Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every dome should have one: Peter Gabriel - Live at the O2

© Simon Poulter 2013
For a self-confessed dilettante such as Peter Gabriel, who releases new studio albums with as much regularity as ice ages, I'm a tad overwhelmed by the relative bounty of seeing him live for the second time in three years.

Apart from anything else, how has he found the time to go out on the road again? It wasn't that long ago that Gabriel was touring his New Blood show of orchestral renderings of his greatest hits.

Then, 48 years after leaving Charterhouse to form Genesis, Gabriel finally took his gap year, travelling the world with second wife Meabh and their two young sons in what he called "The Year of Interesting Things".

But even rock star sabbaticals must be paid for, so last year Gabriel celebrated (belatedly) the 25th anniversary of his hit-stuffed So album with a US tour of the record in its entirety. And now, after a further break, presumably to do more interesting things, Gabriel has returned to the day job with a much anticipated European tour that this week brought him to London's Thames-side tent, the O2 Arena.

If anything at all can claim a long history in London's 'new' East End, Gabriel and the Greenwich venue go back to the end of the last century when it was merely the Millennium Dome. Then, Gabriel co-directed the Cirque du Soleil-like Millennium Dome Show, supplying the 'soundtrack' featuring contributions from the late Richie Havens, Neneh Cherry, Alison Goldfrapp and The Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan.

So, three years after bringing the guitar and drums-free New Blood tour to the O2, Gabriel's return - for Back To Front 2013 - is a more conventional affair, calling up his most trusted lieutenants, the flush-bonced Tony Levin (a Gabriel stalwart since 1976) and English guitarist David Rhodes, along with keyboard player David Sancious and electrifying Parisian, Manu Katché, on drums, all of whom were part of the original So tour 26 years ago. The line-up is augmented by Swedish singer-cellist Linnea Olsson and her compatriot Jennie Abrahamson on backing vocals.

'Conventional' formation notwithstanding, Gabriel has never been one for conventional anything. In his Genesis days he famously donned masks, headgear and costumes that invariably impeded his ability to get songwords out.

It was a theatricality few of his peers possessed 40 years ago, Bowie being the obvious exception. But in 2012, and at the age of 63, Gabriel is still charging about the stage, acting out songs, awkwardly dad-dancing and occasionally missing his cues. He's always done it and the audience of Gabriel-faithful accept he always will. What also hasn't changed is his remarkable voice - which, for a rock artist into his seventh decade is in truly fine fettle - or his love of doing things just that little bit differently.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
Which is why the show begins with the O2 house lights fully up as Armenian duduk player Lévon Minassian takes to the stage on his own and unannounced to play the hauntingly beautiful The Feeling Begins, the opening track of Passion, Gabriel's stunning soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ.

Minassian is no support act and his performance is just a prologue to the first of three sections of an evening built with typically artistic contrivance.

The first taste of the main event comes with Gabriel himself springing on stage, dressed in what looks like a dark black Mod's fishtail parka. In tow is Levin who provides gentle bass accompaniment to his Gabriel's piano on a work-in-progress, OBUT, a Randy Newman-like song being effectively demoed on the tour.

I could end the review right there: because, in just two songs, Gabriel has demonstrated himself at his most Gabrielesque - a lone performance from a Middle Eastern musician followed by a song that hasn't even been finished.

But that's the sort of idiosyncracy that keeps Gabriel going long after many of his peers - including the band that launched him - have stopped. Even for a trawl through the hits such as this show is, it is never going to be a straightforward rock concert ending with the obligatory fankuverymuchgoodnight.

It continues with the third song of the night, as Rhodes appears with an acoustic guitar and Sancious wearing an accordion. Any fears Gabriel might coming over all Mumford are soon allayed as a) no one else joins with a banjo and b) the band kick into a semi-unplugged version of Come Talk To Me, the honest-as-the-day-is-long confessional set during the singer's failing first marriage.

Gabriel is famous for his elaborate layering on record, but the stripped back approach, even in a venue as vast as the O2, works brilliantly. So goes the same with Shock The Monkey, a song even less likely to succeed semi-acoustically, but with this configuration, does so perfectly

The sparsity, with the house lights still up, continues with Family Snapshot, an old favourite from the third solo album, and concerning a lonely child's fixation with the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Always a powerful number, it marks the show's transition from semi-acoustic to the main course of full-on rock performance, as its mournful, piano-led introduction gives way to a power-chorded break that brings the house lights down and turns the stage lighting up to 11.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
It is during Family Snapshot that the amazing vocal talents of a tuneless, ability-free fucker in Seat 551, who insists on singing along profoundly off-key and at full pelt, prove unsustainable. A stern word soon takes care of his ruination of an otherwise early highlight in the show, much to the relief of everyone else in Block 404.

Vocal travesties amongst the puntership notwithstanding, Gabriel and his ensemble have hit their stride. Digging In The Dirt and Secret World, a brace from the 'divorce' album Us, rip the O2 apart, the former's restrained funk and repressed anger demonstrating Gabriel's kinship to that other member of rock's awkward squad David Byrne. Secret World's arcing theatre provides Rhodes with a platform to demonstrate how one man, in possession of a lump of wood, some strings and a plectrum can fill a 20,000-seat dome.

Having just reflected on his own marriage, Gabriel unearths The Family and the Fishing Net, a somewhat complex - and lengthy - track off his fourth solo album which, via some obscure lyrics, compares the act of getting hitched to the rituals of voodoo. Prescient in its original form, its inclusion in the set now might appear cute, but it provides a pounding springboard for another reach back into the past, No Self Control, Gabriel's hats off to greed which was even released as a single in 1980, perhaps to cash in on Kate Bush's atypically ethereal backing vocals.

The pre-So heads in the audience are, of course, besides themselves with this trawl through the distant past, and their glee is only amplified by the swirling acclamation of freedom, Solsbury Hill. Written mainly to express liberation from the restricted structure of rock star life, it fills the O2 with fresh vigour, 36 years after it was first committed to tape.

Gabriel's second act closes with another risky divert to something untried and new, as he debuts another box-fresh song, Why Don't You Show Yourself, written for the new Guillermo Arriaga film project, Words With Gods, and a tender love song that takes some of its musical cues from the orchestral work of the Scratch My Back album.

With that, and without any pause, Gabriel begins Act III - So. It has become somewhat fashionable for artists to tour complete classic albums. From Meatloaf to Kraftwerk, and Public Enemy to The Who, the heritage trail has provided a lucrative, if occasionally, uninspiring opportunity to recreate 45 minutes of vinyl for live audiences.

But as Gabriel explains, the restrictions of vinyl - and, in particular, the physical groove space occupied by bass notes - meant that many albums were something of a compromise when they were first released.

And so, So section of the Back To Front show is performed in the intended original sequence of the 1987 album which, after almost 20 years in the business, took Gabriel into the relatively uncharted territory (for him) of pop stardom.

There had been the odd Genesis single, like 1973's I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) to bother the charts, and the likes of Solsbury Hill and Shock The Monkey had been radio hits in their day. So was a different deal altogether, where Sledgehammer's mock Stax sound and the simply joyous In Your Eyes turning Gabriel into an MTV frequent flyer. Five of its songs even found their way into episodes of Miami Vice. 

Critics have since accused it of being a "desperate bid" for commercial success, but given that So finally enabled Gabriel to realise his teenage dream of being Otis Redding, the switch of gears from his fourth album's darkness to So's radio friendliness shouldn't be held against him. And, really, the shift was not that dramatic.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Katché's frantic hi-hat teasing heralds So's thunderous opening Red Rain, with the entire auditorium bathed in a biblical red light. If anything, songs like this on So brought to the Gabriel canon a completely new energy that continued with his subsequent releases.

Who knew, when Sledgehammer came out, that an old Carthusian from Surrey could play the soul star? 26 years ago it became Gabriel's biggest hit to date, boosted by its video featuring Nick Park's pre-Wallace & Gromit animations, and by the fact it got away with cheeky references to shagging (unlike Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax not so long before). It was also an infectious party hit, and still is, providing the largely greying, balding O2 audience with an opportunity to test their arthritis medication.

And who knew that someone from the depths of the progressive rock movement could write a song as tender as Don't Give Up? Even more disturbing is that this somnolent Depression-era romance was originally written as a duet with Dolly Parton in mind. Kate Bush, of course, made it to the eventual album and single release, but for this live tour, Abrahamson does the co-lead, and does so with an uncannily Dolly Parton-like vocal treatment.

That Voice Again was never one of So's strongest tracks, but it's something of a contractual obligation when doing the album in its entirety, soon making way for a spine-tingling rendition of Mercy Street. Clearly still a devotee of junior school 'music and movement' classes, Gabriel performs the song about tragic poet Anne Rice lying flat on his back. It is, we assume, intentional, and not the result of a trapped nerve. As he sings, stagehands push WALL-E-like lighting pods into place over him. It's all very theatrical. And, if I may, I'll use that word again - Gabrielesque.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Back on his feet, and the entire band get to test their funk chops again with Big Time, the wry swipe at fame which was recently covered by the equally wry Randy Newman on I'll Scratch Yours, the reciprocation of Gabriel's Scratch My Back covers project.

Seen, at the time, as being a little too much of a clone of Sledgehammer it bumps and grinds away pleasantly on this tour, raising the collective heart rate before the dystopian We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37) recounts the electric shock experiments of Stanley Milgram on obliging human lab rats in an attempt to understand obedience.

The idea that Gabriel sold out when he made So is, however, nonsense. True, it was a lot more accessible than its direct predecessor Peter Gabriel 4, but it still contained the layered complexity that is Gabriel's hallmark, and his occasional forays into the avant garde, such as his duet with Laurie Anderson, This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds). It was an obscurity on the album, even left off the vinyl release due to space constraints, but nevertheless part of the original album tour. Resurrected, 26 years on, it's still rather hard to nail down, but Rhodes adds a Nile Rodgers touch to it (ironic, seeing as Rodgers played on So), giving it an unexpected groove.

So's exposure to a wider audience was aided, in some small measure, by the American airplay of In Your Eyes as well as it's appearance in John Cusack's rom-com Say Anything. When Gabriel played the So show last year at the Hollywood Bowl, Cusack appeared at the side of the stage, a boombox held aloft as it was in the film's pivotal scene. Alas, no such showbusiness here, but there is little need for any peripheral adornment.

In Your Eyes is an uplifting, warmly infectious festival of a song and even after all these years of hearing it done live, and being a repeat fixture on Gabriel's live albums, it never fails to raise a grin, and certainly doesn't on this particular evening. As the intended conclusion of So it closes the third act, the band quickly reassembling for the evening's epilogue.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The Tower That Ate People, part of the Millennium Dome Show, brings the event to a spectacular finale, with Gabriel literally disappearing into a corkscrew tower that springs up out of a lighting ring.

Gabriel's tour for the Up album featured all sorts of elaborate staging like this, and until this point the Back To Front show has been somewhat devoid of such amusements.

That's not a complaint, however. After the bicycles, revolving stages and Zorb balls of Gabriel's tour to promote Up, his last full album of original material 11 years ago, the relative conventionality of this show is quite refreshing.

There is, though, one Gabriel convention still to uphold: Biko. Written about the 1977 death in police custody of South African civil rights campaigner Steve Biko, it has, since the 1980 tour, been an expected, no - demanded fixture of the live show.

Promoting the South African cause might seem dated now, 23 years after Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom, but Biko remains one of the most powerful, neck hair-rising anthems about humanity ever-written. Live, it still chills, driven by its thumping dum-dum-DUM, dum-dum-DUM rhythm and industrial-buzz bass notes, and the massed clench fist-salute of solidarity that accompanies the chorus.

Biko may have been written out of hippy idealism by one of rock's finest idealists, but it closes a show as memorable as any I've seen over the last 26 years since I saw Gabriel in concert for the first time, when So was 'just' his fifth solo album.

Hopefully there will be another next year and, who knows? Perhaps a return to the big tent parked on a bend in the Thames at Greenwich?

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