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Last updated: October 22, 2013 5:13 pm
Peter Gabriel has every reason to feel nostalgic about So. The 1986 album was the ex-Genesis leader’s solo breakthrough, the moment one of prog rock’s most inventive performers refashioned himself for the MTV age. In its own less politically charged way, it was as fruitful a collaborative achievement as Paul Simon’s Graceland, which came out three months later.
Now Gabriel has decided to revisit So : it is the centrepiece of his current “Back to Front” world tour. The highly skilled session musicians who played on So’s 1987 tour have been reassembled: multi-instrumentalist David Sancious, drummer Manu Katché, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes. Facets of the original staging have also returned, notably lights rigged up on cranes that were wheeled around the O2 Arena’s stage like sinister mechanical giraffes.
The evening was split into three sections. The first was an acoustic suite of songs, opening with a new number “Obut”, Gabriel sitting at a piano. The houselights were on over the entire venue, giving the atmosphere a curiously provisional feel, as though the show hadn’t started yet. But the effect made sense when the set switched from acoustic to electric midway through the proggy twists of “Family Snapshot”; suddenly the main lights were killed and the light show proper began, a neat coup de théâtre.
Everything was monochrome until So. The musicians wore black, the spotlights were white. Gabriel wore a dark cagoule, his bald head, paunchy figure and capering stage antics giving him the impish look of a rogue merry monk. (“Dancing by intuition,” Sancious once called it.) Finally some colour: red light bathed the stage for So’s opening track “Red Rain”, followed by bright primary colours for “Sledgehammer”, whose vibrant funk bustle brought the entire venue to its feet for the first time.
Gabriel, 63, didn’t attempt the stage-diving routines of his younger days, when he would fling himself into the audience during “Lay Your Hands on Me”. But his voice was unaffected by age: the way he negotiated the flowing mood of “Don’t Give Up” as it moved between pop ballad and soul was masterly. The band’s musicianship was also impeccable. Yet I had the niggling sense of something missing.
There were no guests, although that wasn’t the problem. Backing singer Jennie Abrahamson was an able stand-in for Kate Bush on “Don’t Give Up” while Gabriel sang Youssou N’Dour’s part on “In Your Eyes” as though Wolof were his second language. What the show lacked was an updated perspective on the music.
Gabriel was inspired to revisit So by Brian Wilson’s 2002 comeback playing Pet Sounds. But compared to Wilson – or Paul Simon, who restaged Graceland last year – Gabriel has an uncomplicated relationship with his most celebrated record. It hasn’t been politically rehabilitated like Graceland , nor is it a peak from which he suffered a terrible fall like Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds breakdown.
His prime motive appears to be a mix of nostalgia and commerce (the show was being filmed for DVD release). Both impulses militated against any fresh take on So. “Mercy Street” summed it up. Gabriel lay prone on the floor, singing magnificently, the crane-lights nosing around him just as in the 1987 staging. But the visual impact was lost in the cavernous arena, draining atmosphere from the song. So should really have been played with a bold new spirit of adventure, not the old one.
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