Peter Gabriel’s seminal album So turned 25 last year, and to celebrate Gabriel put the band that created it back together and headed out on the road for a well deserved victory lap. Much like Gabriel, the album is known as much for the strength of its music as it is for the theatricality of its presentation. The videos for “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” triggered a shift in what people would do with the medium going forward, and three years after its initial release, the song “In Your Eyes” would be featured in the film Say Anything, forever associating it with teenage love, boom boxes and John Cusack.
While there was no John Cusack on display Sunday night at the Patriot Center (though he did show up when the tour stopped at the Hollywood Bowl to hand Gabriel, what else, a boom box) there was no shortage of love, be it teenage or otherwise, for the sixty-two year old art rock pioneer and his band mates on the final stop of the So Back To Front Tour. The evening began with Gabriel and bass player Tony Levin performing an as yet untitled/unfinished piece of music with Gabriel explaining that his wife reminded him that he probably should explain what was going on at the risk of simply sounding like an old drunk as he mumbled his way through the blueprint of the nascent song. Stepping out briefly from behind his baby grand, Gabriel then further informed the audience of the structure of the evening - first there would be the appetizer, then the main course, and “if you survive that then you get your dessert” – and then invited the rest of the So band featuring David Rhodes on Guitar and Manu Katché on drums, to the stage to begin the acoustic portion of the evening proper with the song “Come Talk To Me” off of 1992’s Us.
Taken on its own, So was by far Gabriel’s most accessible album to date. Even though the songs “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) and “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)” flirted with Gabriel’s notable post Genesis , prog rock past, the bulk of Sobuilt on that base to include sounds from all over the world. Testing the boundaries of what was considered to be pop music in 1986, So on its own was a landmark achievement. When digested along with songs from every phase of Gabriel’s solo career though, the album’s genius managed to shine even brighter.
Part of that most assuredly had to do with the fact that songs like “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time” and “That Voice Again” were delivered on Sunday with a looseness, a spryness that is practically buried in the 1996 recordings of the songs. And part of it had to do with the fact that often times Gabriel was creating new music videos before the audience’s eyes. Laying on his back center stage for the duration of “Mercy Street” cameras and manually tracking lighting rigs circled around him, displaying the captured images on two giant screens on either side of the stage to gorgeous and haunting effect. In fact the only song that Gabriel didn’t manage to play with or challenge audience expectations on during the So set was that album’s closer “In Yours Eyes” – and why should he? It’s a safe bet that a good percentage of the audience was there just to hear that song, and rather than inject theatrics or drama in to its performance, Gabriel simply played it straight and gave the crowd what it wanted.
And then he got eaten by a giant silk tube while the band performed “The Tower That Ate People” off of 2000’s soundtrack to his Millennium Dome show, OVO.
Closing out the evening as he has often done for over 30 years now, Gabriel spoke to the crowd of living in an age where communication was effortless and every voice could now be heard before launching into the song Biko. Written as a reaction to slain anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, the song serves as both a reverent remembrance of Biko’s life and a potent protest of all the things that he stood against and ultimately lost his life for. With only an illuminated microphone stand at its lip, Gabriel and the band left the stage one by one as the crowd continued to cry out “Biko / Oh Oh/ Oh Oh Oh Oh/ Biko” over and over with drummer Manu Katché’s funeral march staccato rhythm, until finally there was one last snare hit and the stage went dark, bringing to an end an evening in which Peter Gabriel not only thrilled his audience with future-shock theatrics and nostalgic turns, but reminded them that what really matters is that we’re all in this together.
And that may be why So is still so moving 25 years after the fact. There’s a deep understanding of what makes us human that runs throughout Gabriel’s music, and at no point in his career has Gabriel expressed that more flawlessly than on So. And there isn’t any better exposition of So and the other selections from Gabriel’s quite remarkable catalog than his stellar performance Sunday night.