Quite famously, Peter Gabriel has been the English eccentric whose early work embraced the most dramatic corners of progressive rock, whose esoteric later music toyed with the hypnotic drift of ambient electronics and global polyrhythms and whose middle period touched on glossy new-wave soul and hammering pulses. Lyrically, this same mannered sand-and-silty vocalist has led with rumination and introspection accompanied by deep, erudite looks into the subconscious, the struggle of human relationships and our fraught interaction with the planet(s) across 4.5 billion years. In other words, Peter Gabriel likes a good long conversation with his audience. Or, as he put it on “Big Time”: “I’ve been stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out.”
With that, a talky Gabriel—currently on tour for the lofty, uninhibited i/o, his first album of new original material in 21 years—commenced his Wells Fargo Center showcase with a literal fireside chat. It was a quiet confab around a fake fire pit where he made jokes in the face of aging and virtual reality (unlike ABBA’s Voyage, which made them years younger and kilos lighter, Gabriel has gone for the eldering opposite) and discussed the nature of time. A lot.
What was bravest about this chatty Gabriel show (and really, every Gabriel gig since the days of Us) is how he insisted upon discussing time, age, the worrisome nature of nature and the dangers of endangerment through three hours of textural quietude. Like drawing someone closer to your lips so to better address the nuance of each syllable (and there’s much nuance to deal with thanks to tactile musicians like bassist Tony Levin and Co.), Gabriel pulled his audience into each breath of the nearly acoustic “Washing Of The Water” and “Growing Up” with a keyboard in his lap. He then pulled up stakes, standing and heading into three almost equally somnolent new songs (“Panopticom,” “Four Kinds Of Horses” and “i/o”) with but a single song break (“Digging In The Dirt”) before yet another set of somber new tracks (“Playing For Time,” “Olive Tree” and “This Is Home”).
Name a popular stadium-filling artist who world dare play six little-known, theatrically imbued, but tonically becalmed tracks, almost in a row, before any kind of hit—say, the first-set-ending slam of “Sledgehammer”—and make certain each of those new hushed cuts were endearingly thrilling. Think of doing as much while challenging the Bud-and-a-soft-pretzel crowd to often sit and listen in rapt attention. Sure, “Panopticom” came with some edgy guitar work and “i/o” with an energetic, anthemic chorus, but neither track could be confused with The Weeknd or Taylor Swift for chipper concert fare. Save for “Sledgehammer” and the rough-hewn and rushing “Digging In The Dirt,” set one was chill.
As he has on previous tours, Gabriel’s aim in holding an audience’s collective gaze stemmed from his use of/collaboration with a score of towering visuals designed by the likes of Aardman Animations and Ai Weiwei, whose Middle Finger In Pink was a highlight at the Wells Fargo Center. With Gabriel utilized as the blinking, yawning face within each video artifice and provoking its visualized action onstage, you never lost focus of his animated humanist message and cultivated, academical manner of delivery.
Moving into his second set, Gabriel leapt onward with new music, gliding into warm, emotive ballads with opulent-yet-subtle chord changes in dedication to his late mother (the whispered “And Still”) and tenderly nostalgic moments (“Love Can Heal”) unique to his catalog. Unlike set one, however, Gabriel offered more of the crowd’s collective favorites, such as a thundering, dynamically drummed “Red Rain,” a rollicking feel-good “Solsbury Hill” and (with cellist/vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson as his full-throated duet partner) stately, soulful takes on “Don’t Give Up” and “In Your Eyes.” In the case of a new track like “Road To Joy,” Gabriel and his eight-piece ensemble could turn the unknown into the familiar, driving their passion for life, hope and all of their musical buzz tones into a celebratory earworm of sorts by song’s end.
Other than skipping sinister cuts such as “Intruder” and the slippery rhythms of “Games Without Frontiers” and “Shock The Monkey,” Peter Gabriel played a perfect concert—an ethnographically rich, emotionally charged, worldly multiverse of song.
—A.D. Amorosi; photos by Wes Orshoski (shot four nights later in Washington, D.C.)