow. In addition to the mammoth video screen at the rear of the stage, two giant screens hung on either side, flanking the performers. Once the house lights went down, these three screens displayed a series of live-fed video that rivalled the best music videos of the modern era. The video feed, clearly shot in crisp HD, was then filtered through various effects and processes to create an utterly and unabashedly mind-blowing show. Cameras were mounted on drums, keyboards, and even the headstock of Tony Levin’s bass, to provide up-close video in addition to a range of overhead and side footage. Video effects then turned the performance into a variety of surreal scenarios including Gabriel as a wanderer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and later as a claymation-esque putty-man in real-time. If you’ve seen Gabriel’s music videos in the past, you know that he has a penchant for over the top visual elements, but to see such extensive video production done live was wildly beyond my expectations. Even more impressive though, were the five light towers that lined the back of the stage, each nearly 30 feet tall and with three pivoting spotlights hanging from the top of each tower’s neck. At first the lights were arranged at the back of the stage behind the drums, but after a few songs they began to move. Each tower, it turns out, was mounted on a mobile base that allowed an attendant to wheel it anywhere on the perimeter of the stage. Each tower also featured a pneumatic knee-joint that allowed them to raise or lower their necks and the attached spotlights all the way to the ground. For the duration of the show, these massive machines moved around the stage like alien robots, their spotlights working sometimes in patterns, sometimes in unison, and sometimes alone with a single spotlight tracing out Gabriel (or one of his band members) while all the rest of the stage faded to black. It was a visual show that was staggering in both its scope and its production.
But of course, this was a concert, not a light show, and so it was with great joy that I found the audio element matching the visual at every step. The electric set was filled with a selection of songs from throughout Gabriel’s career, including ‘Digging In the Dirt’ (which rocked as hard as any song I’ve ever seen live, a fact that is all the more impressive when considering that, once again, Peter Gabriel is 62 years old), ‘Solsbury Hill’ (Gabriel’s first hit), and ‘Washing of the Water’ (one of his most beautiful songs). Gabriel’s band, the original group from the 1987 So tour no less, was magnificent and highlighted by long-time Gabriel band member and bass-playing giant (I mean that both literally and figuratively, as the man is both monstrously huge and a pillar of modern bass-playing) Tony Levin. Gabriel’s voice, always distinct, has grown more pronounced and powerful with age. As someone who has studied voice for a long time, I have to say: he is truly one of a kind.
When the electric set was finished, the So album began in earnest, much to the crowd’s approval. In the first song of the set, ‘Red Rain,’ red lights were added to the white, and by the end of the second song, the massive hit ‘Sledgehammer,’ a full rainbow of colors were emanating from the lighting equipment. At this point the tracks began to diverge from their slots on the original release of the record, giving a welcome hint of surprise to those with the usual order so deeply ingrained in their minds that the end of one song and the beginning of the next had become irrevocably intertwined. ‘Don’t Give Up’ (with Jennie Abrahamson admirably delivering Kate Bush’s lines) and ‘That Voice Again’ came next, followed by the haunting ‘Mercy Street’ (which he sang lying down on the stage, filmed by a vertically hanging camera with the light-robots surrounding him) and the tongue-in-cheek hit ‘Big Time.’ These songs were followed by two pieces of what essentially boiled down to performance art in ‘We Do What We’re Told’ and ‘This Is the Picture,’ my favorite aspect of which was the appearance of some kind of drum machine-keytar hybrid (a drumtar?). To close the set (and record), Gabriel gave us ‘In Your Eyes,’ the song that John Cusak put into a thousand hoisted boomboxes.
Gabriel’s encore1 was short and sweet. The industrial B-side ‘The Tower That Ate People’ blasted away with more great stage effects (in light of what I described earlier, this may be shocking, but it was too complicated to explain…suffice it to say that Gabriel ended up singing from the inside of a tube that descended from the rafters) before Gabriel went to his traditional closer ‘Biko.’ I’ll let you follow the link if you’d like to know more about the song’s inspiration and meaning, but even if you’re unfamiliar with the song’s backstory, it is easy to see how it made for a very powerful closer, as Gabriel led the crowd in a chorus chant before proclaiming, “And, as always, what happens now is up to you.” With Gabriel leading the way, his band slowly left the stage one by one, the pulsing beat of the drums ringing out until at the very last, drummer Manu Katche hit one final blow and exited. I have seen it a thousand times before, but it never loses its power.
My only major complaint of the show would be that Gabriel did not play any material from 2002′s Up, his most recent album, as he instead focused on his late 80s and early 90s, So-era material. But that is a mild complaint in the face of what an amazing show he put on. Secondarily, it’s worth noting, in the name of fairness, that for the last four or five tracks Gabriel and his band started to diminish in the energy department. But, also in fairness, it’s worth noting that it was a two hour long set and, in case I have not pointed this out yet, Peter Gabriel is 62 years old.