News: Peter Gabriel review – haunting new tunes have fans hitting the air

51 years have passed since Peter Gabriel unexpectedly appeared on stage at a Dublin show wearing his wife’s Ossie Clarke frock and a fox’s head, catapulting Genesis from a budding underground band to the subject of music press covers. He refers to it as “when dinosaurs roamed the earth and me and Tony both had hair” now, glancing at bassist Tony Levin’s glossy pate, but even though it was a long time ago, he can still clearly remember one lesson from that night. It helps to dress it up if you’re facing a difficult sell. Tricky 22-minute songs performed by reserved public schoolboys were never going to push Marc Bolan and David Bowie off the front pages in 1972.

That’s the case with Gabriel’s present tour. Even though the two sets have a combined duration of over two hours, the concert isn’t very long. The reason for this is that half of the 20 songs he performs are brand-new, taken from his first album of original music in 21 years, i/o, which may or may not be released by year’s end. Gabriel has been releasing a new song every full moon, so some of them have made their way online, but not all of them have.

It’s a hazardous business because, in 2023, rock stars of Gabriel’s era tend to base their arena performances on their greatest successes rather than obscure material, but Gabriel has experience with this. A decade ago, he sang a brand-new song that he hadn’t yet completed writing to fire up the house during the opening act of his global tour.

He sets up elaborate staging tonight to showcase the new material. In one sequence, Gabriel and his backing band perform while seated around a campfire. In another, he performs in front of a large, rather prophylactic-looking length of clear plastic that either suddenly and repeatedly turns opaque, casting the singer in silhouette, or acts as a kind of see-through cinema screen, overlaying him with projections. Gabriel also introduces the songs to the Parisian audience with lengthy explanations that are given in halting French. From what a non-francophone can tell, one song might be about artificial intelligence (AI), while another might be about meteorites.

Actually, it doesn’t appear like the songs from So are just there as a safety precaution. Their sound seems to go well with Gabriel’s synth-heavy new material, which is less dense and more straightforward than the songs on 2002’s Up even if it is noticeably more serpentine than Red Rain or Big Time. In i/o, he muses over the straightforward joys of taking a dog for a walk and spending time in nature; in Four Kinds of Horses, he presents an unexpectedly compassionate view of the end of the world. Much of it has a haunting sense of mortality, especially the exquisite And Still, which poignantly considers Gabriel’s relationship with his mother, who passed away in 2016.

Furthermore, it seems like the audience is enjoying the new content. Undoubtedly, there’s no obvious rush for the restrooms and bar when a music that hasn’t been heard before comes on. One ecstatic fan in the stalls gives triumphant air punches in response to the songs’ climaxes, raising his middle fingers as though he’s seeing Limp Bizkit. It’s an odd reaction to Peter Gabriel singing about the state of the environment, his late mother, or even just walking his dog, but at the very least, it seems like evidence that the risk taken by his new tour—“une expérience live atypique,” as Gabriel puts it in one of his halting speeches—is paying off.

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