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
“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
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
“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
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.