Peter Gabriel – Live at Red Rocks 2012

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.


‘Acoustic’ set:
(Untitled new song) 
“Come Talk to Me”
“Shock the Monkey”
“Family Snapshot”

‘Electric’ set:
“Digging in the Dirt”
“Secret World”
“The Family and the Fishing Net”
“No Self Control”
“Solsbury Hill”
“Washing of the Water”

The ‘So’ set:
“Red Rain”
“Don’t Give Up”
“That Voice Again”
“Mercy Street”
“Big Time”
“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  You can either buy double-CD versions or high-quality WAV files on a collectible USB.


Upcoming Music Releases – October 2012

There are several highly anticipated albums due out in October.  Here is a summary of what’s new & cool.


The Mountain Goats release new album Transcendental Youth on Merge Records.  It seems like yesterday when they released their commercial breakthrough album Tallahassee, but that was a full decade and seven (yes, seven) albums ago.  John Darnielle and crew are nothing if not prolific.  Early reports are that the new album finds Darnielle waxing poetic about hopelessness, substance abuse, and the darkness on the edge of town.

I’m now two full decades removed from second-year thermodynamics class, but some of the principles have stuck with me.   The second law of thermodynamics postulates that work is irreversible – for instance, heat can never be converted perfectly into useful work.  The leftover energy in a closed system, called entropy, is always positive and tends to accumulate over time.  This is the basic premise that makes perpetual motion machines impossible.  All of this is a strange jumping-off point for rock ‘n’ roll, but thermodynamics informs the new record by Muse.  The 2nd Law concludes with two tracks, named “Unsustainable” and “Isolated System”, which seem destined to push the band’s sonic envelope even further than the “Exogenesis” symphonic suite on 2009’s The Resistance album.  Muse has made a career out of “us against the world” polemics, so one suspects that entropy might be an apt metaphor for the ever-expanding sense of chaos and disorder and unsustainable growth in modern society. Muse artfully blends the power-trio dynamics of Rush with the fearless epic grandiosity of classic Queen.  Based on lead single “Madness”, it seems that Muse has made good on their promise to follow-up the sexy, modern synth sounds first explored on “Undisclosed Desires”.  A special edition of The 2nd Law is due out a week later, featuring CD, DVD, and vinyl versions of the record plus posters, wrapped in deluxe packaging.


AC Newman is set to release his third solo set of songs, titled Shut Down The Streets.  The New Pornographers front man occasionally steps away from the day job to exercise his power-pop muscles in a different context.  Judging by the album cover (admittedly an approach which may or may not be a good idea), expect the new album to be infused by a retro 1970’s singer-songwriter vibe.  But will an album supposedly informed by Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” go all out and bring the saxophones along for the ride?

The debut record by hotly-tipped UK quartet Alt-J finally gets a North American release on or around October 9th (reports differ).  An Awesome Wave has collected plaudits back home for its artistic bravery, combining elements of Radiohead’s push-pull electronics, Americana’s strong melodies, and a kitchen sink of world music rhythms.  Depending on the listener, this Mercury Prize nominated record could be an engaging amalgam of styles, or it could also quite easily be an unlistenable hodgepodge.  Your mileage may vary.


Ben Gibbard knows how to keep busy.  When being the front man for northwestern indie popsters Death Cab for Cutie wasn’t enough, Gibbard collaborated with the likes of Jimmy Tamborello (as The Postal Service) and Jay Farrar (on the soundtrack for a documentary about beat poet Jack Kerouac).  Gibbard has finally chosen to go it alone with debut album Former Lives.  While his vocal prowess sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, the man does have a knack for crafting interesting phrases and melodies.


For those that like their alt-rock to be cross-pollinated by sparkling synthesizers, Shiny Toy Guns are back with their third album release.  Original vocalist Carah Faye Charnow is back in the band after several years away, which has set the hearts of the many fans of debut album We Are Pilots all a-flutter.  Early reports suggest that III will be more electronic than the first two records, eschewing guitars in favour of a slicker synth-pop sound (think Depeche Mode but with a happier West Coast vibe).

The 25th anniversary re-release of hit album So comes as Peter Gabriel’s ‘Back to Front’ tour criss-crosses North America.  This is Gabriel’s most accessible (and, not surprisingly, most commercially successful) album, featuring bold and brassy songs like “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”.  The clever videos to promote these songs were MTV staples (side note for the kids – MTV actually used to show music videos all day long.  It was pretty awesome.  Ask your parents!).  “Red Rain”, “Don’t Give Up”, and “Mercy Street” have stayed in Gabriel’s live canon throughout the years.  Album closer “In Your Eyes” was made famous by its inclusion in the Cameron Crowe film Say Anything, and remains the best thing Peter Gabriel ever released.  So will be re-released in various formats, including a 3-CD set with two discs of live material and a half-speed 180-gram vinyl pressing that is already on my Christmas list.


Lovable curmudgeon Neil Young has teamed up with his Crazy Horse mates to release a second new album in 2012.  Psychedelic Pill is the first album of all-new material with the full line-up of Young, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Frank Sampedro since 2003’s ambitious Greendale project.  The lead-off track is a song called “Driftin’ Back” which clocks in at a few ticks shy of 28 minutes.  Drugs were taken.

Bonus Content!

The new release schedule for November and December looks like the usual fourth-quarter crap-a-thon of Christmas albums and greatest ‘hits’ collections.  In essence, albums for people that like music but don’t love music.  It may be awhile before the Craven Hermit has any new albums to ‘big up’, so in the meantime here is a pair of very worthy bonus releases that slipped through the cracks in September.


Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist for Radiohead, has built a healthy cottage industry of composing motion picture soundtracks.  He has teamed up once again with director Paul Thomas Anderson to write the music for new film The Master.  This is the movie that professes to NOT be about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology (yes, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm was NOT about Communism).  Greenwood is a master at writing off-kilter, moody pieces of music that seem claustrophobic and dischordant yet still manage to add tension and context to the moving pictures on screen.  If you liked his spooked, minimalist work in the film There Will Be Blood, you should also enjoy this new project.


R.E.M.’s fifth record was their last for record company IRS, and its success was perfectly timed.  Document broke the Athens, Georgia band wide open, promoting the college indie stars to the upper echelon of worldwide superstars.  Singles like “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” and anti-love song “The One I Love” still feature prominently on alternative rock radio today.  Deeper cuts, like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Disturbance at the Heron House” showed that their mainstream breakthrough didn’t come at the cost of the band’s collective conscience.  This newly released 25th anniversary edition includes a remastered edition of the original album, plus a cracking & snarling live disc from their 1987 European tour.

Bucket List Bands

Here’s a new challenge.  List ten bands that you have never seen in concert but, given the chance, you would go see in a heartbeat.  A few ground rules:

  • You have never seen the band (or artist) live in concert before, not even as an act opening for someone else.
  • The band (or artist) has to be touring semi-regularly, so defunct bands like R.E.M. don’t count (that’s a different challenge).
  • The band (or artist) has to be alive, so the Jimi Hendrix Experience doesn’t qualify (that’s a different challenge).

I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of great bands over the years, so I don’t have to put legendary acts like R.E.M., Radiohead, Wilco, Muse, Arcade Fire, Pink Floyd, The Police, Rush, Smashing Pumpkins, Neil Young, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen or Eric Clapton on my list.  However, there are still dozens of acts that I would love to see in concert for the first time.

Here’s my ‘bucket list’ of acts I’d like to see at least once in my lifetime, in alphabetical order:

  1. Beck
  2. The Decemberists
  3. Eels
  4. Fleet Foxes
  5. Fountains of Wayne
  6. Peter Gabriel
  7. Guster
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. My Morning Jacket
  10. Secret Machines
  11. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
  12. Spoon
  13. The Stone Roses
  14. Teenage Fanclub
  15. The Zombies

Okay, so I couldn’t whittle it down to ten bands.  I would go see any act on this list if they played anywhere near my hometown.  A few of them I’d even cross the country to check out.  Road trips rock.

I would love to see The National headline their own show, but I saw them open for R.E.M. in Burnaby a few years ago so they aren’t eligible for this challenge.  Still, I wish I’d noticed The National were playing the Orpheum in Vancouver last November a little sooner, because I would have jumped on a plane for sure.  Maybe later we’ll do an Opening Acts You’d Like To See As Headliners challenge.  Today’s challenge is all about bands you’ve never seen.

Surely you have your own bucket list of bands – just click “Reply” to post them!

Fond But Not In Love (part two)

Good practice, kids. Now it’s time for the easiest part of any coach’s job.  The cuts.  Although I wasn’t able to cut everyone I wanted to, I have cut a lot of you. Wendell is cut. Rudy is cut. Janey, you’re gone. Steven, I like your hustle. That’s why it was so hard to cut you. Congratulations, the rest of you made the team! Except you, you and you.

– Homer Simpson, pre-eminent football coach (“Bart Star” episode 5F03).

Here’s a few more albums that I really liked in 2011 but didn’t make the final cut:

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

The band Elbow has become a UK rock institution.  Their previous album, The Seldom Seen Kid, won the Mercury Prize as critic’s choice for album of the year in Britain.  This year, Build A Rocket Boys! was released to similar levels of acclaim.  Elbow has leveraged their talent for crafting ‘everyman’ anthems to maximum effect.  Lead-off track “The Birds” chugs along with electronic precision, while “Lippy Kids” wistfully gives the album its title.  “With Love” is the most engaging single here, using multi-layered vocals to carry the gorgeous melody.  The only problem with Build A Rocket Boys! is that it never quite captures the epic widescreen grandeur of previous works like The Seldom Seen Kid or Cast of Thousands. One or two more memorable tunes would have helped.

Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes

New England band Fountains of Wayne (the normally reliable power-popsters who creepily brought you the “Stacy’s Mom” video in which 12-year-old boys wanted to get busy with MILF Rachel Hunter) returned in 2011 with a new album of modern life pastiches.  The songs are enjoyable enough, particularly on the first half of the record.  “Richie and Ruben” is a clever mini-documentary about a duo of entrepreneurs without a clue, while “Action Hero” is a wonderful pencil sketch of a prototypical suburban father that’s come face-to-face with the inevitable before his time.  Unfortunately, Sky Full of Holes runs out of steam on Side ‘B’ and the songs become a little too power-pop-by-numbers.

Peter Gabriel – New Blood

The only thing keeping this album off of my Top 10 list was the caveat that the songs had to be new.  New Blood is a contemporary reworking of classic Peter Gabriel songs; this time instead of relying on traditional instrumentation (bass, guitars, keyboards and drum kit) the presentation is symphonic.  Recast in this new environment, “San Jacinto” feels re-inspired, and the lost classic “Wallflower” is injected with new life.  “Mercy Street”, already a tender ballad in its original form, fares well with the orchestral treatment, as does “Red Rain” and Gabriel’s biggest hit, “Solsbury Hill”.  The best re-working here is “In Your Eyes”, which cleverly substitutes cellos for guitar and bass to carry the melody and rhythm.  This album is yet more evidence that great songs will always be great songs regardless of sonic presentation.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

This album re-interprets all the best bits of 1980’s synth rock in a modern alternative rock context.  Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is chock full of musical ideas, splashed over two discs.  Thankfully the album is more about looking forward than reveling in nostalgia, and the tunes have more hooks than a tackle box.  Singles like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” are synth-pop masterpieces.  The only thing holding it back is its length; one gets the sense that it would have made a brilliant seventy-minute single album, rather than an overly optimistic double-album.  Mind you, that’s what cranky critics always say about double albums.

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

After going over-the-top urban with previous release Evil Urges, Jim James and co. return with a more groove-oriented album.  Circuital features epic, widescreen rock songs (notably the title track), balanced by pretty acoustic ballads like “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”“Victory Dance” gamely balances the constraints of modern alternative music with the conventions of 20th century Neil Young inspired country rock.  But overall, Circuital seems like a step back from the deliberate, tightly-wound claustrophobia of Evil Urges and the brilliant melodicism of Z.  But at least we were spared the indignity of another song like “Highly Suspicious”.

Music Challenge Day 23 – A Song That You Want To Play At Your Wedding

This is an interesting one, because three songs popped into my mind pretty much immediately (this perpetual bachelor is as surprised as anyone).

I wrote about a song on Ben Folds’ solo debut album on Challenge Day 4.  The last song on that album, “The Luckiest”, would make a lovely wedding song.  Aside from the gorgeous piano melody and the swelling strings, the sentiment of the words is pitch perfect.  The song touches on the theme of searching high & low, far & wide to find the right person to share your life.  And how, once those two people become bonded to each other, there’s a metaphysical permanence across space & time.  It’s a song that could have easily become schmaltzy in a lesser songwriter’s hands, but Folds captures the sentiment perfectly.

Another song that I’ve always loved is Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”.  This song, coincidentally, is from McCartney’s solo debut album from 1970.  Sir Paul reportedly played most (if not all) of the instruments on this recording by himself, and it sounds like a labour of love.  There isn’t a shred of doubt in his voice that he is over-the-moon crazy for his dear Linda.  The piano and guitar melodies would fit seamlessly into The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, which I suppose makes me Captain Obvious but it’s the highest compliment I can pay a song and songwriter.

But one song from Peter Gabriel’s recent release New Blood tops my list.  The new version of “In Your Eyes” is stunning.  Gabriel’s new album features re-interpretations of his songs, this time with tastefully-arranged symphonic orchestration instead of the conventional drums, guitars, and keyboards.  I love the way the strings carry the melody and the rhythm in this new version of the song.  I was initially concerned that the symphonic treatment would take away from the brilliance of the original record, but instead it reveals all-new facets of a great song.  The staccato rhythms are simultaneously playful and romantic, rooted in the earth while soaring with joy.

The lyric speaks to something more profound than love; ‘love’ is clearly an insufficient word to describe all the things that Peter is feeling about his subject.

(In your eyes) the light the heat
(In your eyes) I am complete
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
the resolution of all the fruitless searches
Oh, I see the light and the heat in your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes

I have looked high & low, far & wide for someone with that look in her eyes.  I don’t know if I believe in fate or destiny or any of that pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo.  But if there is any kind of blind justice in this world and I get profoundly, amazingly lucky maybe I will find her some day.  On occasion that’s the glimmer of hope that inspires me to keep looking.  And if I ever do find the woman with ‘the look’ in her eyes, I believe I’m going to need a tan-coloured trenchcoat and a boombox…