The trend of performing an album in full is a welcome one – it’s a blessing for nostalgists, and a celebration of music that doesn’t come in bite-size packaging. But building a show around a particular disc presents an inherent challenge when it comes to pacing and cohesion. How to make the rest of the set feel like more than padding? How to avoid a jarring break in mood? Good thing Peter Gabriel is an ideas man.
Gabriel’s Bell Centre concert on Tuesday was centred on the commercial watershed of 1986’s So, but no matter how popular a 46-minute album may be, it will only get you so far in a 140-minute concert. Greeting the 12,700 faithful at the outset, Gabriel announced the plan for the evening: an acoustic set, then an electric set culled from the rest of the discography, then So. Simple enough in theory, remarkably seamless in practice.
For a show whose main attraction offered a built-in sense of event, things began with a remarkable lack of ceremony: Gabriel at the piano, stalwart Tony Levin on bass, the house lights on and a presumably new song, listed as OBUT on an official set list typed in short-hand. It was luminous, and the warmth only grew when the rest of the band arrived for a surprisingly sprightly Come Talk to Me.
After a creeping Shock the Monkey, Family Snapshot effortlessly bridged the acoustic and electric segments, bringing the house lights down while triggering the three-pronged stage lights (a throwback to the So tour) and fragmented video screens. The gripping first-person shooter saga was a treat for those in thrall to Gabriel’s art-rock roots, and it wasn’t the only surprise in a set list that was somewhat predictable by virtue of its central conceit. No Self Control and The Family and the Fishing Net counterbalanced the pop hooks of So, the latter sounding as demented as ever (although its belaboured light-stand choreography pointed to the period equipment’s cumbersome nature). A fierce Digging in the Dirt surely helped keep casual fans on the hook, and proved Gabriel remains a magnetic presence even as his physicality has faded.
A jaunty but relatively low-key Solsbury Hill led into So, free of fanfare save Gabriel’s acknowledgement of "la troisième partie." No interruption or intermission, no implication that what came before was an appetizer – just Red Rain’s crimson lighting to offer a contrast with the stark white beams that dominated the earlier part of the set.
If what followed was a given, it was anything but rote (aside from a tentative That Voice Again). Gabriel can still pull off the suavely undignified crotch thrusts punctuating Sledgehammer; more importantly, time hasn’t dimmed the song’s jovial lust. Big Time was similarly punchy, while We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) was 37 shades darker than on album, thanks to David Rhodes’s corrosive guitar and a phalanx of masked technicians guarding the mobile lighting rigs.
Following the sequence of the remastered album rather than the original release was another inspired bit of pacing. This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds) – featuring the band in circular formation and knowingly rudimentary choreography – was a quirky curio, but the closing In Your Eyes was an utter joy, as celebratory as the final encore of Biko was sombre.
Compared to the Gabriel tours that bore Robert Lepage’s theatrical imprint, this was a minimalist affair. When Gabriel picked up a suitcase for a symbolic exit in Don’t Give Up (featuring Jennie Abrahamson ably filling the Kate Bush role), he doubled the props budget. Only in the encore did the set turn larger than life, when the donut apparatus that had loomed above the stage descended and devoured the singer during The Tower That Ate People.
Otherwise, the focus was on the music, and it’s to Gabriel’s credit that the focus wasn’t narrow. His high-water mark as a pop star is worth celebrating, but so is the rest of an unparalleled catalogue.