Concert Review: Peter Gabriel — Still Trusting the Imagination
By Paul Robicheau
The veteran English art-rocker gave a slow-to-develop but brilliant near-three-hour show that tapped stunning visuals while evolving from the cerebral to the celebratory, culminating in a joyous “In Your Eyes.”
“I’m just a part of everything,” Peter Gabriel sang in his new song “i/o” at TD Garden on Thursday, reflecting an expansive philosophy that de-emphasizes the individual. And the veteran English art-rocker demonstrated that same awareness in a slow-to-develop but brilliant near-three-hour show that tapped stunning visuals while evolving from the cerebral (at one point he mused possibilities for AI that could transform healthcare) to the celebratory, culminating in a joyous “In Your Eyes.”
At age 73, Gabriel proved to be in astonishingly fine voice after recent years in which he has been exploring endeavors beyond music, including brain-wired video. He spent much of the night at a keyboard, but also busted some big-time moves with his smartly cast eight-piece band, anchored by a longtime core of bassist Tony Levin (a Brookline native who also plays in King Crimson), guitarist David Rhodes, and drummer Manu Katché, as well as captivating upstart Ayanna Witter-Johnson on cello and vocals.
For an artist who’s been a focal point as a performer since his early ’70s days as the mask-and-costume-sporting original front man of Genesis, Gabriel displayed humble appreciation for the team that brings his sound and vision to life. He gave recurring credit to his bandmates, first introducing each one as they opened the concert in an ersatz campfire circle under the massive eclipsing moon on a round overhead screen for “Washing of the Water” and “Growing Up.” He thanked the rest of his crew, which pushed past a four-hour delay at the border after a show in Montreal the previous night to assemble the complex production. He even named the artists behind the visuals that illuminated each song, including Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, surprisingly in attendance but too shy to come onstage, said Gabriel, who also closed the night with “Biko,” his tribute to the anti-apartheid hero.
Rather than a classic rocker peddling the hits on an endless farewell tour, Gabriel went to an opposite extreme, showcasing his first new album in 21 years, still unreleased beyond several songs that have been dropped so far upon each full moon. In fact, half of Thursday’s 22-song concert came from i/o — a challenge for fans anxious to revel in the familiar rather than the fresh. And Gabriel took his time, framing many of those often slowly paced songs with dialogue as well.
This was especially true in the first set, which featured the majority of the new songs. “Four Kinds of Horses” rode texturing from the strings of Witter-Johnson and violinist Marina Moore, along with Josh Shpak’s trumpet and French horn, as the singer mulled an overlap of religion and peace with violence and terrorism. “Playing for Time” centered its melancholic yet striking reflection on memories and mortality between Gabriel on piano and Levin on upright bass. Then “Olive Tree” matched its brightly chorded chorus to colorful animation on the back panels as Gabriel sang “I’ve got the cool breeze right on my skin.”
Even the singer seemed to put a little more body English into the mid-set bone-shaking of “Digging in the Dirt,” a mix of precision and cacophony topped by trumpet and group-wide backing vocals. And when the set closed with the Motown-inspired lurch of the hit “Sledgehammer,” fans finally rose in unison to their feet and sang along as Gabriel kicked into choreographed steps with Levin and Rhodes — only to have that sudden momentum killed by intermission.
The second set began on the ominous side with a wall of scrim panels lowered across the stage front. A silhouette of Gabriel in a brimmed hat projected down the panels like echoes in lightning for “Darkness.” Then he walked behind that translucent screen to paint cloudy swirls with a wand during the moody new “Love Can Heal” before i/o’s aptly titled “Road to Joy” cast an upbeat changeup, with Levin fingering his Chapman Stick fretboard opposite Don E on keytar.
At that point, every new song in the set was followed by an old favorite, starting with a levitating “Don’t Give Up.” Fans cheered Witter-Johnson’s personalized take on Kate Bush’s part in that duet about a man disheartened by unemployment. The two singers scaled separate stairways to a rear platform for the song’s peak, Gabriel more than holding his own with yearning high notes, before the two descended to center stage to dance in a tag-team circle.
“Red Rain” fell at a snappier pace than usual, and while Shpak’s muted trumpet didn’t fit the song’s forbidding tone, Manu Katché somehow showed he could bring his trademark drum fills to a higher level with multi-cymbal fusillades. At the same time, Gabriel saved three of the new album’s most effective numbers for the second half in the eerily funky “The Court,” “And Still” (another slow tune, though as impressionistic as the paintings on the backdrop), and “Live and Let Live,” which projected the crowd through a prism on the screens.
In any case, by the time the singer skipped across the stage for “Solsbury Hill” and the African-flavored “In Your Eyes” near the show’s end, a sense of communal uplift washed through the band and audience alike. Gabriel may be balder and heavier (as he playfully acknowledged at the outset of the night) as well as more mellow than when he recorded “Solsbury Hill” for his 1977 solo debut. But in that song, he sang “Just had to trust imagination,” and in that regard, he hasn’t changed.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.