Saturday, September 29, 2012

A More Than 'So'-So Show, In My Eyes -- Chicago Concert Review: Peter Gabriel - 'So': Back to Front

Concert Review

Peter Gabriel
United Center, Chicago
September 27, 2012

I have always considered Peter Gabriel an artist of great integrity, all the more so because he has resisted milking the cash cow of a Genesis reunion. So it seemed somewhat askew that without having released a new album of original music in 10 years, and only 2 in the last 20, he is touring around the conceit (gimmick?) of playing his most commercially successful album—1986’s So—in its entirety.

That the current tour brought him back to the United Center just 15 months after his more unique outing with the New Blood Orchestra failed to fill the joint—even if Thursday’s gig was also well shy of full—made the occasion seem all the more economically enterprising.

So be it.

I am all for extoling great albums—and the art form itself—and even if the recent trend of classic rock tours being marketed around in-full live renditions of landmark recordings saps some of the surprise and spontaneity out of concert performances, you know you’ll be hearing stuff you like for at least 40 minutes.

And while I don’t think So is Gabriel’s best solo album—that would probably be his third eponymous one, released in 1980—nor is it precisely its 25th anniversary anymore, it still holds up as an excellent piece of music that was a joy to hear in full (only purists will care that “In Your Eyes” was moved to the end onstage and played as an extended version).

Of course, being the brilliant and innovative artist that he is, Gabriel didn’t just take the stage with his band—musicians who had played on So and its terrific tour I caught in 1987—and dive into album opener “Red Rain” (following three nights of “Purple Rain” at the same venue).

Having, at 8pm sharp, introduced a pair of background singers—Swedes Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson—who delivered a pleasant 4-song opening set in lieu of Ane Brun who had dropped off the tour due to illness, Peter reappeared at 8:40, sitting a piano with the house lights up and initially accompanied only by bassist Tony Levin, to begin his performance with a new song in progress called “OBUT.” It sounded pretty good on a first hearing.

Given rock concert convention, it felt a bit odd that even as guitarist David Rhodes, drummer Manu Katché and original E Street Band keyboardist David Sancious joined the action (along with the background vocalists), the house lights remained up for the next 3-1/2 songs. But luckily the crowd remained respectfully quiet and in a weird way, I was able to better focus on the compositions themselves as Gabriel delivered emotive acoustic versions—during what he called the first of the concert’s three parts—of “Come Talk to Me,” “Shock the Monkey” and “Family Snapshot” from albums that preceded and followed So.

During the last song above, a jolt of electricity surged through the band as the house lights came down. With greater amplification and a bit more punch, the ensemble mined Gabriel’s stellar catalog for six songs, including a sweet version of “Solsbury Hill.”

Although this was supposedly still part of the appetizer before the entrée of So in full, I was impressed by how unrushed Gabriel and crew were in delivering lengthy, delicate and/or complex renditions of lesser-known gems like “Secret World,” “The Family and the Fishing Net,” “No Self Control” and “Washing of the Water.” (Though I’m naming most of it, you can see the full setlist on

After about an hour, with scant introduction, Gabriel launched into “Red Rain.” Although his voice, at age 62, is a touch gruffer than in his younger days, it is still a terrifically impressive instrument, perhaps even with added gravity due to the slight rasp. And though he is not the onstage dervish he was in delivering the 1987 show I still recall as outstanding, despite a bit of paunch he brought some fun physicality to “Sledgehammer.”

Though I have never considered it my favorite song on the album, “Don’t Give Up” was probably the most sublimely rendered on this night, with Abrahamson sounding fantastic on the Kate Bush part. Gabriel sang “Mercy Street” theatrically lying on his back and aptly illustrated that there was much artistry to a “filler” song like “We Do What We’re Told,” which came off better than the more commercial “Big Time.”

Although I have heard slightly more ebullient renditions of “In Your Eyes,” the elongated live version featured great drumming from Katché and as a set-closing showcase, reiterated that it has long superseded “Sledgehammer” as So’s centerpiece song.

Gabriel ended the highly enjoyable evening—which suffered only slightly from the premeditated pacing—with a 2-song encore. I didn’t recognize the first tune, “The Tower That Ate People,” but it sounded good and featured the show’s most elaborate set design, with a pretty nifty twist at the end (see photo below).

The show closed with “Biko,” one of the greatest songs of social activism every written and one of rock’s most gripping show closers ever, but on this night it felt somewhat forced and out of place. Particularly when, instead of the crowd continuing to chant “Uh-uh-ohhh” long after the musicians walk off stage—as in the past—the chanting stopped when the song did, and was almost immediately followed by an announcement that you could buy an official bootleg of the show by going to Peter Gabriel’s website.

“Biko”—about slain South African anti-aparteid activist Stephen Biko—is so good as to never be bad to hear, but as I’ve shared with Mr. Gabriel (though his Facebook page) it would’ve been special to hear “Games Without Frontiers” or even Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” The latter would’ve been an especially huge surprise, but on an evening that was So prefabicated, this monkey would’ve enjoyed being shocked by a rather unexpected ending. (And not the kind Prince delivered on Monday.)

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