Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Man and His Masks: Peter Gabriel, September 19, 2012, Air Canada Centre, Toronto

Peter Gabriel - Toronto, September 19, 2012

Peter Gabriel and I have quite a history together. Last week at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto I saw him for the sixth time, which I will discuss shortly, but nothing will ever top the first time on the evening of October 16, 1978, also in Toronto, at Maple Leaf Gardens. And no, I'm not rainman with dates. There's a wonderful, and very obsessive website called setlist.fm that lists all his (and many many perfomers') concerts from the start of his solo career to the present.

In 1978, I was a broke university student, so I could only afford nosebleed seats in the greys high up in MLG's rafters. A friend and a girl I was seeing at the time came with me. After a terrible opening act (what they were thinking putting Nick Gilder on as Peter Gabriel's opening act is beyond me. We booed him off the stage in 15 minutes – poor bastard – though we gave him polite applause for his one hit that I can recall, “Hot Child in the City”), I snuck down to the top of the reds with my camera, telephoto lens and high-speed black and white film. I hoped that the lens and fast film would allow me to get good shots.

To that point I had actually never seen a clear photo of Gabriel. During his Genesis years he was often in elaborate costumes or wearing thick face make-up. On the cover of his first solo record Peter Gabriel (aka Car) he was wearing gold-tinted contact lenses and was slightly obscured behind a car's window. On the cover of his second solo record (which he was touring to support in 1978), also called Peter Gabriel (aka Scratch), his face was obscured by scratch marks down the cover. So I really didn't know what he looked like. I was waiting at the top of the red section for about 10 minutes when a man wearing a hard hat, fluorescent construction worker's vest and holding a spotlight in his hand walked up beside me. I glanced over at him, but paid him no mind. Since the concert was late starting I, for some reason, eventually turned to this guy and said, “do you know how long before the concert starts?” He answered, “oh, you'll see.” Then I said, “where will Gabriel come out?” I knew he liked to enter the concert in strange ways. The man glanced over at me with a bemused smile on his face and said, “you'll find out.” Then he moved off. When he was about 50 feet away from me making his way down the stairs of the red section he turned on his spotlight. He was immediately mobbed. I felt like such a git. Here I was talking to a recording artist I greatly admired and didn't even know it.

Review of the 1978 Toronto concert
I returned to my seat and told my girlfriend and buddy what had transpired. And no, I didn't have a photo of him. About three-quarters of the way through the concert Gabriel's band began “Here Comes the Flood,” the song he always sang at that time when he ventured into the audience. Two feet from me (I was sitting on the aisle) an usher came down beside me followed by a man. I could see neither of their faces. The usher, instead of showing this guy a seat, used his flashlight to send a signal to the mostly darkened stage (Gabriel's band were playing riffs on the song). A spotlight flashed on, blinding us, and there, two feet from me, was Peter Gabriel (yup, I recognized him this time). Everybody around us went nuts. The only thing I had time to do before he moved off singing the song was to clap him on the back. As it later turned out, none of the photos I took were much good, and by the time I had my second encounter with Gabriel, I was out of film.

Throughout the 1980s, I saw Gabriel four more times. None could top the first. How could they, especially my double encounter with him on that evening in 1978? The last time was also the same night I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time, the Amnesty International Tour concert on September 15, 1988, also at Maple Leaf Gardens. Over the years, he continued to release the occasional CD, such as his great soundtrack, Passion (1989), to Martin Scorsese's outrageously misunderstood masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Us (1992), Up (2002) and last year's New Blood. But I never had an urge to attend another Gabriel concert. I believe it is hard, if not impossible, to top the first time seeing any artist, which is why I have no intention of seeing Youssou N'Dour or Bruce Springsteen again now that I've seen full concerts by both (N'Dour and Springsteen both had truncated roles on the same Amnesty concert as Gabriel in 1988). But with less than a week to go, my wife told me she'd never seen him live, so I got tickets at the last minute.

Again nosebleed seats (that's all that were left). Unlike the tour to support New Blood, which featured a full orchestra (no drums or guitars) playing his old songs, this tour did have an intriguing premise. He and his original band (bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, percussionist Manu Katche, and keyboardist David Sancious) were going to play, in track order, the entire So (1986) album to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The rest of the evening would be from his other records.

After a short opening set (just three songs) by his Swedish-based back up singers, Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson, Gabriel came on to outline the evening. The first part would be an acoustic set with just piano, voice, double bass and acoustic guitar and drums. Part two would be electronic featuring a full assault. Part three would be So played track by track.

To say the evening then got off to a very distancing and distracting start would be an understatement. For some ill-conceived reason, Gabriel decided to illuminate this first section with the house lights on. The only other light source during the acoustic section on the stage was a bare light bulb, so I guess he wanted to replicate that idea in the audience. The problem was that the strongest house lights were right above our heads. The effect was to put a distancing veil between us and our ability to view the stage. To understand what this was like, try this. Take a fluorescent desk lamp and hold the light just above your eyes and look at someone. It's like you are looking through a fog. It also didn't help that he decided to start the evening with a new “unfinished” and “untitled” song that a few days later I discovered Gabriel had finally titled “OBUT.” Since Gabriel has always loved to wear literal or figurative masks as a performer he may have decided to obscure a vague song even further with this technique, but it just didn't work. I figured out quickly that this was deliberate, but many people around me didn't, calling out, “turn out the house lights!”

Like many singer/songwriters (Randy Newman comes to mind), Gabriel has always loved to put on a dark persona with his songs. On tracks like “Intruder” (off of his 1980 third solo album, also called Peter Gabriel, aka Melt) he's a sexual predator. On “Big Time” (off of So) he's an arrogant and self-entitled businessman. And on “Family Snapshot” (also on Melt) he took on the persona of Arthur Bremer. Bremer was a would-be assassin who, in 1972, shot and seriously wounded Governor George Wallace. Amongst Bremer's belongings a diary was found that was later published. Gabriel read the work and wrote “Family Snapshot” as a narrative from the point-of-view of an assassin about to shoot a politician. Throughout his solo career, Gabriel has often explored the cracks and crevices of damaged psyches in his own attempt to understand the dark corners of life on our planet. This was the last song in the weak acoustic section and it became, half way through, part of the electronic section as the house lights finally went down and the electric guitars came out. Though the So portion at the end was fun, the best part of this concert, and most unnerving, was this second “act.”

Toronto 2012 - Video Imagery
The concert hit a completely different level when they began to perform “Digging in the Dirt” off of Us, a song about the explosion of a man's personal life. Gone was the tentativeness of the opening portion (this was only the third night of the whole tour). The lighting, song choice and video imagery from this point onwards were used to examine one overriding theme: the insecurity and fear that invades our every day life post 9/11 (even though all the songs came out before 9/11). The lights moved around the stage on a rail by balaclava-wearing men. They came in close to Gabriel and the band in an almost threatening manner on songs like “Secret World” and “The Family and the Fishing Net,” or they twirled around in confusion to suggest a man's deteriorating mental state in “No Self Control.” The feeling created by the video technology (edited live and on the fly) was dislocating. The stage was littered with tiny cameras seemingly attached to everything (instruments, lights, microphones, people). This all led to fragmented, rapid-fire imagery which at some moments were like the flashes out of a war zone, or broken images from a rebel news cast. It is no stretch to suggest that this portion of the concert was Gabriel commenting upon the uncertain post 9/11 world we live in.

The So portion continued with these ideas on songs like “Red Rain,” “Don't Give Up” (with Jennie Abrahamson doing a credible stand-in for Kate Bush), and “We Do What We Are Told (Miligram's 37).” But the stunt of playing the whole album track by track lacked the frightening immediacy of the second portion. Part of the joy of live performance is that you are never sure when the concert will end. Here you knew exactly when we would be heading to encores: “In Your Eyes,” as it's the last track on the album.

Unlike most recording artists, Peter Gabriel has always attempted to understand the world he lives in through his songs and the manner in which he stages his concerts, whether it was back in 1978, or now. In 2012, as Syria tears itself apart, the Muslim world freaks out over a childish and despicable trailer for a film, and Iran continues to threaten Israel's existence, there is plenty of material Gabriel wrote in the past that still has deep resonance to the present, and his live performances, such as this, continue to add to that legacy.

His tour continues through the end of October across the US. For upcoming shows, go to www.petergabriel.com.

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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