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Review: Peter Gabriel at Xcel Center in St. Paul

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his tour is in support of Peter Gabriel’s upcoming album i/o, which he has already released nine songs (two mixes each). In a very odd start to the show, Gabriel walked out on stage alone with no fanfare and began narrating, reminding me of Burl Ives character Sam the Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We had just watched a large digital clock on the circular screen that would become the centerpiece of the visual portion of the show for an hour. That clock had a man inside it (filmed) who would clean and then repaint the hands every minute. This led up to the start of the show. Peter started off talking about time and would move to a campfire on the stage, where he would sit and be joined by bassist Tony Levin, who would perform “Washing the Water” off of 1992’s Us album, and the rest of the band would join at the campfire for a “stripped” down version of “Growing Up” from the 2003 album Up. The band would then take their place on the two-tier stage, and the large circular screen would rise and tilt to become part of a much larger visual presentation.

Gabriel would say that he worked with different visual artists for each song, and he would name them as the night went on. He also introduced his band and would name-check them all many times through the night and also at the end. He would also go through his crew at the end of the night. He would then play the first of a dozen new songs that he would perform throughout the night. Now, some might say that is too many, but as the night went on, it was those songs and the presentation of them that became the highlight, or at least the talking point, of the concert. These songs are classic Gabriel songs, and they vary in tempo, mood, and style. You get a little bit of every style you love about Peter Gabriel in new songs. Seeing these songs performed as fresh and inspired creations from an artist that is still relevant at 73 years old gave them so much feeling and created a desire to go revisit these songs after the show. Exactly what a tour promoting an album should do.

Honestly, every new song was good, but getting an uplifting upbeat anthem of sorts, such as the title track, I/o at his age, was a treat. I would put that up there with many of his classics. Other songs, such as “Road to Joy” and “Olive-Tree” are jubilant in mood and could have fit on any of his past albums. There were more subdued songs, of course, as Gabriel is a master at that, and two of them that were the most stunning opened the second set after an intermission. “Darkness” and “Love Can Heal” were done while Gabriel was behind a wall screen that stretched the stage that was put up during the intermission. Neither of these songs have been released yet, I do not think. Gabriel would walk the wall, creating digitally painted strokes with a wand. The screen also created water-soaked windows and shadows of Gabriel. A lot of the visual elements are hard to put into words, but they added so much to the show, yet the stage was actually quite stark and allowed for the musicians to move around and be a big part of the show.

Gabriel fans are partially paying to also see Tony Levin play bass; it would be odd not to have him be a major part of the show. He was such an amazing player, and you can tell he mentored the younger performers also and allowed them space in his very large shadow. Other longtime Gabriel touring musicians included guitarists David Rhodes and Richard Evans and the fantastic Manu Katche on drums. The new blood included Marina Moore on violin and Don McLean (not that one) on keyboards. The two standouts were Ayanna-Witter-Johnson on cello, piano, and vocals, and Josh Shpak on horns. Witter-Johnson was such a presence on stage, playing piano and cello, but she took the Kate Bush part in “Don’t Give Up” and brought home one of the most beloved parts of Gabriel’s catalog. A phenomenal performer. Whenever Shpak showed up with a horn part, it just cut through everything and was so affecting. I cannot remember having a horn player affect me that much on a big show like this.

Gabriel would speak at length over the course of the evening, tying the songs into a story that he seems to be working on and also speaking on AI, technology, climate change, and more. Much of the show is really hard to put into words; in fact, I had a handful of people who had seen the show in other cities contact me because they wanted to talk about the show, because it’s easier to do with someone who has seen it. There were the classic Gabriel songs, of course, including “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” where he danced around the stage. “Digging in the Dirt” was actually a bit aggressive musically, and “Red Rain” was a loyal rendition. The final three songs were the big emotional send-off with a joyful “Solsbury Hill” and the now traditional live version of “In Your Eyes” as the first encore. The second encore was “Biko,” and at the end, Gabriel would have the audience sing the “whoah oh” part and leave the stage, never to return. The band would also then leave the stage one by one after each round of the “woah oh’s” until it was just Manu on drums and then just a picture of South African activist Stephen Biko on the large circular screen. Will that be the last time we see Gabriel on stage? I don’t think so, though when most of us bought tickets, we bought them for that reason. Seeing how inspired he still is by music, art, and technology, and that I don’t think this project has fully evolved to where it will yet, I bet we see Gabriel one more time in that sphere in Vegas, and I will be honest, if that happens, I will go… only if he plays that entire new album.

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