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Last night at Madison Square Garden, English ’70s art rock pioneer and world music champion Peter Gabriel brought his i/o tour celebrating his first album of original music since 2002’s Up (although the LP hasn’t been released yet, nine singles are now out on his @Bandcamp, rolling out on a monthly basis) for which I saw his June 2003 show at PNC Bank Arts Center.
The 73-year-old Gabriel hadn’t played NYC since his 2016 co-headlining jaunt with Sting, and the sold-out crowd was there to breathe in a nearly three-hour 22-song set of his elemental compositions sung in his masterfully-controlled emotive voice that retains his youthful gem-like piercing tenor tone and calming baritone in crisp sonic settings that strut and slither as taut synth, bass, and guitar patterns were draped in orchestral hues of violin, cello, french horn, saxophone from his spectacular international ensemble featuring 40+ year bandmates bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes, with vocalist/cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson (in phenomenal turn, stepping into Kate Bush’s shoes for the “Don’t Give Up” duet), violinist/singer Marina Moore, vocalist/keyboardist Don E, trumpeter Josh Shpak, and powerful precision drumming from Manu Katche.
The new material was interspersed with classics from his MTV heyday – powerfully kinetic versions of “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” and “In Your Eyes” (with Gabriel gamely holding up a fan-provided balloon boombox in reference to the meme of John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler character’s grand romantic gesture at dawn in the film Say Anything) that brought the audience to its feet to dance along (but there were only two songs from the eponymous first four LPs, including his still-rousing 1977 first single “Solsbury Hill”) – and sounded equally vital, especially “i/o,” “Love Can Heal” and “Playing for Time,” a welcome return from a once-ubiquitous purveyor of challenging & inspirational music that was also immensely popular.
Gabriel has long been known for gripping theatrical performances and striking visual collaborations and his stage design lived up to his ethos, communicating the history of creative technological progress, starting with a communal music circle with cosmos imagery to an expanding set of platforms and staircases with projections of complex films, paintings, and digital art from worldwide artists including Ai Wei Wei, and innovative translucent plastic panels behind which Gabriel waved a ‘magic’ wand to illustrate bursting colorful shapes (and offered heartfelt gratitude by naming many of the crew members who seamlessly coordinated the stage magic).
Throughout the show, the sagacious & intense Gabriel lightened the mood with sometimes wry introductions for each song that contrasted with the weighty subject matter of his lyrics that explore the conscious cognitive dissonance of our modern world, from the impending AI age (“Panopticom”) to miscarriage of justice (“The Court”) to well-known meditations about environmental collapse (“Red Rain”) and human rights violations (“Biko,” which closed the show in a echoing crowd choir for the 2nd encore) including an opening quip about his presence actually being an avatar (like the 2022 ABBA tour where they performed as their 1977 selves through motion-capture digital avatars displayed on a gargantuan screen), but with the unexpected twist of him looking 20 years older, 20 pounds heavier, while the real Peter Gabriel is on a beach in the Caribbean looking like a Greek god.
Hopefully, this tour isn’t the last time we see Gabriel and his very real avatar bringing joy and awareness at this astounding level of creativity.
Washing of the Water
Four Kinds of Horses
Digging in the Dirt
Playing for Time
This Is Home
Love Can Heal
Road to Joy
Don’t Give Up
Live and Let Live
In Your Eyes
Happy Birthday to You (Mildred J. Hill & Patty Hill cover) (for Jimmy Carter)
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