Peter Gabriel is probably the last artist you might expect to take a retrospective look back at his career. As the original singer of Genesis, he was obsessed with pushing the musical and theatrical envelopes further and further, choosing more elaborate stage costumes and more dramatic themes with each tour and album. After going solo in 1976, he proceeded to explore the darker side of humanity – themes like familial dysfunction and political persecution – through a series of self-titled albums. He’s not a musician that you would expect to tread water.
So it came as something of a surprise when Gabriel announced he was going to follow a current fad in rock ‘n’ roll circles – perform a popular album in its entirety – as part of his set-list. With legendary acts like Pink Floyd, The Who and Metallica getting in on the trend, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Gabriel acquiesced. It is testament to the strength of his So album, now 25 years after its original release, that Peter Gabriel would take a chance artistically and try to put his own personal spin on the concert gimmick.
What makes the ‘Back to Front’ 2012 tour intriguing is that Gabriel has reassembled most of the original touring band from the mid-1980s. Fans have become accustomed to seeing human thunderstorm Tony Levin holding down the bass notes and David Rhodes supplying the guitars on recent Gabriel tours. But having the rhythmic master Manu Katché ensconced behind the skins (shaking two trees) and multi-talented David Sancious tickling the ivories again is a real treat. Cellist Linnea Olsson and pianist Jennie Abrahamson are the new additions for 2012, performing a brief four-song set to open the shows and contributing backing vocals to the main event.
I had never seen Peter Gabriel live in concert, but he has long been on my ‘bucket list’ of artists. The closest that the ‘Back to Front’ tour was scheduled to come to my hometown was Denver, Colorado. Although 1000 miles is not exactly ‘close’, there are direct flights every day and the gig was at beautiful Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Couple that with a weekend show in the height of fall hiking season, and I pulled the trigger on a quick four-day road trip.
Red Rocks is probably the most beautiful concert venue in North America. It was built in between several huge red rock formations in the Rocky Mountain foothills southwest of Denver, near the town of Morrison. The show was scheduled to start at 8 pm on Sunday, September 30th, so I showed up early to walk around the park before entering the venue. There is a nice network of trails to explore:
Even the neighbourhood mule deer were excited about the prospect of a Peter Gabriel concert (their ears are perked up and ready to rock):
About an hour before show time, I made my way up the long south ramp into the venue. The ramp itself is something of an engineering marvel, contorting around the rocks while maintaining a reasonable grade:
At the terminus of a surprisingly long climb (which feels even longer at 6,400 feet above sea level) and after running the gauntlet of security and beer vendors, you emerge into the lower part of the amphitheatre. The stunning, illuminated face of Creation Rock looms over you from the north side of the venue:
While the south side of the amphitheatre is flanked by Ship Rock:
Promptly at 8 pm, Mr. Gabriel strolled out to centre stage to greet his audience. Dressed all in black, he explained that the show would start with a few numbers by Abrahamson and Olsson, then the full band would perform four acoustic numbers as an “appetizer”, followed by the “noisy, electric bit” for our “entrée”, concluding with the So album performed in its entirety as our “dessert”.
The acoustic set began with an untitled new number with an improvised lyric, which Gabriel managed to somehow flub within a couple of bars anyway. The audience had a good chuckle as Gabriel playfully scolded himself before restarting the song.
The bass groove of “Come Talk To Me” was Tony Levin’s first chance to shine. Whether playing standard bass, Chapman stick, or bass synth, the man is a groove machine. Later on he switched to his infamous Funk Fingers, the mini-drumstick finger extensions he invented for thwacking the bass strings with his right hand.
For a supposedly acoustic set, “Shock the Monkey” was still surprisingly electrified and powerful. The new arrangement also did little to diminish the quiet-loud dynamics of “Family Snapshot”.
Once the band was fully electrified, the party really got rocking. The bass notes underpinning “Digging in the Dirt” sounded positively subterranean – deep and thick and felt in the diaphragm as much as they were heard in the ears. For “Secret World”, the rhythm section locked into a solid, almost playful groove. The way that Manu Katché plays is so fluid and so musical, it brings far more to the song than just a beat. He’s like a poet that happens to speak using percussion instead of words.
On this night, “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “No Self Control” were played back-to-back. I thought it was a little odd for two of Gabriel’s noisiest, most melodically unsettling numbers to be played sequentially. I personally wish we had been treated to the gorgeous ballad “Wallflower” from the same era instead, especially in such beautiful natural surroundings on a clear autumn evening. But one got the feeling that the band was enjoying the opportunity to let rip on some challenging songs.
“Solsbury Hill” re-energized the crowd, with its oddly engaging meter and playful dance steps. Gabriel led Levin and Rhodes around the stage as his ‘happy minstrels’, and the audience responded by jumping to their feet to dance along. “Washing of the Water” seemed like a strange way to wrap up an electric set of songs, but Gabriel hit all the high notes (impressive at 6,400 feet) and pulled it off with great aplomb. The song represents a period of great turmoil in his personal life; I suspect that Gabriel chooses to keep it in his setlist because of its cathartic, almost baptismal lyrics.
And so it was finally time for So. Gabriel prefaced the performance by explaining that “In Your Eyes” was always meant to be the last song on the album. However, one of the limits of the vinyl era was that the last song on each side of the record suffers from limited bass. I think this is because the linear velocity of the needle in the groove is slowest near the centre of a record. To get around this limitation, “In Your Eyes” was moved to the start of Side B on vinyl pressings, which carried over into the earlier CD versions. For the 2012 tour (and for the forthcoming re-releases of So), the song has apparently been relocated to its rightful place at the end of the record.
“Red Rain” kicked off the “dessert set”, with the band bathed in stunning red light. This was another chance for Levin and Katché in particular to show off their formidable talents. The funky Stax soul of “Sledgehammer” came across great, with the audience freely joining in at all the appropriate spots. Gabriel even infused the vocals with all the faux-sexy overt gestures his fans have come to adore over the years.
For “Don’t Give Up”, Jennie Abrahamson did an admirable job of replicating the call & response vocals famously contributed to the album version by Kate Bush. The timbre of her voice adeptly matches the fragile beauty of Bush’s singing and conveys the reassuring, almost matronly meaning of the lyric.
After the multi-part harmonic a cappella opening, Gabriel performed the rest of “Mercy Street” laying face-up at center stage, staring skyward at the camera in the circular lighting assembly. He returned to his keyboard rig for the meaty, beaty, big & bouncy intro to “Big Time”. Of all the numbers on So, “Big Time” is perhaps the one that translates most clumsily to 2012. The unabashedly synthetic melodies of the song are so strongly associated with the mid-1980s that they almost feel foreign in the present day. In the 50,000 watt glow of primary-coloured stage lighting, the band did their best to recreate the era of Reagan/Thatcher, legwarmers and MTV for the huddled masses.
“We Do What We’re Told” and “This Is The Picture” haven’t been in Gabriel’s setlist in decades, if indeed they ever were. It’s not fair to label these the ‘filler’ on the album, since their inclusion was much more about atmospherics and experimentation than the big commercial singles. “This Is The Picture” is probably the most fully realized example of worldbeat in the Peter Gabriel solo canon. For this song, all five musicians donned portable instruments (keytars, drum machines, and the like) and got the funk out at centre stage.
And then it was time for the highlight of the night. I think “In Your Eyes” is the greatest thing that Peter Gabriel ever wrote. I will admit to being emotionally overwhelmed when I finally got to see it performed live in concert. There is just something magical about how the melody builds on the rhythm, while the rhythm builds on the melody, layer by layer, that is simply astonishing. Any time you’re at your lowest point, haunted by the fear that you may never find someone to share your life with, you can always come back to the words and music of “In Your Eyes” for inspiration.
(In your eyes)
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
(In your eyes)
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
(In your eyes)
I see the light and the heat
(In your eyes)
I want to be that complete
Everyone at Red Rocks should have been blessed with someone’s hand to squeeze, and someone’s ear to whisper into, as this song unfolded on stage.
With the dinner courses complete, it was time for the band to dash offstage for the obligatory 2-minute encore break. They were coaxed back to the stage to do two more numbers. “The Tower That Ate People”, from his OVO record, was the big production number of the evening. As the song progressed, the lighting rig descended to the stage and encircled Gabriel. When the lighting rig began to rise again, it drew out a brilliant white tube that encapsulated the singer. At the climax of the song, the audience could see the singer flailing against the silken walls of his prison. Perhaps the tube was a metaphor for how humanity has become enslaved by the machinery of its own creation. Or perhaps it just looked cool.
The show ended with Peter Gabriel’s musical tribute to South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. One by one, the band members left the stage until Manu Katché finally laid down his sticks. It was a fitting end to a full evening of music that had begun with people filtering into Red Rocks while Paul Simon’s version of “Biko” played over the PA system.
(Untitled new song)
“Come Talk to Me”
“Shock the Monkey”
“Digging in the Dirt”
“The Family and the Fishing Net”
“No Self Control”
“Washing of the Water”
The ‘So’ set:
“Don’t Give Up”
“That Voice Again”
“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”
“This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”
“In Your Eyes”
“The Tower That Ate People”
Post-Script: A few nights after the Red Rocks show, the ‘Back to Front’ tour rolled into Los Angeles for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. The intro to “In Your Eyes” featured the incomparable Lloyd Dobler (aka John Cusack) walking on stage with a boombox. File under ‘awesome’.
Post-Post-Script: Soundboard recordings of all the shows on the ‘Back to Front’ tour are available from TheMusic via www.petergabriel.com. You can either buy double-CD versions or high-quality WAV files on a collectible USB.