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Peter Gabriel – SO Back To Front Tour

28 Sep

The tickets said 8pm. Peter Gabriel took the stage at 8:03pm, and the half-filled, still-lit United Center Arena took a moment of shock, and then rapturous applause. Gabriel didn’t come to the mic to start his own show, but to introduce his opening act, backup singers Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson, who were filling in for the sick Ane Brun. Abrahamson and Olsson did well in their impromptu slot, performing three of Abrahamson’s tunes on grand piano and cello, and covering Thom Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace” with a stripped down and percussive take that showcased Abrahamson’s lithe, clear soprano. Gabriel didn’t have to come out to introduce, he could have just sent the duo out, but coming out to make a personal introduction and thanks was a class move that carried through the entire night of jubilant, powerful music.

After the success of the Scratch My Back covers project and the orchestral rejuvenation of his catalog with the New Blood record and tour, Peter Gabriel has had a fruitful couple of years. The time spent with the orchestra also seemed to imbue Gabriel with a new vigor for his old band – for this tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of his landmark So album, he assembled the original touring lineup, most of who had helped record the album back in 1985/1986. Tony Levin was there on bass (Gabriel joked that the two very bald men had known each other since “back when we both had full heads of hair”) and the “dark and brooding” (and also bald) David Rhodes took lead guitar, excellent journeyman David Sanchez was on keys and the sensational and explosive Manu Katché kept the rhythm section wildly alive throughout the night. Abrahamson and Olsson took on backing vocals and with this excellently precise and passionate group of musicians, to quote “In Your Eyes”, all Gabriel’s instincts, they returned.

With a show that lasted just over two hours, there was a lot to love in the set. Oddly, the show began with the arena lights still up in full, and as Gabriel introduced the band he noted that the set would be divided up into three parts; the first highlighting the band, the second comprised “the electronic stuff” and then the album So. The first number was a duet between Gabriel on grand piano and Levin on bass of a new and unfinished song, without fully-formed lyrics, as if to note that even though we may be looking back over the course of the evening, Gabriel is still looking forward to new material, and that is an exciting prospect. Moving through hits like “Shock the Monkey”, which got the audience shouting along, the lights in the arena didn’t come down until the middle of “Family Snapshot”, that odd, dark and moving tune about the fantasy of a sad child, but when the work lights did drop, it was on the line “I shoot into the light,” and all of a sudden the stage was backlit with brilliant spotlights, a powerful and well-placed bit of showmanship that elicited a roar from the crowd.

The lights were a huge part of the second act of the evening and were well used throughout the rest of the night. The spotlights, moved about the stage on booms could either float around to form an airy constellation as they did during “The Family and the Fisherman” or come in to swirl around Gabriel like they did during a buzzy, echoing version of “No Self Control” or move ominously across the stage, like Pink Floyd’s marching hammers, as they did at the end of the show during “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”. Combine the lights with the high energy of the band during the second act, and the crowd was on its feet for a good portion of the night, even as Gabriel closed out the act with a solo take on “Washing of the Water”. That song, from 1992’s Us was a great frame to go back into So, a searching, plaintive cry for redemption driven by Gabriel’s voice, still strong as it was, a feat in and of itself for an aging musician.

Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

If music is a form of shared secular belief and concert-going is a spiritual community experience (as I’ve noted about another arena-show owning aging superstar here) then the recent spate of bands touring full classic albums a comforting (and commercially intelligent) return to a known liturgy. Everyone knows what’s coming, and everyone sings along, and it can be uplifting. With the full, original band and Abrahamson ably subbing in for Youssou N’Dour and Kate Bush, the give and take was palpable, the audience enraptured and hanging on each note. Abrahamson really did fill Kate Bush’s role well, probably better live than the more breathy, warbly take on the comforting refrains that Ane Brun laid down on the New Blood recording of “Don’t Give Up”, which is where the So act came to an early peak. Gabriel and Abrahamson wound the song into a culminating back-and-forth chant of the title, more powerful or inclusive than anything Joel Osteen or Tony Robbins could deliver, with a better light show to boot.

The band followed up that interaction with a staccato take on “That Voice Again” and a quieter, more subdued “Mercy Street” leading into huge, flashy version of “Big Time”. There is, of course, a certain irony to seeing that peppy skewering of consumer culture in a giant arena, but the groundedness that Gabriel displayed in his introductions, in hes between song banter and in his effusive thanks to his crew and the audience also underlined the notion that the spectacle of the show is not all there is to life. Gabriel said as much when he came out for the encore, saying that, “What’s amazing now is that there are are young people all over the world with little more than a phone who are willing to risk their lives for their rights.” He made that remark before breaking out the anthemic “Biko” and to hear thousands of voices shouting the name of Stephen Biko, the South African activist who was murdered 35 years ago on September 12th of this year, it made a moment of forgetting place and creating a togetherness. Then, as Gabriel said as he turned the mic to the audience and left the stage, “What happens now is up to you.” Let’s do more than the man standing in the restroom afterwards, who carried on the chant, changing the words to “Tinkle, tinkle, I have to tinkle.”

Peter Gabriel Setlist

Part I – The Band
Untitled/Unfinished
Come Talk To Me
Shock the Monkey
Family Snapshot

Part II – The Electronic Stuff
Digging in the Dirt
Secret World
The Family and the Fishing Net
No Self Control
Solsbury Hill
Washing of the Water

Part III – So
Red Rain
Sledgehammer
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

Encore
The Tower that Ate People
Biko

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