Rain keeps falling down, but Gabriel's concert anything but soggy


June 30, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Peter Gabriel has always been one of rock's greatest showmen, but even he can't control the weather.

As if on cue Saturday night, the heavens provided an impressive light show and a torrential downpour as Gabriel and his six-piece band performed the transcendent ballad "Red Rain" to kick off a strong set at the Tweeter Center.

A few songs later, the sound crew furiously mopped the stage, concerned about the moisture that blew in horizontally under the pavilion to collect around the musicians' electronics. The good-natured Gabriel just made the technicians part of the act, jokingly introducing each of them in turn.

Having survived a break with Genesis to thrive as a solo artist, a brush with bankruptcy thanks to his fervor in launching the WOMAD Festival, and 36 years of turbulent ups and downs in the music industry, the 53-year-old singer and songwriter wasn't about to let a little water stop him.

Last November, Gabriel made his first visit to Chicago in 10 years on the tour supporting his last album, 2002's understated art-rock masterpiece "Up." At the United Center, he performed in the round and took full advantage of the unique circular stage by rolling around the edge inside a giant transparent ball during the haunting and ethereal "Growing Up" (which features the key line, "My ghosts like to travel").

The absurd sphere returned on Saturday, but the singer's traveling was a bit more limited--he had to content himself with menacing and nearly rolling over guitarist David Rhodes during a fiery lead, and bouncing up and down in place during the choruses.

The rest of the man-made (as opposed to natural) theatrics were toned down, too, but they really weren't missed. No matter how elaborate the special effects, the focus of any Gabriel show is always on the music. Not only was he in fine voice, but he was playing with one of the best bands of his career.

Veteran bassist Tony Levin and drummer Ged Lynch powered the rolling polyrhythms of songs such as "Digging in the Dirt" and "Shock the Monkey," while second guitarist and whistle player Richard Evans and keyboardist Rachel Z created a minimal but hauntingly lovely ambience during "Mercy Street," Gabriel's tender homage to the late poet Anne Sexton.

Another understated highlight came when the star performed a duet with his daughter, backing vocalist Melanie Gabriel, during an inspiring version of "Don't Give Up." But the moment that most fans will carry with them was a rousing instrumental vamp in the middle of "Solsbury Hill." Wireless one and all, Gabriel, Levin, Rhodes and Evans pranced in a joyful conga line around the entire outside perimeter of the pavilion (the lingering rain be damned) before returning to end the tune onstage.

In keeping with his generous habit, Gabriel appeared early in the evening to introduce his opening act, the 25-year-old Uzbek singer Sevara Nazarkhan, whose debut album "Yol Bolsin" was released on his Real World label.

Nazarkhan's set of Sufi peasant songs recalled a less intense, less accomplished Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. She was more impressive when she returned to join Gabriel during the first of his well-deserved encores, the always-rousing "In Your Eyes."

Most people remember the tune from Cameron Crowe's romantic comedy "Say Anything," which found Chicagoan John Cusack standing in the rain blasting the song on his boom box in an effort to win Ione Skye. It was hard not to think of that scene as Gabriel's show drew to a close much as it started, in wet but wonderful fashion.

Hmmm. Maybe the musical magician has some influence on the weather after all.