Peter Gabriel‘s Front to Back Tour, which features a complete performance of his 1986 LP So, is an unabashedly nostalgic affair. Yet the show begins with a song so new it doesn’t even have complete lyrics. Accompanied only by longtime bassist Tony Levin, Gabriel began the night at Jones Beach outside New York by sitting at a piano and presenting a song called “Obut.” It’s a tender ballad that’s clearly a work-in-progress, and it sent a message: even on a night as backwards-looking as this, Gabriel always has one eye on the future.
The rest of the evening was spent revisiting So and other works from Gabriel’s 35-year solo career. The 62-year-old singer looks almost nothing like the guy in the “Sledgehammer” video, and he sounds almost nothing like the skinny kid who fronted Genesis in the early Seventies. His voice (not to mention his body) is huskier now, but it’s still tremendously powerful, and in some ways more dynamic and fuller than it’s ever been.
After introducing “Obut,” Gabriel brought out the rest of the band for a brief acoustic set. The glaring houselights remained on for the bulk of this mini-set, even as a great many people in the back of the house repeatedly screamed for them to be turned off. Gabriel couldn’t quite make out what they were saying and he was clearly confused by the ruckus, but he kept his cool and had the place singing along to a stripped-down “Shock the Monkey” and “Come Talk to Me.” Midway through his haunting 1980 political-assassin saga “Family Snapshot” the lights finally went down, and the place erupted with thunderous applause.
Gabriel is backed by the same band that accompanied him on the original So tour, including guitarist David Rhodes and original E Street Band keyboardist David Sancious. Many in the audience seemed unfamiliar with deep cuts “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “No Self Control,” but “Solsbury Hill” got everyone out of their seats.
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The complete performance of So began midway through the evening. When it was released, the album transformed Gabriel into a massive rock star, from a semi-popular art rocker best known for fronting Genesis in their early days. Whilke the album was otherwise presented in its original running order, he wisely pushed “In Your Eyes” from track five to the very end of the main set. (Kudos to the guy who yelled for the 1977 super-obscurity “Waiting for the Big One” after every single song during this part of the show. Apparently he didn’t quite understand what was going on.)
Despite as many physical changes as he’s undergone over the past few decades, Gabriel has lost none of his flair for showmanship. The concert was as choreographed as any Broadway play. During “Don’t Give Up,” he walked in the rear of the stage Willy Loman-style, with a briefcase in hand, as he duetted with backup singer Jennie Abrahamson, who expertly handled Kate Bush’s parts. He sang “Mercy Street” while lying on his back in the center of the stage, and the stage was bathed in red during “Red Rain.”
A small army of roadies were draped entirely in black, even wearing fencing masks to obscure their faces. They spent much of the night onstage, operating a series of lights they wheeled around on giant cranes. The crew essentially disappeared into the background and the lights seemed to operate independently, almost as if they were created by Cyberdyne Systems in the Terminator movies. It was a very cool effect, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a show.
Most of Gabriel’s major hits were on So, and his tours over the past 25 years have always included over half the album. Still, it was a great opportunity to hear lesser-known songs such as “That Voice Again,” “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” and “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds).” Though the latter was particularly powerful, it was “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” that whipped the place into a frenzy.
“Sledgehammer” was the biggest hit from the album, but over time the impact of its groundbreaking music video has died down and “In Your Eyes” has emerged as the most beloved track from So – or Gabriel’s entire career, for that matter. That’s due, of course, to John Cusack and his giant jukebox from Say Anything, but it’s also attributable to the sheer beauty of the song. It’s not a stretch to say it’s one of the greatest love songs of the Eighties. Gabriel has performed it countless times, yet it still sounded fresh and euphoric as it closed out the main set.
The night closed with an obligatory “Biko,” which concluded with Gabriel turning the microphone to the audience so they could sing the one-word chorus as he marched offstage, fist high in the air.
By sheer coincidence, this week is the 10-year anniversary of Up, Gabriel’s last studio album of original material. Since then he’s launched several tours, cut a covers album, traveled the globe with a symphony and worked on many soundtracks and charitable ventures. But the absence of new material has been glaring. Gabriel has said that he’s taking a sabbatical next year. Here’s hoping that 2014 sees a new LP and tour. This tour is a wonderful way to excavate the past, but it’s hard to imagine that’s a place Gabriel wants to spend much more time.