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Peter Gabriel goes back to the So era

Peter Gabriel speaks to the media in Montreal about his forthcoming 3D film “New Blood: Live in London Peter Gabriel speaks to the media in Montreal about his forthcoming 3D film “New Blood: Live in London Dario Ayala
Peter Gabriel has made a habit of facing forward. The focus on the future has been there from the start of his solo career -- the 1977 single "Solsbury Hill," one of rock's great goodbyes, saw him moving on from Genesis in no uncertain terms. On occasions when he's allowed himself a glimpse in the rear-view, the outcome hasn't always been nostalgic: when he began staging orchestral shows in 2010, songs from the catalogue were broken down and rebuilt from the ground up.

Considering this, one wonders what led Gabriel to join the ranks of artists revisiting classic albums with Back to Front, a tour centred on 1986's So. Part of the answer lies in the pragmatism of a dreamer.

"There were good offers, and so the money is very helpful to do some of the other things I'm trying to do," Gabriel said by phone in July, when he was working on the tour's production. "That's the practical bit of it. But I think the other thing that convinced me was when I saw Brian Wilson do Pet Sounds live. I really enjoyed it, as someone who loved the record, to see an album from start to finish. So that began to appeal to me."

The timing is just about right -- last year marked the 25th anniversary of So. And despite Gabriel's futurism, he's as fit as anyone to look back and recognize the integrity of a complete work: his albums have often been conceptual, and have always been indivisible in spirit.

That said, So houses more hit singles than any other Gabriel disc: "Sledgehammer," "Don't Give Up," "In Your Eyes" and "Big Time" all have a home here, as do the fan favourites "Red Rain" and "Mercy Street." But the widespread notion of this being the "pop" album by an artist who has typically eschewed commercial concerns isn't shared by its creator.

"It was just another batch of songs," Gabriel said, recalling his mindset while recording So. "In fact, (long-time Gabriel bassist) Tony Levin reminded me just recently that we had pretty much finished laying down the tracks and he'd already started packing his bags when I said, 'Would you mind trying one more idea I've just come up with?' And that was 'Sledgehammer.'

"So I think everyone assumes in hindsight that it was premeditated -- that it had been planned to be successful -- and it certainly felt like we were on to something with certain songs. But we had no idea, really, that it was going to achieve the sort of success that it did and turn me into a pop star for a week."

One of the discs in a regal box-set reissue supports Gabriel's assertion that the album wasn't calculated to be a chartbuster. The demos on SoDNA offer a rare glimpse into Gabriel's working process; based on a few tracks previewed for the media, "Don't Give Up" could have been a reggae number, while a formative phase of "Red Rain" brings out its funk underpinning. (The box set -- which also includes the remastered original album, a 1987 Athens concert on CD and DVD, a making-of documentary, a 60-page book and more -- is scheduled for release on Oct. 22. The stand-alone remastered album will be released on the same date, as will a three-CD version including the audio from the Athens show.)

"I always try to keep a recording going whenever music's being played," Gabriel said. "And although that means you get hours and hours of dismal stuff, you do occasionally get the moments of magic, and then at least they're trapped and you can hunt them down. Whereas if they're just floating in your memory, you think, 'Oh yes, I can do that easily tomorrow,' and you come back tomorrow and you never get it again the same way.

"In this case, although it's not always very flattering, I thought for a hardcore fan it might be interesting to see some of the moments where I find a melody or chord or whatever it is that's going to make up the song."

From So's creation to its re-creation: Gabriel has reunited his 1986-'87 touring band for the current dates, bringing Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, drummer Manu Katché and keyboardist David Sancious on the road. He had been in touch with Parachute, the Montreal-based company that supplied the outfits for the So tour. (Another of Gabriel's Quebec connections, along with his collaborations on previous tours with theatre director Robert Lepage.) And at the time of the interview in July -- with the production a work in progress -- he planned on the Back to Front stage show mirroring the original.

"I've tried to bring back some of the elements that were there at the time. We had some boom lights which were on that tour: these are camera booms, and we stuck three lights on the end of them, and there's one for each of the band members. And there will be some sort of video stuff related to that. So it's not going to be a full visual Robert Lepage-type production, but I think it will be fun."

As for the set list, the tour's title doesn't mean Gabriel will start at the end of So and work his way back to the front. "That would be a logical conclusion," he said with a laugh. "It was more that I was thinking about bringing the retro bit to the forefront. Currently I'm thinking of playing it in sequence, because it's never been played from top to bottom."

The tour announcement suggested the remainder of the show will focus on hits from the rest of his catalogue. "I'm not sure I should have said that," Gabriel admitted. "I think there will still be a few of the more obscure tracks as well." He proceeded to name an early-1980s song that would satisfy the steadfast art-rock contingent of his audience and "would never be described as a hit. ... There should be some things that I haven't done for a while."

And because this is not traditionally a nostalgic artist, there will probably be a preview of new material on the tour, which began Sunday in Quebec City. "There are three things I've been working on just recently. Depending on what shape they're in when we hit September, I'd like to do at least one, and maybe all three if I can."

Considering Gabriel's methodical pace of recording, one would be foolhardy to predict a time frame for the release of those new songs, especially since 2013 has been set aside for family adventures. "After the tour, we have our kids out of school for a year. 'A year of interesting things,' we're calling it."

When he returns to active artistic duty, there's a very outside chance that the experience of re-creating So will spur him to revisit another album, although the candidate is far from obvious.

"I had thought about doing Passion at one point," Gabriel said, citing the 1989 world-music landmark that originated as the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ. "Although that wasn't a popular album in the way that So was, and it would be much harder because it was reliant on some extraordinary performances from great artists -- sadly, Nusrat (Fateh Ali Khan, celebrated Pakistani vocalist) is no longer with us. But it still might be a fascinating thing to try to do. I don't know, though: I think I'll mainly be forward-facing."

© The Gazette, by Jordan Zivitz


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