Still Growing Up
“Accessible” isn’t a word that’s usually associated with Peter Gabriel. The occasional radio hit like “In Your Eyes” or “Sledgehammer” notwithstanding, the majority of Gabriel’s body of work has been appreciated primarily by a corps of devout fans who view the one-time Genesis frontman and his discography of increasingly cross-cultural musical odysseys with varying degrees of reverence and awe. Up, Gabriel’s first studio album in ten years, was released in the fall of last year to generally positive reviews, though its first single, “The Barry Williams Show”, a send-up of exhibitionist daytime talk shows, suffered from dated subject material and failed to crack radio playlists.
Now on the second U.S. leg of his tour in support of Up, Gabriel seems as uninterested as ever in making hits. In contrast to this “music for music’s sake” attitude, he’s renowned for his live stage presence and his penchant for elaborate production numbers. The previous U.S. leg was mostly made up of indoor arena shows with the players performing “in the round” on a central, circular stage that also served as a multi-level launching platform for Gabriel’s arsenal of live eye candy. Having recently finished taking that show through Europe, the band is back stateside for a series of relatively cozy concerts on smaller, outdoor stages.
Appropriately for this clammy, grey night at the waterlogged PNC Bank Arts Center, Gabriel and the rest of his seven-piece band opened with “Red Rain”. Gabriel briefly took the microphone, as he did following nearly every song, to thank the crowd for their reception, then introduced “More Than This”, from Up.
After these two warm-up numbers, delivered competently but lacking a certain spunk, Gabriel and his band (save for drummer Ged Lynch) left their assigned stations to spin like tops at the front of the stage during an upbeat rendition of “Secret World”. That song, which was the theme of Gabriel’s last major tour, has often sounded better live than recorded, and it boosted the crowd’s energy to a higher level that they maintained for the duration of the concert.
The popular “Games Without Frontiers” followed. The crowd buzzed as Gabriel and his daughter Melanie, who has handled backing vocals on this tour, tooled around the stage on Segways in a synchronized dance of wheels, miming near-collisions in time with the chorus. This gave way to an a cappella intro to the ethereal “Mercy Street” as the stage darkened and a big, circular video screen behind the drum kit displayed an image of the full moon. “Don’t Give Up” gave Peter and Melanie a chance to do a father-daughter duet, but the female vocal part, which was originally recorded by Kate Bush, tested the limits of Melanie’s voice. A headgear-mounted camera rig that Gabriel wore during “Digging in the Dirt” gave the audience extreme, hypnotic close-ups of the bard’s face as he wandered around the stage.
“Growing Up”, the theme song of the tour, is about the evolution of male-female relationships through different phases of life. It also featured the main set piece: a giant, translucent plastic ball, about the size of a Chevy Suburban, that descended from the rafters onto Gabriel, who waited at center stage with arms stretched upward in an obvious fertilization metaphor. Once nestled inside, Gabriel seemed driven by the pulsating beat of the song to bounce around the stage like Evil Otto, at one point knocking over his longtime guitarist, David Rhodes, who didn’t miss a note. The crowd loved the ball, which behaved more like a larger-than-life extension of Gabriel than a stage prop. When the ball bounced, so did the audience.
Peter Gabriel is 53 now, and the fact that he’s getting a bit soft around the middle is difficult to disguise. Aside from a black, physique-concealing waistcoat, he doesn’t try, and his between-songs monologue included the smattering of cracks about advancing age and receding hairlines that is typical for performers entering this stage of their careers. Unlike his contemporaries, though, his self-deprecation doesn’t feel like an apology for getting old, and his behavior on stage was that of a man who is very comfortable in his skin. Gabriel’s performance was a clinic in showmanship: he danced, goose-stepped and even pelvic-thrusted his way through the set list, implying to the mixed-generation crowd that it was okay to gyrate along with him, even if they hadn’t brought their waistcoats.
The crowd’s gyrations were at their peak during the best-known songs, beginning with “Solsbury Hill”. As that song ended, the lights dimmed, Gabriel vanished and the band settled into a quiet, moderate-tempo jam session for a couple of minutes. As Gabriel reemerged from the shadows in a coat festooned with miniature spotlights, the band erupted into “Sledgehammer” as the audience roared its approval.
The festive mood was momentarily cut off when Gabriel prefaced the next song, “Signal to Noise”, with a mild swipe at U.S. foreign policy, comparing America’s position in the world to that of the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. The audience’s response to Gabriel’s politics was difficult to gauge: some listened, some cheered, others just talked among themselves while waiting for the music to start again.
The beautiful Sevara Nazarkhan, a singer from Uzbekistan who had performed the opening act, joined Gabriel for the finale, “In Your Eyes”. With mantis-like bassist Tony Levin providing the basso profundo title vocal and Nazarkhan handling the Youssou N’Dour part, the band brought the house down. “Come Talk to Me” and the touching “Father, Son” (inspired by yoga classes that Gabriel took with his 91-year-old father) closed out the show.
Peter Gabriel long ago carved out his own niche in popular music but continues to defy classification within it. His genuineness suggests that he would be doing what he does regardless of how many people were listening; his fans intuitively know this, which is why they listen. Though his Genesis pedigree probably helped him early in his career, it’s not difficult, nearly thirty years later, to imagine him having developed a comparable fan base without that notoriety. Because his albums emerge with the frequency of cicada seasons, it’s not clear how many more times we’ll have the opportunity to see Peter Gabriel live. Do it while you have the chance.