What a show! Oh, what a show! Just as Peter Gabriel sings in "The Barry Williams Show," so he delivered at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday, the opening night of his U.S. tour.
Growing Up Live marks Gabriel's second collaboration with Canadian theater director Robert LePage, who collaborated on the design of 1993's Secret World Live venture, and this is an equally elaborate, theatrical affair.
It's all far afield from Gabriel's first solo tour in 1977, following his departure from Genesis; on that outing, he had only a tambourine and the hood of his sweatshirt as props. This time, Gabriel has an arsenal of high-tech toys, beginning with a versatile center stage and a second stage suspended above it, and he uses them to great effect.
Following a set of rousing gospel by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Gabriel came on to the central stage, accompanied only by longtime bassist Tony Levin. "Things got jiggled around a bit," Gabriel said, referring to changes in his tour itinerary due to the highly complex nature of the production. "But I'm very happy we're starting off in Chicago."
The tour focuses on Up, Gabriel's first full solo effort in a decade, but he opened the show with a song from Ovo, his soundtrack for the Millennium Dome project in London.
"My dad is ninety, and I realized I hadn't spent a lot of time with him recently. So I booked a week with him and a yoga teacher -- he's been doing it for fifty years," Gabriel said, introducing "Father, Son." He quickly showed his voice had held up during his long absence from the stage, and the song, a moving meditation on filial affection, generated a standing ovation from the crowd, though most were unfamiliar with it.
As low rumblings gave way to "Darkness," the noisy leadoff track from Up, the full band, clad in black, took the stage. After the opening shrieks, Gabriel paced the stage, striking poses on the perimeter as he sang to different sections of the theater.
Of Gabriel's original band, only Levin remains; guitarist David Rhodes has been around for years, while newcomers include keyboardist Rachel Z, multi-instrumentalist Richard Evans, drummer Ged Lynch and backing vocalist Melanie Gabriel. The musicians were stationed around the perimeter of the stage, facing in towards each other, giving an almost tribal feel to their interaction.
Lynch, replacing longtime Gabriel drummer Manu Katche, quickly proved himself worthy of the position, adding a muscularity and rock edge to the rhythms of the older material, including a powerful "Red Rain."
"Just before you throw up, you notice how everything smells. Your senses are exaggerated," Gabriel said, starting in to "My Head Sounds Like That" as a large balloon dropped down from above. Gabriel moved under it until the balloon covered his body, and he danced with legs flailing, like a marionette with a giant, swollen head. For anyone who had seen Genesis' Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour, it was reminiscent of the lavish theatrics of that production.
"One of the thrills for me on the last record was working with the Blind Boys of Alabama," Gabriel said. "Tonight, it's their first time ever live with us. They add a considerable piece of magic to this song." Septuagenarians with age-defying, powerful vocals, the quartet sat in the center of the stage as the band moved in closer for "Sky Blue." The perimeter began to revolve, and Gabriel walked against the rotation, almost moonwalking, before allowing the turning stage to carry him around. The music and complex harmonies built slowly until the song reached its crescendo, fueled by the powerful group vocal. If not quite as smooth and polished as on disc, it did finally take flight.
"Sometimes, when we watch television, it's like a fix of junk food," Gabriel said. "You think you want it, you take it -- and then you feel like throwing up. This is about the future of 'Reality TV.'" For "The Barry Williams Show," the second stage dropped all the way down and Gabriel jumped up on it, rolling a video camera around its perimeter while singing. Images from his camera -- and another held by a stagehand -- were projected on a cylinder of fabric hanging from the lighting rig down through the second stage during the fiercely funky song.
A large, clear and dimpled ball emerged from the dangling balloon, and Gabriel climbed inside as the music for "Growing Up" began. He rolled the massive sphere around the perimeter of the stage, like a hamster in a toy, narrowly avoiding plowing down band members and their instruments.
The revelation of the night was "Animal Nation," a new song about Gabriel's experiences working with bonobo apes. Known for their high intelligence, these primates apparently have an affinity for music. "Intelligent life is all around us," he sang. "Just look in their eyes/Say it's not true/Look in their eyes/They're exactly like you."
The second stage lowered again and then lifted, revealing Lynch and his drum kit encircled in a cylinder of fabric for "Signal to Noise." Vocals from the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan mixed with Gabriel's voice and crashing drums in the most powerful song from Up. "Receive or transmit, receive or transmit," Gabriel sang, whispering at first, then screaming. As Lynch slammed away at his drums over pre-recorded strings, the band members began to disappear, one at a time, down through trap doors in the stage, until only Lynch remained. The second stage slowly lowered, hiding Lynch as the music ended.
For the encore, the second stage lifted, revealing the full band huddled on Lynch's drum platform. The four Blind Boys returned to add their harmonies to "In Your Eyes," a little rough and under-rehearsed, but appealing. For the second encore, Gabriel returned alone, launching into a soft version of "Here Comes The Flood," from his first solo album.
For fans who had endured ten years of waiting for Gabriel's return to the concert stage, it was a highly satisfying night of music and theatrics.