Chicago, IL- United Center - September 27, 2012
Six songs into Peter Gabriel's concert at the United Center in Chicago, the drum loop of "Secret World" built dramatic tension usually reserved for a cinematic thriller. In the two decades since "Secret World" appeared on Us in 1992, it's a song that hasn't lit up radio dials, but anyone who has witnessed Peter Gabriel in concert knows it's a defining moment of any show. As Gabriel whispered "shhh" into his microphone, the few remaining in their seats stood up because they were intrinsically aware something magical was about to happen. Gabriel's longtime guitarist David Rhodes tickled his guitar strings and took the song into a muscular musical terrain that matched the concentration of Gabriel's lyrics and themes. On his 1992 blistering first person narrative Us Gabriel took us beneath the surface of beauty into a confused and bleeding soul yearning for compassion and understanding. He has always matched these deeply personal declarations with some of the most bracing arrangements imaginable. Throughout his twenty-one song set on the Back To Front tour, Gabriel revisited these themes time and time again and the striking lyric imagery was only matched by the steely musical arrangements. No other living musician has a body of work that provides a more absorbing emotional pull. I always try to find something in an artist's work I can wrap not just my mind around, but more importantly, my heart. Every time Peter Gabriel stands behind a microphone, he goes deeper than anyone dares. He digs up memories from the past, makes us acknowledge the battle scars and encourages us to find a way to heal. Despite the fact that his current tour is behind a record more than a quarter of a century old, Peter Gabriel concerts are places we go in the hopes that when we leave, we walk away a better person with a tighter grasp on the mysteries that often keep us from attaining greatness.
When Peter Gabriel took to the United Center stage, it was inconspicuous as he simply walked up to the microphone to talk to the audience with the house lights still on. He explained the show would take place over three segments- an acoustic one, a full band electric performance and then his seminal 1986 album So in its entirety. He then welcomed longtime bass player Tony Levin and the two of them debuted a new and unfinished song "OBUT" which is most likely in its early stages of development. As Gabriel finished singing behind a big baby grand piano, he welcomed the other five musicians who would join them on the stage. What differentiates this backing band from previous tours is the core band consists of the same five individuals who toured behind So in 1986 and 1987 along with Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson on backing vocals. With the band onstage, they delivered a pair of acoustic songs reverberated throughout the arena – "Come Talk To Me" and "Shock the Monkey" the latter of which brought the entire arena to their feet and clapped along. His first US Top-40 hit enlivens regardless of the presentation. The sweeping "Family Snapshot" began with Gabriel behind the piano and as the band fully synthesized chemistry came to fruition and kicked in full force, the arena went dark to great effect and the electric portion of the set took off. The subconscious metallic "Digging in the Dirt" flourished under the direction of the tight band, the jaunty and joyous "Solsbury Hill" received a enormous endorsement from the crowd but it was the somber "Washing of the Water" which probably provided the crowd the evening's most startling look in the mirror. Listening to "Washing of the Water" makes you want to crawl back into the womb as his vocals exude such wisdom and warmth. The lyrics are poetic and paired with the solemn musical arrangements that make you mourn and celebrate all the same. As he crooned, "Bring me something, to take this pain away" at the songs conclusion, it took great strength to hold back to emotions within. Who has not felt alone and despondent? Yet because we know others feel alike, there is a sense of reassurance knowing we are not alone.
One of the reasons Peter Gabriel tours are events are not just because they are infrequent, but because of the vision he brings to the stage. Despite fewer theatrics this time out, five crane-operated lights provided a sprawling design of shadows and light throughout the entire show. "The Family and the Fishing Net" and "No Self Control" found the crew manning the lights in a circular fashion giving the screens on opposite ends of the stage a arresting visual most appreciated by the crowd in the upper rafters. If the performances were not enough, Gabriel gave the crowd the impression of being inside its own music video. The circular prop at the top of the lighting rig encapsulated Gabriel during the encore performance of the Ovo track "The Tower That Ate People" and as imposing as all these tricks were, it never once took away from the music. Peter Gabriel has always been a visually remarkable audience going back to his days with Genesis, but what makes his non-musical achievements so grand is they always matched the music and his current stage design is no different.
Peter Gabriel has always been a peculiar artist, never following trends or concerning himself with what other people think. Virtually no one would have their greatest commercial success and wait six years to follow it up as he did. Further, no one would wait another ten for the next one. Everything he dedicates himself to will not see the light of day until he feels it is ready. There is no science to his artistry and while this can be maddening for fans like me, I understand it. He carries not just his career in the balance, but the breadth of his work as well. There is a reason his work is an emotional tour de force traveling straight into your heart and psyche like no one else would dare. After writing, producing, recording and touring his records he most likely is physically and emotionally depleted. Yet every release is the embodiment of several years work from his studio work, side projects, soundtrack work to his upcoming six-disc mammoth box set celebrating the 25th anniversary of So. For a man who rarely looks to the past, this is a unusual choice and touring behind it is even more curious, especially when the tour consists of sixteen total dates with no further ones planned. It does not really matter why he is touring now, all I can tell you are that it is highly likely it will not return, so see it while you can.
So is one of the most vital records not just of the 1980s but also from the last thirty years. It's every bit of a cultural touchstone as Paul Simon's Graceland and more than a quarter of a century later, every last note sounds timeless. So how did it hold up in concert? Spectacularly well. Gabriel assembled the same five-piece core band who toured with him from the start of the So tour in 1986-87. Guitarist David Rhodes and bassist/ stickman Tony Levin predated the So tour and have been next to Gabriel ever since. Drummer Manu Katché adds slight touches to the rhythm matching the undercurrent of Tony Levin's imposing bass. Keyboardist David Sancious brought many of the songs to life with broad-brush strokes of his keys while Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson flawlessly accentuated each song with their lilting vocals helping Gabriel's own soar without ever overpowering them. You can only take a new batch of songs on the road once and see them flourish under the dark of night with transporting the audience. So is the album and tour that defined Gabriel and seeing him back onstage with the same musicians is something to not take lightly. The seven musicians on the stage are a force to be reckoned with. The performance of So was an unearthly experience. While Gabriel is not the first artist to perform an album top-to-bottom, few have done it better. So remains beautiful and timeless and the performance was spellbinding as Gabriel went into the inner child of each audience member and the band replicated the exotic music to pinpoint perfection. Manu Katché's drums busted to life on "Big Time" and delivered knock-outs on "Sledgehammer" and "That Voice Again" while Sancious found the perfect hue for "Red Rain", "Mercy Street", "This is the Picture" and of course "In Your Eyes" for which there are no words. It is more than a song, but a cultural touchstone for most of the audience and will most likely be the song Peter Gabriel is remembered for decades from now. The band stridently did this material justice in ways they have never done before which is a feat all unto itself.
Beneath the extraordinary musicianship, the hits, the cinéma vérité lighting and videos there was a crowd who for at least one night was reawaken to the intricate matters of our minds. I speak of this ad nauseum in my reviews not because I believe art is essentially a mirror to our fears and desires. By going over it with a fine toothcomb there is something philosophical and weighty not just to be found but experienced. During the evening's final song, "Biko", Gabriel and his band did not just overpower the audience, but were the soundtrack to a world that is ever changing. Manu Katché's drums kept the beat, as the band and audience became one with their "oh-oh-ohhh" chants, which continued as each musician left the stage one-by-one until only Katché was left with the big beat. When that final note was struck, he left the stage and in the darkness, the "oh-oh-ohhh" chants continued. This was not a mere call-and-response, but a call to arms in hopes the chant will last long after the house lights go on. The power of art has always had the potential to make us greater than who we think we can be. Listening to Peter Gabriel is as if we have been blessed with a guide from above who will help us make sense of the chaos and injustice in this world, but within as well. He has shown us the way, given us the tools and now it is up to us to make the change. The 2012 Back To Front tour is a celebration not just of the So record but a deep invigorating evening full of soul searching tales brought to life by a buoyant band who is every bit as good as they were twenty-five years ago.
Peter Gabriel will be on tour through October 14. It is unlikely there will be further dates added before 2014, so this is a must-see ticket. The six-disc anniversary edition of So will arrive in stores on October 23.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
So (25th Anniversary Immersion Box)
So (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)