In an age where many acts come and go within less than five years, it’s difficult to imagine an artist with more interesting first, second, and third career acts than Peter Gabriel. 45 years after posturing Genesis as an art-house babe, Gabriel has managed to saunter through Britain’s new wave scene as a hero instead of a fringe scenester, he’s tinged popular music with the burgeoning world music scene, and done it all in 13 albums. That may sound like a lot, but when you consider his span as a solo artist of 35 years, it is apparent he has chosen to be precise and deliberate as opposed to a factory line. He’s also one of those rare songwriters who’s tread the waters of cult and legitimately broken into the charting mainstream without alienating his fanbase in the process (take a page from this, Bryan Ferry).
So could be classified as the definitive Gabriel album (with the untitled Melt a close second), so it should come as no surprise that what is rumored to be his last tour ever is being billed as a 25th anniversary celebration of the release. But Back to Front is more than than the ultimate kiss-off tour, or a nostalgic rehashing of the “most popular, definitive material” (aren’t we all just a little tired of this cash grab of a touring theme by now?). I was pleasantly surprised that what we got turned out to be so much more than that.
Much of this might be explained by his latest New Blood, in which he takes a cue from Mark Kozelek, using covers of other artists as a creative launching pad for re-visiting and re-creating one’s own material. The evening began this way–with what Gabriel explained would be the first third of the evening– “recording session-like” and acoustic as the audience continued to trickle in.
Gabriel opened with a self-described unfinished song that would sound unfinished:
He wasted no time by going immediately into Come Talk to Me, one of the best tracks off 1992’s Us (my favorite Peter Gabriel album). While Us is significantly less heralded than the first four untitled albums or So, it managed to reincarnate Sinead O’Connor as a talented vocalist instead of the bald girl who ripped up the Pope’s photo, made the teary-eyed effect of bagpipes cool, and spawned some of the most visually stimulating music videos of the era (Digging in the Dirt, Blood of Eden). It’s one of the reasons why the setlist is near perfect while managing to throw us some curve balls. Nearly every sprawling era was represented last night with the only gaping hole being the omission of Games Without Frontiers.
But let’s not quibble. The lounge-y version of Shock the Monkey gave us something we weren’t expecting (one of the values I have grown to most appreciate in live music), with Gabriel opting to hammer away the synth bits with his piano. I personally liked it, my companions didn’t, I suppose my main point is that it certainly elicited a reaction.
The next third of the set focused heavily on Us (Digging in the Dirt and the epically long Secret World) with Solsbury Hill finally rousing the somewhat sleepy crowd to its feet. I did find that once they realized the set wouldn’t just be spin-off renditions of classics but classics themselves, they loosened up quite a bit and allowed themselves to reel up to Gabriel’s efforts to drum-up enthusiasm. He did so by playfully prancing around the stage and joking that he’d been working on the choreography for “months” with a lot of circle dancing and light half-feigned can-can kicking (I shamefully admit that at 62, Gabriel’s dance moves are similar to mine). In the midst of all this, a more elaborate setup was being concocted with spider-armed white lights and geometric swirls. I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to, but I’m not what you would call avant-garde…and besides, the tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery was still there.
The last third of the set contained what most people were probably waiting for–the first ever “Back to Front” performance of breakthrough So. Red Rain opened things up with one of the strongest renditions of the night, nicely easing us into the album against a (you guessed it) red rain backdrop. Yet not everything was so literal in its visual translation. Yes, Sledgehammer brought down the house with a classic adaptation. Don’t Give Up closely followed in more ways than one–with Gabriel reenacting the second version of the music video (complete with suitcase in hand to signify the “moving towns”) with back-up singer Jennie Abrahmson. While powerful and well-received, Abrahmson’s voice grated me a bit as sounding a bit hollow, but perhaps at the bottom of my heart and mind I was secretly hoping for Kate Bush to appear.
Where things started to change-up was the highlight of the show for me–Mercy Street. At first I wasn’t sure where he was going to go…as he lay on the floor, I thought surely he wouldn’t sing the entire song that way (wouldn’t that effect the esophagus or something?)–but this is Peter freakin’ Gabriel after all. His raspy, distinctive voice was as good vertical as it was horizontal, with flying spider lights going in and out. Things had normalized again when it came to Big Time, which I didn’t mind in the least because it often gets overlooked as a categorical Gabriel song.
Nowhere near as categorical by comparison, to In Your Eyes, popularized to my chagrin byJohn Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler (Say Anything is my favorite movie–but the boombox scene is my least favorite scene…side note…as Cameron Crowe was writing that scene, he struggled for months with finding the right song to pipe into the stereo as Diane Court’s torch song, but came across an old mix-tape he’d made for a wedding he’d taken part in with the song on it). The song got an extended remix makeover in this version, with more African flavor and an extended sing-along introduction prominently featuring the deep booming back-up answers to the chorus parts.
As with the other dates, the same encores were given. The first, a controversial choice and fairly rocked out The Tower that Ate People. The second the legendary Biko, which Gabriel dedicated to “all the young people facing injustice”, going on to briefly describe Steve Biko’s brutal death in South Africa. What followed was an enthusiastic plea to sing and move along collectively, eventually ending as member after member exited the stage. His final words to us were, “It’s up to you”.
Come Talk to Me
Shock the Monkey
Digging in the Dirt
The Family and the Fishing Net
No Self Control
Washing of the Water
“So” (as Josh noted, the performance followed the “remastered” CD sequence as opposed to the original LP track order)
Don’t Give Up
That Voice Again
We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)
This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)
In Your Eyes
The Tower That Ate People