Peter Gabriel revisits his groundbreaking album So in Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
1986 was a pivotal year in pop and rock music: With the twin success of Peter Gabriel’s So and Paul Simon’s Graceland, released within three months of each other, the world had entered into mainstream popular music. Whereas before chart toppers had drawn their inspiration from European and North American music tradition, Gabriel and Simon, both already with long and successful musical careers under their belts, opened the doors for other musical traditions, hitherto confined to specialist labels and audiences. Particularly African music styles were a major influence for both artists, their success leading to a veritable explosion in interest for what became known as „world music“. For Peter Gabriel, already a musical pioneer as front man of the first incarnation of Genesis, this was not a new departure: He had been a proponent of non-Western music for years, having incorporated such influences as early as on his 1980 eponymous third album and having created WOMAD in 1982, originally a festival, later a major platform and movement for world music. It would eventually lead to the creation of the Real World studios and record label by Gabriel, to this day a major promoter of artists from all over the world. So also marked his biggest commercial success, proving that mainstream pop and world music were no enemies. Incidentally the album also introduced an artist who would become an international star in his own right: Youssou N’Dour.
So central is the album to Peter Gabriel’s musical career that its 25th anniversary not only saw the release of an inevitable „special edition“ – he also took the album on tour, first in North America, a year later in Europe. Revisiting an album a quarter century after its release is a nostalgic affair, even more so as the tour features the original band from the 1987 tour accompanying the album: Complementing Gabriel stalwarts David Rhodes on guitar and Tony Levin on bass guitar it offers a reunion with drummer Manu Katché and keyboarder David Sancious, a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. A contribution that pays off: While Sancious’ versatile play builds the foundation of a dense musical universe, Katché’s drumming is the show’s heartbeat: complex, flexible, ever-changing, a rhythmic world of its own, providing a richness of influences, inspirations and associations, later incarnations of Gabriel’s touring band have lacked, even though they still featured the band’s backbone in Rhodes and Levin.
Provided with this much musical firepower, Gabriel embarks on a thoroughly choreographed musical journey that exhibits no sign of fatigue or routine whatsoever, a rollercoaster ride through an expansive musical universe. It starts with a short acoustic set which features bare and, at the same time, dense versions of Shock the Monkey and Come Talk to Me, exhibited with the house lights on to give, as he explains, the feel of a rehearsal. That this music is ever evolving is showcased by the opener: Obut is a brand new song – so new in fact that it does not have worked out lyrics yet, a work in progress one might say. The evening spans Gabriel’s entire solo career: from his first hit single Solsbury Hill to two brand new songs, Obut and Why Don’t You Show Yourself?, both admittedly rather lightweight and under-complex affairs.
An ensuing electric set features an elaborate light and video show, exhibiting again Gabriel’s well-known passion for audio-visual artistry, although the experimental edge is gone. A lot harks back to the past: the „attacking“ movable lights in No Self Control, the red rain visuals for the song of the same name, the synchronized choreographed walks with Rhodes and Levin in Sledgehammer and In Your Eyes, the distorted close-ups of his face in Digging in the Dirt, the raised fist in Biko. Musically, Gabriel revisits popular tunes such as Solsbury Hill but also highly complex and challenging, certainly not easy to swallow stuff such as The Family and the Fishing Net or the assassination ballad Family Snapshot. The former’s haunting roughness is memorable, so is the latter’s gradually increasing intensity. His voice is raspier than in the past but it retains both its familiar tone and its flexibility and power. Overall, it becomes clear that these songs, some going back to the late 1970s, have aged well – or rather, not aged at all.
Throughout, one gets the impression that these songs still mean something to him, particularly in some he has reworked quite drastically: This goes especially – apart from the songs re-invented as acoustic versions – for Digging in the Dirt, which has been reborn in a hard-edged, almost industrial sound which highlights its bleak insight into human nature even more. As much as Gabriel likes to make his audience happy – he certainly won’t hesitate to challenge them. This is less true for the So part which remains very close to the 1987 live version. Which is a good thing: These songs are so strong, they do not need a re-invention. Highlights are the hauntingly tender Mercy Street, the almost mathematical This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds), the joyous In Your Eyes and the still hauntingly moving Don’t Give Up. This tale of a man trying to preserve his dignity despite being declared a loser by society is still as poignant as it was then. The show ends with the mind-boggling complexity of The Tower that Ate People and the simple pleading that is Biko. A highly political song by a highly political artist. Peter Gabriel has entered the fall of his career but he is still the versatile and alert artist he’s ever been. Which is extremely comforting.