Vibrant Gabriel is 'Up' where he belongs onstage

November 14, 2002


I first saw Peter Gabriel perform live 22 years ago, when I was an impressionable young progressive-rock fan, and the singer was touring behind his third self-titled album.

I left that show convinced that I'd never see a better rock concert. But I've seen Gabriel perform on every tour since, and I've left every one of those shows feeling exactly the same way.

Gabriel kicked off his tour in support of "Up" at the United Center on Tuesday, the first of two shows here, and guess what?

I've never seen a better rock concert.

Although this was the artist's first major American concert in 10 years, he refused to reward his patient, longtime fans with a "best-of Gabriel" set, or to pander to the more pop-oriented audience who first embraced him thanks to the MTV success of "Sledgehammer."

Instead, the veteran art-rocker spent the vast majority of the show concentrating on new material, with only an enticing taste of the old hits, including typically transcendent versions of "Red Rain" and "Solsbury Hill." In focusing primarily on the present, he proved that the songs from "Up" and "Ovo" are indeed as strong as any that he has ever written, and that despite the long wait, he is still one of the most vital and vibrant artists of his generation.

As always, Gabriel was a master showman, once again topping himself with the theatrical elements of the two-hour set. Performing in the round, he eschewed the now de rigueur video backdrop, making masterful use of relatively simple but incredibly effective visual alternatives. At one point, he was "swallowed" by a giant white tarpaulin egg that descended center stage. At another, he pedaled a bicycle around the circular platform.

For "The Barry Williams Show," his bitingly sarcastic demolition of Jerry Springer-style talk shows, Gabriel manned a TV camera, alternately turning it on his band, the audience and himself. Most amazingly, for "Growing Up" (with its key line, "My ghosts like to travel"), he climbed inside a giant see-through inflatable ball and bounced and rolled himself around the stage, singing all the while from within its plastic confines.

Unlike the glitzy antics at a Britney Spears or 'N Sync concert, however, the emphasis was always on the music, and virtually every song built on, expanded, and bettered the recorded versions. Especially effective were a beautiful and moving rendition of "Blue Sky" (with guest vocals from the Blind Boys of Alabama, who opened the show with a short but rousing set of their uplifting and harmony-laden gospel music); the quiet solo opening of "Father, Son," a song Gabriel wrote about his yoga-loving dad, and the rousing singalong "Animal Nation," which occupied the slot that "Biko" once held.

The band ranked with the very best that Gabriel has ever fronted, with veteran sideman Tony Levin on bass and David Rhodes on guitar being joined by newcomers Rachel Z on keyboards; Ged Lynch on drums; Richard Evans on guitar, mandolin, pennywhistle and flute, and the star's beautiful and talented daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

From his earliest days with Genesis, through his early art-rock solo albums, to his groundbreaking embrace of world music and into the present as a genre-defying icon, Gabriel always has stretched the boundaries of what can be done onstage and on album. This tour is a welcome testament to the fact that he doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.