Peter Gabriel | The O2 Arena | 22 October 2013
Peter Gabriel has ditched the tricks. That giant inflatable Zorb ball, the suspending himself upside down from the stage, and that lumpy-blob-with-inflatable-genitals costume from the ’70s are long gone, but he’s lost none of the showmanship.
Take his ongoing Back to Front tour. Ostensibly celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album ‘So’, this is no straightforward nostalgia act. He’s gone to the effort of rounding up the same musicians he took out on the road back in 1987. He’s recreated the era’s moody staging, complete with the craned lights that glide ominously across the stage, interacting with the band members like giant mechanical stagehands. And he’s buried the evening’s centrepiece, the collection of nine songs that gave us ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘Don’t Give Up’, in a set that’s not exactly big on hits.
In fact it starts slowly, with the house lights still on, as the charismatic Gabriel feels his way through a new, unfinished song, as beautifully raw as the acoustic renditions of ‘Come Talk To Me’ and ‘Shock The Monkey’ that comprise the night’s “starter” course. ‘Family Snapshot’ starts quietly but transforms as the full band join in, bridging the gap to the “main” set that focuses on the darker side of Gabriel’s back catalogue – the meandering, discordant ‘The Family and the Fishing Net’, the brooding ‘Digging In The Dirt’ – with only the prerequisite run up ‘Solsbury Hill’ really lifting the mood.
So by the time we reach “dessert”, the album that Gabriel calls his brief intersection with the mainstream, the seated masses are clearly ready for the big hits. A majestic ‘Red Rain’, hard-hitting ‘Sledgehammer’, and tearful ‘Don’t Give Up’ pave the way for the touching one-two of ‘That Voice Again’ and ‘Mercy Street’, which both show off the singer’s increasingly rich vocals.
The band do come a little unstuck on the album’s rarely performed, more avant-garde pieces – ‘We Do What We’re Told’ and ‘This Is The Picture’ – but pull it all back together with a majestic ‘In Your Eyes’, complete with the traditional choreography – sideways jumping and raised hands – that’s echoed by the crowd who keep cheering for more as the band dance off stage.
When they return, it is with two extremes from Gabriel’s catalogue. The ‘Tower That Ate People’ lurches aggressively from quiet insecurity to a 60 year old’s approximation of industrial rage, while ‘Biko’ sounds as majestic – and desperately powerful – as it did 30 years ago. The only trick here is real emotion.