Don’t Give Up - Why Peter Gabriel’s Back to Front tour is “So” very important.
Guest review by Tyler Curtis (Creative Partner / photographer of darkroomdemons.com)
A concert review trapped in teenage nostalgia.
The first time I heard of Peter Gabriel was in 1987 when MTV ran “Sledgehammer” on a continuous loop. Two years later, I would finally hear So in its entirety: I was at a birthday party for a girl with a cute pixie cut haircut - I was surrounded by other awkward 13 year olds playing badminton, getting jacked on Jolt Cola and cautiously flirting with gangly members of the opposite sex in a summer sunset-soaked backyard in suburban Chicago. The talk of the party was "that song in that scene" in Say Anything that defined, for many of us, what true love was supposed to look like. In hindsight, standing in a trench coat and sweat pants while a boom box blares over a look of utter melancholy doesn’t exactly scream Shakespeare serenade - but hey, the 80s was full of such non-conventional tableaus. Many of which, coincidentally, were delivered by John Cusack.
My angst ridden descent through puberty depended as much upon So as it did Nine Inch Nail's Pretty Hate Machine. Whether it was making out with some unfortunate or laying alone thinking about girls with a box of Kleenex beside me, Peter Gabriel's art-rock-gone-platinum LP So was such a frequent offender in my shiny Logik CD player that I would have to replace it at least twice before college. In high school, I would rewind a warbling mix tape in my canary yellow Sony Sports Walkman over and over again during epic sub-zero journeys to the bus stop. I remember hoping that my seemingly rare bootleg of “In Your Eyes” (in reality a lo-fi transfer from the live MTV video taped on my parents's wood-encased Zenith), complete with a real African chorus and fevered crowds, would offer some insights into the arctic hearts of girls that gathered like impenetrable tribes on the carpeted blocks of my high school's common areas.
When I walked into the United Center on September 27th, 2012, I had the epiphany that I had waited 25 years for this show. I already knew what the score was: Gabriel had been running the same set list for the entirety of this Back to Front Tour. But I could never have known how it was going to be delivered, despite having researched YouTube clips of the tour to get a sense of the lighting cues during my allotted shooting time. It is when Peter is talking to the audience and not singing that you get a sense of how special this show is.
Gabriel brings something much more honest and intimate than anyone I have ever witnessed in a large arena, not to mention a docile crowd that sits through most of the show - even in the main floor sections. (The only other rock show I have attended with so many middle-aged white people sitting down was Pink Floyd on their last jaunt at Soldier Field in 1994.) Without any warning, Gabriel sauntered on stage with the house lights up to welcome the crowd and kindly introduce that evening’s opener, back up singer Jennie Abrahamson (who was subbing for the very ill tour support). Immediately, I was taken aback by this beautiful introduction for a girl who, in return, gushed over Gabriel’s kindness and his “well behaved” crowd before plunging into a few originals and a haunting rendition of Thom Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace.” Lights went up after a standing ovation and Peter came out again to explain the format of the show, which was divided into 3 sections: 1) Process, 2) Electric, and finally 3) So. Joined by the monastic King Crimson/tour alum/bassist supreme Tony Levin (with the lights still up), they casually rehearsed an introspective work in progress called “Obut.” Gabriel then introduced the remaining members of the band with short biographies. The original So Tour band from the late 80's was in full effect. Veteran E Street keyboardist David Sancious, drummer Manu Katche and guitar surgeon David Rhodes garnered more applause than the back-up singers, but Gabriel gave each their due.
The band waded through acoustic versions of the hits “Talk to Me” and “Shock the Monkey” before finally turning off the lights and bringing the crowd to their feet with the very electric “Digging in the Dirt.” It was at this second phase of the show that a spooky jumpsuit-and-fencing-mask-wearing-crew rolled out dolly cranes with full lighting rigs around the stage. I immediately found myself comparing the effect to a mix of Tron and David Lynch's Industrial Symphony. There was an organic delivery of high tech that made it crystal clear that this was no ordinary big arena show. Like the divine sound quality, this was a subtle and precise art-house production executed on the grandest scale. I walked into the photo pit (another rarity for such a large star and show) during “Secret World” and was suddenly transported into a dream world, where Gabriel was offering every bit of himself to our lenses in a surprisingly intimate affair. The stocky and weathered frontman, garbed in a cool military Rick Owens-esque ensemble, had plenty of choreographed expressions and stances to emphasize each lyric he confidently belted out as the lights encircled him in a net of ethereal mystery and pulled back like giraffes from a watering hole. With hundreds of shows under my belt, I have never seen anything quite like it. Gabriel has no pretension, no ego whatsoever when he performs - he’s like your coolest uncle, who just happens to be the former frontman of Genesis. It is an effortless, sublime and precise display. After enduring both Madonna and Prince’s overinflated ego circuses the previous week, this was more than just a breath of fresh air- It was a revelation. Peter Gabriel, at 62, despite not having released an album of original material in 10 years, is still a wholly original, cutting-edge artist- imbued with a humility and passion that most stars (young and old) who have forgotten their craft in lieu of greedy box office hauls.
As I took my leave from the front row during the opening stanza of “Solsbury Hill” after 30 minutes of masking my saucer eyes with a lens in front of my face, I realized we hadn’t even gotten to the real reason I came: To see So, played from start to finish - or as the ticket read: “Back to Front.”
And this is where the real show began; the theatrics up to this point were just a warm up. With the opening verse of “Red Rain,” the arena was washed in a digital crimson storm and I found myself drifting back to those summer nights, when I would have my oversized headphones blaring So as I tried to find solace in my teen angst. But the most striking thing about hearing So 25 years later is how current it still feels. There is an electronic solidarity and timelessness in his music that today’s trends can’t even dent.
Gabriel’s penchant for theatrics has also not been lost over time, as a suitcase found its way into his hand during a long walk across the stage during “Don’t Give Up”. This would be the first instance of three that I would wipe tears from my face. The second tears fell as Gabriel crawled into the fetal position while singing all of “Mercy Street” on his back while a camera descended over him. Spirals of light spun in the video overly on the big screens, emphasizing loss, heartache and weakness as he cried for help. Gabriel’s vocals need to be addressed here: The man is a machine, pitch perfect and smooth as glass, sending chills up spines and, as I stated earlier, invoking tears. During “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” the lighting resembled prison bars in front of a solemn Gabriel. A fellow journalist behind me quipped “What does that mean?” I pointed out the symbolism of being trapped in the lyrics and watched her eyes dilate with wonder. Gabriel’s show was not only mesmerizing sonically, it was forcing people to think. As the keyboards of “In Your Eyes” began to swell, so did my tears. My face was soaked; I felt the pain of every break up, every crush and every victory with every woman in my life up to that point. I couldn’t even sing along as I was so choked up, much like most everyone around me. As if it couldn't have ended sweeter, Gabriel brought the band to the edge of the stage and thanked everyone involved, from the crew, to the tech to the ushers and then they all bowed humbly 3 times to the crowd and applauded us for participating. The company returned several minutes later and closed with a two-song encore that encapsulated his passion project: the watchdog social media site, Witness.org, with a hammering rendition of “Biko”. The crowd purposefully pumped their right fists in the air to the chorus as Gabriel exited stage right, ending on a startlingly political note. Not many artists can reach that far into your heart and brain in any venue, be it large or small. I walked out satisfied and emotionally raw, and after lighting a much-deserved cigarette, uttered to the publisher of this fine magazine “It was worth the wait.”
Here’s to hoping Gabriel makes one last album and tour after his upcoming sabbatical to challenge our emotions for another 25 years.
Set List -United Center, Chicago, IL 09.27.12
Process / Acoustic
- Obut (with Tony Levin)
- Come Talk to Me
- Shock the Monkey
- Family Snapshot
- Digging in the Dirt
- Secret World
- The Family and the Fishing Net
- No Self Control
- Solsbury Hill
- Washing of the Water
SO (in Remastered version order)
- Red Rain
- Don’t Give Up
- That Voice Again
- Mercy Street
- Big Time
- We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)
- This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)
- In Your Eyes
- The Tower that Ate People