Like most of his career, Peter Gabriel’s current Back to Front tour is more unusual than it appears. Just 16 dates, all in the U.S. and Canada, this limited run centers on the 25th anniversary (one year late) of his landmark 1986 So album, with radio favorites and deep cuts added to the mix. An exciting undertaking, made more so by how difficult Gabriel has been to catch in his pop guise in recent years.
Due to his broad range of projects and tours limited in time, geography, and style, the closest I had ever come was a screening of the final 1986 Conspiracy of Hope Concert for Amnesty International. Even in 2-D, Gabriel’s brief performance was mesmerizing. So had been released just one month before.
Unlike his recent orchestral tours, which eschewed the use of guitar and drums, Back to Front revisits much of So‘s original arrangements and musicians, with long-time bassist/keyboard player Tony Levin, also known for his work with King Crimson; long-time guitarist David Rhodes; guitarist and original keyboard player of the E Street Band, David Sancious; and Manu Katché, also known for his studio and touring work with Sting. Swedish singer/musicians Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olson complete the lineup, singing backup and lead with Gabriel and performing a four-song opener on piano and cello.
Dividing the show into three parts—acoustic/process, electric, and So—Gabriel began his look back on September 23 at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY, by looking forward, opening with the unfinished “Obut”, a bluesy, Randy Newmanesque lament with gibberish as temporary lyrics featuring Gabriel on piano and Levin on bass. Stripped-down versions of “Come Talk to Me” and “Shock the Monkey” with full band followed, advancing the show slowly but firmly into the past.
The night’s one major party foul occurred during this short set. The house lights, kept on, left much of the audience unfocused and confused, prompting some to holler in complaint. From the stage their shouts were garbled, sounding more like hooliganism than help. Gabriel played on with aplomb, but the distraction was unfortunate. The shutdown of the house lights at a crescendo in “Family Snapshot” brought both cheers and relief. The show’s remaining sets followed without further incident, beginning with a desperate, growling “Digging in the Dirt.”
Much of the middle, electrified set was geared toward the obscure, with “The Family and the Fishing Net” at its center. As prolific as Gabriel’s 45-year career has been, his oeuvre contains surprisingly few popular singles. But while Gabriel would deliver nearly every hit or casually recognizable tune by night’s end, (even relative) obscurity is the rule to the hits’ exception. “No Self Control”, however, ramped up the familiarity, which exploded into the skipping “Solsbury Hill”, bringing the audience to its feet. It’s unfathomable that this single, Gabriel’s first post-Genesis, is 35 years old.
At the one-hour mark, the much-anticipated centerpiece of the evening began: So, in its entirety, in the track order Gabriel originally intended, placing “In Your Eyes” as both climax and finale. The only thing missing from opening track “Red Rain” was its signature hi-hats.
Gabriel’s band was solid, consummate professionals who have earned their reputations and longevity. Abrahamson and Olsson, meanwhile, achieved what few backup singers seem to: they served the songs. Abrahamson soared higher through “Don’t Give Up” than Kate Bush, and she and Olsson, swaying in flowing black like little birds, brought energy and substance to the Laurie Anderson collaboration “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”. “Mercy Street” was haunting, though a little rushed, delivered by Gabriel from a dreaming position on the stage floor, while “That Voice Again” jumped its track at the start but righted itself midway through. So, too, has its share of obscurity, as impressive for how unbefitting an album it is for the mainstream as it is for breaking into it.
“Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”—breakout hits I have generally loathed since 1986—had even me singing along as Gabriel struck muscleman poses and strutted around the stage. His performance throughout was stellar, his voice retaining both the belt and whisper of its youth. He’s still hitting the high notes, though aiming for fewer of them, and his early raw hunger has matured into a smooth, gravelly strength. He makes it look effortless.
Opening notwithstanding, Back to Front relies heavily on lighting—and the lack thereof, often hiding the players’ faces in long, angular shadows. With few props and only one major set piece (a spiraling cloth tower that consumes Gabriel during the encore “The Tower That Ate People”), the set’s tall mobile lighting jibs, based on Gabriel’s ideas for the original So tour, also served as stage characters. Manipulated by crew wearing stage blacks and fencing masks, the jointed cranes bent and hovered, comforted and threatened. Man and machine together were used to their fullest effect in “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”, lined up along the footlights, obscuring the musicians. Echoing the song’s themes of authority and obedience, some crew pivoted their lights in unison, while others faced the audience: feet planted, arms folded, anonymous. The simple staging grounded a song whose poignancy could have been lost. The instrument techs, in contrast, ran interference in berry-colored scrubs.
The effect is techy and organic, lo-fi and modern, spectacular and modest. The sparse set, heavy clothes, and omnipresent technology convey perhaps a too-post-apocalyptic feel, but for all the darkness, the band delivered with passion and light, often laughing, shuffling, Monkee-stepping, and dancing in circles. Gabriel made no grand entrances, banged no gongs. He strolled on stage in full light to introduce the opening band and later concluded the main set by thanking everyone in the production, crew included. Though staged (with what can only loosely be called choreography), the show in general and Gabriel in particular were conspicuously devoid of artifice or pretension.
The final song of the main set, “In Your Eyes”, brought a rainbow of color and cheers to the amphitheatre. Levin contributed the Ronnie Bright basso line; Gabriel and Abrahamson, the Youssou N’Dour’s Wolof translation. All these years later, it remains one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, made all the more beautiful by the smiles still emanating from musicians who have played it countless times for more than two-and-a-half decades and from an audience who has listened to it equally as many.
The concert concluded with Gabriel’s traditional encore “Biko”, a moving tribute performed stock-still but for a pumping fist in the air. It felt a disservice to the band’s performance that the Jones Beach audience failed to carry the song on after the last band member had exited; but despite this lack of reciprocity, the post-show crowds seemed happy nonetheless. Gabriel had delivered a performance at once joyous and mournful, fervent and comforting, dramatic and sincere. Fuller now in both voice and body, he is no longer that sexy young pup of that concert film, but the fire in the eyes and in the belly remains.