Peter Gabriel – AO Arena, Manchester – 23rd June 2023
PG – ‘Gabe’ – the Angel Gabriel – is back on tour with new music to boot. Seems like only yesterday…but maybe not quite. We turn out to pay our respects.
New music and a new tour prompted thoughts about the ages of Peter Gabriel. We head back forty years to Peter Gabriel Plays Live – an oft-overlooked gem when it comes to assessing the great all-time live albums. One that covers the Gabriel I-IV period, or ‘Car’ to ‘Security’ for those who like to name those first four self-titled albums. The first era of PG if you will and for many, the classic albums and live shows that saw him breaking barriers by taking a walk through the audience to arrive onstage and also crowd surf with leaps of faith as he sang Lay Your Hands On Me – and we did!
The second era of PG might start mid-Eighties, with the commercial giant that was So, the video ingenuity of Sledgehammer, championing Human Rights and political meanderings and followed by Us and Up where the production moved into arena scale. More ambitious and culminating with the ‘in the round’ shows around the 2003/4 Growing Up period. Pedal bikes, zorb balls and hanging upside down (for, erm, Downside Up) all part of the spectacle.
I guess we’re now into era three, possibly the final period of Peter Gabriel’s career as the man eases remarkably smoothly into his seventies. The era of experimentation with back scratching/covers and New Blood orchestral interpretations of his legacy has passed and suddenly, we have – shock horror – new music. A man with fingers in many pies, the inordinate wait for said new music that will form the i/o album, is over – kind of – as new songs with their different mixes have peppered his release schedule (or at least the lunar cycle) over the past few months. They now pepper the new live set with eleven new songs – approximately half when the stats come through – that alternate with something more familiar. One old, one new sort of thing. It’s a balance that might have been the cause of some debate in the fanbase, but hey ho – our only beef is the absence of Secret World…
So far, I’ve managed to mainly avoid listening to the Full Moon releases of the new songs – I’d rather digest a full album, whenever it may arrive, than be fed a series of amuse bouches, so much of the set is new to these ears although the opening shot sees the band gathered intimately in a dimly lit (Gabriel catches a falling spark and ignites a campfire) and low key opening that worked as a ‘starter’ of the Back To Front tour.
Having acquired the first of his basic needs, he brings out his longest-serving wingman, Tony Levin for Washing Of The Water while the remainder of the band shortly joins the small group to sit in an open circle for a funkily rustic Growing Up. Quite some contrast to Gabriel bouncing around in a zorb ball singing how his ghost likes to travel. There’s a strong backbone to the teamsheet with serial offenders Levin, David Rhodes and Manu Katche at the core of the biggest band he’s ever been out with; the strings, brass and backing vocalists all multitask effortlessly and with more than jot of enthusiasm for their work alongside the master.
As everyone takes their place on the tiered arc that provides the stage set – like the Playtime 1988 blocks have weathered smooth – not wanting to single anyone out in particular, Ayanna Witter-Johnson turns in a mentioned in dispatches performance on cello and more than significant backing vocals as she both sings and plays out the Kate Bush role on Don’t Give Up atop a rear stage platform with Gabriel. With her cello resonating, occasionally joined by a bowed bass from Levin (who’s occasionally glimpsed picking up his camera for a few choice photo opportunities), the sound is refined and textured; a million miles away from Gabriel past – check Youtube for a time tunnel back to Rockpalast 1978 and a rapid fire and aggressively punky On The Air by contrast.
What King Crimson would call a ‘double trio’ of new songs form the meat of the first set. Radiohead broody and moody, deliberate and low key, the strings and brass on Playing For Time could be from the Elbow/Guy Garvey songbook, contemplating the passage of time, maybe dipping into the emotions of Father Son. Intimate and reflective, “stuff coming out, stuff going in,” he sings in i/o while frequently shifting into a higher falsetto register. His voice has weathered well and he’s in as good a shape as any 73 year old has their right to be. Fortunately, Olive Tree picks up the tempo in the way that his old drummer mate Phil would have once done in his solo work. It sets the stall out for Sledgehammer so we don’t put out our aging joints when we jump for joy when he satisfies those who don’t cry out, but might be thinking “play one we know!“
Completing set 1 with the shot of adrenalin, there’s a chance to reflect on the visuals where Gabriel has partnered with an assortment of visual artists whose work plays out on the backscreens that sit beneath the huge circular screen and dipping and spiraling wide spotlights that offer a reminder of the Full Moon philosophy. The immersive experience, always a key calling card when PG comes to town, is alive and kicking as he continues to embrace technology and where it may lead in portraying his art.
The second half starts ominously with a screen lowered across the front width of the stage. The chilling Darkness with Gabriel in creeping silhouette, is played out from behind the screen, invoking the character from Intruder. However, we’re lulled by the otherworldly Love Can Heal where he paints abstract designs on the light-sensitive screen with some light source. All very arty with a suitably spectral and celestial soundtrack.
The sobriety and sombre nature of the new material continues although Road To Joy falls into the same bracket as Sledgehammer and Big Time, with a hint of the “brick by brick by brick” section of The Tower That Ate People. PG even goes on a little circular trail centre stage on one of his regular forays out from behind his keyboard set up; wandering the stage lip and working the tiers with the tambourine – even after all these years, still vaguely self-conscious with his shuffle dance and occasionally joining Levin, Rhodes and a.n.other in a choreographed line-up.
With And Still and The Court, we go minimal with the stark Digging In The Dirt-esque sonics and minimalist/dark side experimentation of the latter fitting the less is more bill. While the subtlety of the new material makes for a more intimate listen, the swell at the end of Live And Let Live with the overwhelming waves of colour and carnival of sound are the likes of which you see in a Coldplay stadium show.
The oldies that might now earn the term ‘crowdpleaser’ are saved for the very end. We’re back to ‘era 1’ for what might, along with Levin and Rhodes, be the first names on the teamsheet as Solsbury Hill and Biko sandwich a celebratory In Your Eyes. Far from being the heritage show that musicians in his bracket might present (and yes, we’ve had a release with Big Time and Red Rain), it’s business as usual for Peter Gabriel, which is always moving forward. His first album back in ’77 was billed as ‘expect the unexpected’. That’s never really changed.
He spends time at the opening of the show talking about time. It’s a clear thread. Visions of mortality maybe? Springsteen has done the same on his recent outings, saying how: “at 15 it’s all tomorrows, at 73 it’s a lot of goodbyes.” And while Springsteen may still be The Boss, PG is surely The Master. A musician whose vision is always on the pulse of innovation. We’ve been privileged to seize the moment with PG.
Photos from the show at the O2 Arena, London.
All concert photography by Graham Hilling. You can check out more of his work on his website, here.
Categories: Live Reviews