Peter Gabriel Marks 25th Anniversary of 'So' With 3-Act Show, John Cusack Cameo: Concert Review

Peter Gabriel Hollywood Bowl Boombox P
Timothy Norris
Veteran songsmith challenges crowd with a set featuring unfamiliar material before rewarding with a stunning performance of his best-selling album.

There's good news for Peter Gabriel fans. A decade since his last non-soundtrack album of original material, he finally has some new music. Gabriel opened his "Back to Front" show at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday -- designed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his commercial blockbuster So -- with a new song, tentatively titled "O But," which he claimed wasn't even finished yet. Perhaps it was his way of challenging his audience before offering what he called "dessert," a performance of his best-selling album.

Celebrating the past seems a bit out of character for Gabriel, who at one point was considered a musical maverick. After leaving Genesis for a solo career in the mid-'70s, he simply titled his first three solo albums eponymously -- much to the dismay of his record label -- and filled them with music fresh and edgy enough to be accepted by the new wave, despite his prog-rock past. And, he's rejected offers to rejoin Genesis, despite a lucrative payday. Yet in recent years, he's been digging up his past. First with his 2010 Scratch My Back/I Scratch Yours covers project and last year with New Blood, an orchestral re-interpretation of his earlier material.

At the Bowl on Saturday, Gabriel explained that the night would be broken into three parts -- an opening acoustic section performed mostly with the house lights partially on, so it would seem a bit like watching a band rehearse or work in the studio; an electric portion; and then a performance of So. In other words, he'd be happy to go back and perform his 5-million-selling album, but he was going to throw in some twists in turns along the way.

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Backed by longtime bassist Tony Levin, Gabriel performed "O But" at the piano, and sounded a bit like Randy Newman, whose "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" he covered on Scratch My Back. With the rest of the band taking the stage, including guitar ace David Rhoads and former E Street Band keyboardist/accordion player David Sancious, Gabriel eventually eased into an acoustic version of his 1982 hit "Shock the Monkey," which while interesting, could have benefited from more electricity as he struggled to hit the high notes.

But things picked up from there. "A Family Snapshot," a track from his third album inspired by George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremer's  "An Assassin's Diary," was given a dramatic reading, with the rehearsal concept thrown out the window as the full stage and lighting kicked in, ending dramatically with just Gabriel's piano and voice. The momentum continued into the second part of the show, as Gabriel in company shifted into high gear on his 1992 hit "Digging in the Dirt," with the crowd shouting along to the chorus.

At 62, with his shaved head and grey goatee, Gabriel looks more like a Breaking Bad cast member these days than the handsome bloke that finally agreed to have his undistorted photograph grace the cover of So. He spent much of the evening at the piano and keyboard, but occasionally strutted out to prowl the stage and engage in some playful and slightly corny choreographed moves with his band. With a series of individually operated lighting booms, the staging was spectacular with the lighting rigs adjusting to various configurations to match the mood of the music. For example, to illustrate the constraints of "The Family and the Fishing Net," the lighting booms follow Gabriel around the stage before closing in on him.

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The So portion of the show opened with the '80s-style bombast of "Red Rain," driven by Manu Katche's thundering drums, but the most powerful part of the song came at its climax, again with Gabriel's lone voice and piano. For the electro-funk workout of his biggest hit "Sledgehammer," Gabriel was at his most animated, thrusting his first toward his skull in a hammer-like fashion, each time he sang the song's title. That was followed by the duet, "Don't Give Up," with back-up singer Jennie Abrahamson admirably filling the Kate Bush role. With its chorus of endless encouragement, the song now sounds like it's from some lost Disney soundtrack, but it was freshened up with the addition of a reggae-jam finale.

Of course, performing an album in sequence has its pitfalls. The show sagged a bit during "That Voice Again," but Gabriel was able to regain the momentum by performing "Mercy Street" on his back in the center of the stage, lying inside a target. "Big Time," another hit single, offered another blast of '80s electro-funk, but the follow-up, "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)," was more interesting with the band performing behind the lighting rigs on the ominous track that wouldn't have been out of place on Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Album closer "In Your Eyes" was the clear highlight of the night. This being Hollywood, actor John Cusack, who helped immortalize the song as the boombox-bearing Romeo Lloyd Dobler in the 1989 film Say Anything, was on hand to make a cameo. He handed off the boombox to Gabriel, who recreated the classic scene, holding it over his head before launching into the song. (Gabriel later gave a shout-out to filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who was also in the crowd). Abrahamson, this time recreating Youssou N' Dour's part, was one of the evening's great revelations. (She and fellow backing vocalist Linnea Olson also opened the show with a promising, but brief set that included a cover of Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace.")

For the first encore, Gabriel went with the obscurity "The Tower That Ate People," from 2000's Ovo and later The Red Planet soundtrack, an edgy and anxious track that climaxed with a circular lighting rig descending on and swallowing up Gabriel. Before the set closer "Biko," about the slain South African activist, Gabriel commented about how social media and smart phones are bringing people together, insuring that no one ever has to protest alone. And on Saturday night, Gabriel showed that he, too, still possesses the power to bring people together into a united force.

Set List:

Part 1, acoustic:

O But
Come Talk To Me
Shock The Monkey
Family Snapshot

Part 2, Electric:

Digging In The Dirt
Secret World
The Family And The Fishing Net
Solsbury Hill
Washing Of The Water


Red Rain
Don't Give Up
That Voice Again
Mercy Street
Big Time
We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)
This is The Picture (Excellent Birds)
In Your Eyes


The Tower That Ate People

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