Peter Gabriel still loves a challenge. Luckily, so are most of his fans.
At the United Center on Saturday, the iconic singer-songwriter took on the difficult task of performing 11 anticipated songs from an upcoming album; these include two songs that have not yet been released as singles. Gabriel and his extraordinary band have won over a profound audience through surprise, commitment and ingenuity, while collectively turning their noses up at predictable nostalgia.
Comprising a concert, rotating art installation and storytelling session, the 160-minute show explored a fascinating intersection of sounds, visuals, cultures and ideas with open-minded possibilities and experimental flair. Even when some moments fell short of their potential, Gabriel’s relentless curiosity and genuine concern for all living things made it impossible to thwart his attempts.
Unhurried and unafraid to test complex arrangements requiring silence and attention in an arena setting – no easy ask – the British vocalist has established himself as a throwback to an era when cerebral music had a status close to the level of popular music. He encountered an admirable dedication that contradicted modern traditions.
Forget the concept of a grand entrance. Gabriel loitered on stage and chatted and joked for five minutes about his appearance (older, heavier, balder) at his own expense. After the first song, he introduced the band members by name and later referred to them many times. It identified every international graphic collaborator whose contributions were reflected on screens. He sincerely thanked the teams involved in the production, including the catering services. Who does this?
Gabriel, on the other hand, has spent his entire career following his own muse. Credited with helping bring the all-encompassing “world music” genre into the mainstream, he co-founded the WOMAD Festival decades ago and continues to operate Real World Studios and subsidiary Real World Records. Valuing art, accessibility, and community over profit and commercialism, he remains fascinated by creativity, exploration, and inclusivity.
These pursuits may also explain why, over the past few decades, Gabriel’s attention has turned to humanitarian causes and political activism rather than the trappings associated with other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame superstars. (Gabriel was inducted in 2014.) He resisted calls to reunite with Genesis, the band that gave him his start in the late ’60s and from which he left in 1975. (In a stylish move, he supported his former band, attending their final performance in March 2022.)
Apart from a few collaborations, a covers album and the occasional tour, he had shared the bill for a previous US tour with Sting in 2016; His last solo North American tour was in 2012; The 73-year-old artist has been gone for most of the 21st century. “Up” (2002) remains his last original LP, but rumors persist that he will soon release the long-awaited “i/o.”
Wearing black pants, a black button-up vest and a long-sleeved shirt, Gabriel offered an in-depth preview of what could be seen as a loosely conceptual record. Staying away from preaching, the set of tunes touched on current issues regarding justice, hypocrisy, polarization and the environment. The technology-centric “Panopticom” envisioned what artificial intelligence could represent. The singer’s fascination with science and people’s connections (and increasingly lack thereof) with their environments and each other extended to the explosive, revealing title track “i/o” and the sun-streaked “Olive Tree.” in starburst patterns. The aptly named “Road to Joy” latched on to an even more upbeat theme, continuing the kind of catchy beats that helped Gabriel top the charts in the mid-’80s.
Despite the tension in works like “Growing Up,” the intensity associated with the atmospheric “Darkness,” and the prophetic doom that rains down on “Red Rain,” the vocalist seemed determined to craft organic backdrops and hopeful messages conducive to health, forgiveness, and peace. . Or “places where we all belong,” as he crooned in the encouraging duet “Don’t Give Up.”
The cleansing began immediately, with Gabriel and his supporting octet sitting around a mock campfire and spiritually reciting the soothing “Washing of Water.” It carried the textured undercurrents of “This Is Home” and the anthemic liberation of the extended “Live and Let Live” and informed the righteous protest of the Afrobeat-laden closer “Biko.”
Gabriel, who retained a fair amount of his vocal range, except for his capacity to consistently sing at a higher pitch, emphasized the positives with his theatrical body language. He waved his arms, walked in place, launched into a hand-clapping frenzy and performed exaggerated dance moves reminiscent of the stop-motion animation clips in the famous “Sledgehammer” video. He even participated in the spirited step choreography with longtime bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes.
About Gabriel’s valued colleagues: It is not an exaggeration to say that the band has as much story as the songs. In addition to Levin and Rhodes, each musician deserves mention and further research: Manu Katché (drums); Richard Evans (guitar, flute, whistle, mandolin); Ayanna Witter-Johnson (cello, vocals); Marina Moore (violin, vocals); Don McLean (keyboards, vocals); Josh Shpak (horns, keyboards, vocals).
Together they blended diversity, discipline, chemistry, sensuality, timing, and interaction in a way that flirted with perfectionist standards. The ensemble also established reference points for how instruments can and should sound in large live environments. Vibrant, full-bodied, clear, resonant, natural, so tactile you feel the notes being injected into your bloodstream; Gabriel explained that they were obsessed with sound details. The investments paid off.
The rhythmic duo of Levin and Katché was especially exciting. The virtuosos’ central position (Gabriel and the rest of the team were with them) underlined their central role and importance. Moreover, the purity of their tone and their ability to convey the properties of raw materials, acoustic vibrations and delicate harmonics turned the duo into a two-man orchestra.
Levin pulled out his signature funk fingerings (drumsticks sticking on two fingers) to provide a more sophisticated attack on a few songs. He shaped the structures with unobtrusive basslines that pull, scratch and wreak havoc. Similarly restrained when necessary, Katché played as if he had grown an extra pair of arms and legs. The French drummer communicated with charming diction; His percussion instruments were agile, balanced, punctual and on point.
And they made everything look easy. Gabriel chose from many options: R&B, symphonic rock, avante-garde, chamber, fusion, art-pop, folk, classical, minimalism, backstreet blues, global genres from Africa, Europe and Asia. No style or form is off limits, nothing is forced or forced. Really big time.
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
United Center’s set list for September 30:
“Washing of Water”
“Four Kinds of Horses”
“digging the ground”
“Playing for Time”
“Love Can Heal”
“Road to Happiness”
“Do not give up”
“Live and let live”
“In Your Eyes”