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Gig review: Peter Gabriel live

Wantaugh NY, USA, 23.09.2012

Under a half moon, at the outdoor venue of Jones Beach, in Wantagh, New York (out in the middle of nowhere, literally, for those of you who are not familiar with the area), a (close to) full house saw Peter Gabriel perform his Back To Front show last night. I’ve seen Gabriel a number of times in concert, but this was my first full rock band show since 2003. I enjoyed the New Blood shows for their perspective, and willingness to experiment with the traditional arrangement of familiar songs (both of Gabriel’s and of others), but was looking forward to this show to see the return of a rock format for these songs.

My takeaway from the show? I really liked this. If you’re a Gabriel fan at all, I would find it hard pressed to say that you wouldn’t enjoy yourself. Sure, we can all be picky about setlists (No Moribund the Burgermeister? I can’t believe it!), but you know going in that a good portion of the show is taken up with So, and you get a fine selection of tracks from Gabriel’s solo career.

Let me explain the format. After a few songs from the opening act (a duo consisting of the backup singers from Gabriel’s full band), which were quite pleasant, Gabriel comes out to explain about the proceedings for the evening’s entertainment. The first section will be some songs, done acoustically, as that is how many tracks are worked out in the studio first. Then, there would be a set of songs with the full band, full on rock! Finally, comes the So album in its entirety, as promised in the publicity for the tour. Encores weren’t mentioned, but are assumed by the audience.

With that, Gabriel revisited a tradition from his earlier tours, of performing some songs that were not quite completed. This opening track, with Peter on piano/vocals, and Tony Levin on upright electric bass, was another Song Without Words (named O But). For what it was, a glimpse into the writing process, it was fun. The song itself made me think of a Randy Newman-ish piano arrangement with some very vague lyrical ideas put on top. It’s fascinating to me that both Gabriel and Genesis would write in the same way, creating music with a vocal melody on top, and then perhaps incorporating some of the improvised lyrics in the final product. Wherever this song ends up, I’ll be interested to compare the finished version to the version played on this tour. For those who buy all the encore discs, perhaps the song will evolve during the course of the tour…

Come Talk To Me is next, and is affecting to hear in this more direct arrangement. One fun thing about this section of the show is that with Gabriel on the piano and singing, it’s really clear to hear how he drives the songs with his playing. As the writer of the songs, this may seem obvious, but it’s easy at times to forget that the guy singing the tracks also wrote the music. An acoustic Shock The Monkey, “…a song about jealousy,” as Gabriel says then gets its feature, which worked surprisingly better than I believed an acoustic version of this track could. The edgy nervousness of the song still comes through, and it’s fun to be able to hear the little details in the guitar and keys/piano.

I should mention that some members of the crowd were getting a bit worked up at this point, as the house lights were not off for this part of the show. Especially towards the back of the venue, I was hearing shouts of “Lights,” “Turn it off!” etcetera. People should have realized that it was either a purposeful thing as part of the show, or that if it was a technical issue, shouting won’t help. But, that’s a discussion for another place. We then go into Family Snapshot, with Gabriel starting the classic on piano and voice, and the power of the song slowly builds until about the midpoint of the song when BAM! The lights go out throughout the house, and the screens and stage lights begin their work. A truly affecting stage moment, showing that the house lights being on for the first songs was a build up to this dramatic effect.

This begins the second part of the show, the rock band doing their thing. And doing their thing they did, hitting songs such as Digging in the Dirt, Secret World, Washing Of The Water, Family And The Fishing Net, No Self Control, and Solsbury Hill. Digging in the Dirt was a particular highlight, as it shows off the aggressive side of Gabriel’s music, which did not necessarily come through in the same way during the orchestral shows. There was still a menace present there, in those arrangements, but the naked powerful anger of Digging, and later on, of The Tower That Ate People, was lacking. Hearing it come back for these shows was a great return for this listener.

The So set, part three of the evening, was fascinating to me, as the album really tracks unexpectedly well for a live show. It also presents the challenge, to these ears, of playing one track (That Voice Again), that just simply doesn’t translate well to a live environment. The classics that have been played on a number of tours, such as Sledgehammer, Red Rain, and In Your Eyes were put across well, with Red Rain in particular benefitting from the stage and light set up. Mercy Street and Don’t Give Up, as quieter numbers, transferred the energy of the room to a different state. It was not any less powerful than the “loud” songs, but the power is more reflective, more internal.

Mercy Street found Gabriel performing the song lying on the floor of the stage, bathed in blue light, while the five lighting trusses moved slowly up and down towards him. The effect gave me one of both comfort, but also a sense of unease, as if the safety of the comfort would be pulled away at any moment. As a song that relates to the life of Anne Sexton, perhaps that is appropriate.

The song I found myself humming to myself after the show, oddly enough, was We Do What We’re Told, in an arrangement that was almost a mix of the 1980 version, and the So version. Again, the aggression of the piece is balanced by the almost ethereal wistfulness of the tune, with its dark, almost relentless subject matter hidden behind a dreamscape of moody soundscapes.

In Your Eyes served as the end of the set, and as it is perhaps Gabriel’s most well-known song (let’s just take that as a given), it got the audience up and participating. Encores of The Tower That Ate People had the aggression out again, with a staging that I’m sure reminded many of the Lamia from the Lamb Lies Down On Broadway tour. A circular section of the lighting rig was lowered around Gabriel, which had an internal cloth tube that he was trapped in, to sing a good portion of the song… Very affecting in a way to see the singer trapped in this tube, a song about building walls to keep yourself safe, but really, you end up walling yourself in.

The final song of the night was Biko, and while I do love the song, I had said to a friend before the concert that if I don’t hear it live, I wouldn’t feel like I was missing anything. I have to say that I was actually moved deeply during the performance of the song, perhaps because of the brief presentation about the Pussy Riot situation before the show (look it up), and also the knowledge of the injustice of Biko’s end, along with other situations that have happened historically both before and after the song was written and recorded. It is truly affecting to have the band basically stand stock still during the performance, and to have Gabriel end, as he always does with this song, “And the rest, as always, is up to you.” The idea that collective action, that we can make a difference, is what this song meant to me, hearing it last night. That’s what I take away from it on this experience.

What else do you want to know? The band was in fine shape. It was great to see both Manu Katché and David Sancious back with the ensemble. They both have a comfort and fluidity with their instruments that suits Gabriel’s music well. The old hands of Tony Levin and David Rhodes were comfortable and solid, giving just what is needed to Gabriel’s music. I also have to admit, that I’ve rather dismissed Rhodes’ contribution to the band in my mind over the year, but hearing him play last night, I do have to correct my assessment of him, and credit him for providing a lot of the “guts” of the music. I don’t necessarily think of Gabriel’s music as particularly guitar driven, but without it, there is a certain energy that is different.

I get to see this show again at the next to last date of the tour at Mohegan Sun, so I can check in again at that point, to reflect on how the show may have changed in the few weeks of touring between now and then.

by Michael Lord.

Photos by Elisa Noetinger

Link to our Back To Front Tour overview
Link to our So-jubilee overview