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Peter Gabriel brings 'So' alive with subtle elegance

Peter Gabriel performs at the United Center in Chicago on Sept. 27, 2012 Peter Gabriel performs at the United Center in Chicago on Sept. 27, 2012 Chris Sweda
Peter Gabriel's association with spectacle stems from his days with Genesis in the early 1970s. The English singer didn't reach back that far Thursday at a fairly full United Center, yet his affinity for visual pageantry seldom waned.
Treating the stage as a minimalist film set, the sprightly front man doubled as a director enamored with the relationship between lighting and symbolism. Deceivingly simple, abstract illumination framed Gabriel's135-minute production based around the complete performance of his 1986 blockbuster record "So."

The 62-year-old has come to terms with nostalgia in an unconventional manner. In 2007, he declined an invitation to reunite with Genesis. Still, he's released just one all-original studio album in the past decade, and his 2011 tour featured an orchestra carrying out rearrangements of his past work. While "So" is now 26, Gabriel views the current outing and forthcoming reissues as 25th anniversary celebrations. The delay apparently pertains to the vocalist's insistence to get everything right—including the band, comprised of the same core that originally played on "So" and its associated tour.

Whether tearing into the paranoia of "No Self Control" or scaling down the intensity on an aura-laden "Secret World," the musicians instilled Gabriel's with fare reinvigorated energy and watertight foundations. Drummer Manu Katché, guitarist David Rhodes and bassist Tony Levin approached nearly every tune with equal measures of virtuosic technicality and unflappable cool. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to G. Gordon Liddy, Levin slapped his instruments' strings with bare fingers and wooden sticks, trading in funk, reggae, soul and spurts of prog rock.

The superb support afforded Gabriel license to augment songs with figurative visuals and operate as the center of miniature theatrical sketches. Evoking the robed "road-eyes" crew members from Neil Young's "Rust Never Sleeps" movie, stage hands wore matching dark outfits and masks. They pushed five manually operated lighting cranes on a track lining the stage perimeter, raising and lowering the machines' arms to correspond with Gabriel's positioning.

Creeping shadows paralleled the mournful culmination of "Family Snapshot." On "Don't Give Up," compromised by backup singer Jennie Abrahamson's tissue-paper-thin voice, chiaroscuro patterns illustrated contrasts between distress and hope. Gabriel crooned "Mercy Street" lying on his back and situated a midst a lit-up bull's-eye target. During "The Tower That Ate People," he became encircled, and then, engulfed, by lighting props. Not everything involved arty designs or serious undercurrents.

Watching Gabriel and company attempt choreographed dance moves registered with self-knowing humor. And while missing a bit on the top end, his voice sounded little different than it did decades ago. Flush with spiritual overtones, the singer even stripped down a few songs to their piano-based structures as if to say that understatement remains the best way to amplify the lasting effects of extravagance.

© Chicagotribune, by Bob Gendron


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