Peter Gabriel has made bolder career moves than he did Monday at a two-thirds capacity United Center, where the singer eschewed rock instrumentation, paired with a full orchestra and ignored a few signature hits.
After all, this is a performer who, during the early 70s, helped usher in the theatrical prog era with outlandish displays. Yet at this point, Gabriel's decision to drop guitars and drums while reworking his material seems particularly daring, especially given that many of his peers settle for nostalgia—a luxury he refused in 2007 when he declined to participate in a Genesis reunion.
Of course, with any experiment comes risk, and during the first part of the 140-minute concert (divided by intermission), the 61-year-old English native miscalculated pace and song selection. Symphonic devices can add dramatic heft, but they also tend to bog down tempos and restrict pop music accustomed to grooving to a beat. Rather than diversify, Gabriel initially focused on incongruous covers (as he did on his recent "Scratch My Back" recording) by artists such as Regina Spektor ("Après Moi") as well as several languid originals. Save for a sweetness afforded "Father, Son," most arrangements were protracted, with the occasional avant-garde motifs offset by a lack of energy.
Gabriel's stiff posture—hands at his side, body still and in front of a Teleprompter—didn't dispel feelings of tedium. Nor did his low-key, quiet singing that, akin to the formal strings, appeared tailored for a mournful mass. In introducing a rendition of Paul Simon's "The Boy In the Bubble," Gabriel half-jokingly announced that, stripped of its African vibes, the tune now amounted to "yet another miserable white man song." Thankfully, the same couldn't be said for the set-closing "Biko," filled with tribal elements that awoke Gabriel from a slumber.
The momentum carried into the show's more rhythmic and visually stimulating second half, which found the vocalist employing his trademark falsetto cry and engaging the crowd. He flashed a spotlight on fans during "San Jacinto" and prowled like a cat burglar on the sinister "Intruder." Gabriel, too, gave the New Blood Orchestra—comprised of U.K. and Chicago musicians— freer reign. Even if some sonic decorations proved unnecessary, the looser approach escalated tension ("Signal to Noise"), exaggerated contrasts ("Digging in the Dirt") and conveyed romanticism ("Blood of Eden").
In good voice, and missing only a bit from his high range, Gabriel struck an ideal balance of flair and elegance on "Solsbury Hill," expressing enchantment by skipping across the stage and taking advantage of one of the evening's only chances to dance.
© Chicago Tribute, by Bob Gendron
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