Peter Gabriel has been challenging and rewarding listeners for forty-five years now. In his earliest days, as Genesis’ co-founder and front-person (1967-1975), he combined elements of theater, performance art, story-telling and the bizarre into his live shows. He has been just as wide-ranging, cutting-edge and surprising since then in his over three decades-long solo career. Through studio releases, world music projects, film soundtracks, music videos, causes and benefit concerts, he has been one of the most respected and influential artists of our time.
In the dizzying and ever-churning realm of disposable pop culture, much of what the public-at-large knows of Peter Gabriel begins and ends with his 1986 cd “So”, which produced the songs In Your Eyes, Don’t Give Up and, of course, the “Sledgehammer” single and music video. But 1986 was also the year that he began his long-standing public association with Amnesty International.
And to those that would dig deeper, Gabriel offers a wealth of varied music projects and public works to explore. He has contributed to the existence of W.O.M.A.D., the Witness project, the ‘gated’ drum sound and the early fusion of electronic synthesis with tribal rhythms on his benchmark third solo album, the revolutionizing of the music video, several notable soundtracks (“Birdy” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”), the fashionable ‘reverse mohawk’ of the 1973 tour and more; while also being the recipient of several international humanitarian awards over the years. And to think that the man behind all that started his music career as a frustrated drummer, handling the vocal chores for an unknown British art rock quintet while wearing a fox head mask and a dress.
After spending much of 2010-2012 touring with an orchestra-and-voices ensemble, which saw him re-inventing his classics in an acoustic format alongside several cover songs from the New Blood cd, he still found time to regroup and launch an entirely different tour before the year’s end.
Assembling some of his stalwart and storied backing musicians from years past, Gabriel convened the Back to Front tour, a 25th anniversary of sorts commemorating his world renowned “So” cd and tour. The rather limited outing (only 18 shows) swung through Canada and the northern U.S. starting in September and wound up in Virginia, where I was lucky enough to catch the last show of the tour before he began a one year sabbatical. It had been over twenty years(!) since I had last gotten to see him in concert, so I was definitely looking forward to the show.
A Peter Gabriel concert always has an interesting or unexpected start, and this show was no different. With the house lights still mostly on, he just strode on out to center stage unannounced and unaccompanied and said “Hello.” Effectively breaking the fourth wall that separates the audience and the performer, he chatted with us for a few minutes and explained how there would be three sections to the night’s performance: an acoustic mini-set, followed by a longer electric set, and then a run-through of his 1986 classic “So” from start to finish.
Then, with the house lights still at half brightness around the arena, he went and sat down at the piano and played a new song that none of us had ever heard. (Well, unless you had cheated like I had and found a video snippet online from one of the previous shows.) Here he was in 2012, still confounding expectations with the simplest of means.
The rest of the band slowly floated out as we were treated to acoustic arrangements of Come Talk to Me, Shock the Monkey and Family Snapshot. The set served as an effective transition from his prior tour’s orchestral and acoustic arrangements. Except that now, the guitars and drum kits were back. Family Snapshot was a welcome inclusion in this format and offered up the first of several transcendental moments of the evening.
After leading us safely through successive lyrical themes of familial distance, electroshock therapy experiments and the troubled mindset of a would-be assassin attempting to make the evening news, we were primed for more of his unusual vignettes. The arena lights all went out, the stage lights came up and Gabriel returned to the familiar trappings of synthesizers, electric guitar and the towering bald head of longtime bassist Tony Levin.
The band (and audience) hit their stride with the 1992 hit Digging In the Dirt and a romp through his debut single from 1977, Solsbury Hill. Lesser known selections included Secret World and The Family and the Fishing Net. The most resonant moments of the show’s first half came with inspired performances of No Self Control and the set-closer Washing of the Water.
No Self Control, one of my longtime favorite Gabriel numbers, is an uncanny blend of swing-tinged piano and electronic beats topped with a brilliant chorus of falsetto voices that is at once staccato chant, percussive birdcall and shamanic ecstasy:
Then it was time for the “So” portion of the show, and songs that everyone seemed to know rolled by: Red Rain, Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up, That Voice Again, Big Time and the epic In Your Eyes. Along the way however we were also reminded of the lower profile arty gems sprinkled throughout the record; the powerful (and tragic) We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37), the quirky This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds) originally done with Laurie Anderson, and perhaps the true hidden masterpiece of the album, the hauntingly beautiful Mercy Street, dedicated to poet Anne Sexton.
After the last notes of In Your Eyes had died out and we had completed our journey through “So”, the band took their bows and left the stage.
Moments later, they returned for an encore with the curious The Tower That Ate People. As we awaited the closing number, Gabriel reminded us of our moral imperative to call out injustice where we see it and of the exemplary resolve of those who have given their lives doing so in the past. Then he led us through his perennial show closer Biko, his 1980 ode to anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko. Alluding both to social progress and to the remaining duration of the song, he exhorted us with the words “As usual, the rest is up to you!” He turned his microphone stand to face the audience and waved goodbye as our repeated chorus filled the air. One by one, the musicians left the stage until only the drummer remained; and an arena full of voices carried the refrain onward.
And thus the Back to Front tour came to its wondrous end. An inspiring night from a boundary-pushing artist and fellow human being. The rest is up to you.
Washing of the Water, the song which closed the first set: