Peter Gabriel at Red Rocks, 9/30/12

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Shortly before launching into an epic set that spanned nearly three hours at Red Rocks last night, Peter Gabriel took the tack of a well trained maître d', explaining that the program would come in three courses, kicking off with a four-song acoustic set followed by "electric bit" composed of tunes pulled from the entirety of his thirty-year-plus career, culminating with a song-by-song recreation of the seminal 1986 album So. The 62-year-old then went on to deliver a stunning and rich show that mixed top-notch musicianship and performance art with a knack for old-fashioned theatrics.

See also: Peter Gabriel at Red Rocks, 6/13/11

The performance had a much different feel from Gabriel's appearance at the same venue with the New Blood Orchestra last year. In 2011, Gabriel showed up in Morrison with a full orchestra, forgoing his usual art-rock approach for a sound that would have suited a concert hall. Sunday's show was all about returning to Gabriel's roots as a tour-de-force stadium act, an artist who can seamlessly mix elements of pop, funk, soul, progressive rock and performance art in a single elaborate stage show.

Gabriel drew on a familiar cast of supporting musicians to create that vibe. Indeed, the band comprised musicians who helped create the sound of So in the studio, as well as newer arrivals to Gabriel's troupe. Drummer Manu Katché, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes joined longtime Gabriel alum David Sancious on keyboards and Swedish backup vocalists Linnea Olson and Jennie Abrahamson. The band found a complement in Gabriel's trademark flair for complex theatrics. The Red Rocks stage was filled to bursting with instruments, massive light rigs fixed on giant tracks, a quintet of LED screen against the back of the stage and a giant circular piece that hung from the top of the stage for the majority of the show.

With consummate skill from the sextet, Gabriel recreated all nine tracks from So with precision and feeling. What's more, the band offered fresh takes on tunes from the rest of his oeuvre, creating a sparkling musical montage of an impressive career. Like last year, Gabriel appeared onstage alone before any musician picked up an instrument, dressed simply and starkly in a long black vest that matched the color of his shirt, boots and slacks.

He started with a paean to the venue itself, declaring, "It's very good to be back here, in what must be the world's most beautiful arena." Gabriel went on to explain that the opening act from last year, backup singer and Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun, had fallen ill and would be unable to play a warm-up set. Her replacement came in a paired act from Olson and Abrahamson. Abrahamson led the opening set on vocals and piano, with Olson as accompaniment on the viola. Songs like "Hard to Come By" and "Falling" featured sparse and elegant piano work, plodding viola lines and soothing, understated vocals from Abrahamson.

After the duo's short set, a team of crew members decked in red jumpsuits started converting the stage for the main event. Gabriel appeared alone for a second time, spelling out the three-course approach of the show and announcing that he'd kick off the night with a new song, a piano ballad that lacked any definite lyrics or title. With the help of King Crimson alum Levin, Gabriel started the set with a lilting and free-form tune. After a false start, he made his way through a musical draft, spelling out a general melody and singing indefinite lyrics in an improvisatory, vocalese form. "If anyone had lyrics (from that) ... send them to petergabriel.com," Gabriel joked after wrapping up.

There was no uncertainty in any of the tunes that followed. After introducing the rest of the band, he launched into the remainder of the first part of the set, a calm batch of tunes played with the house lights on that saw Sancious playing accordion, Levin playing an electric stand-up bass and Rhodes and Katché strumming acoustic guitars. "Come Talk to Me," "Shock the Monkey" and "Family Snapshot" took on a different feel with the acoustic treatment.

What immediately followed was signature Gabriel, a tour-de-force selection from a catalogue of three decades plus given added power with an elaborate stage show. The band pulled off note-for-note renditions of songs like "Digging in the Dirt," "Secret World," "No Self Control" and "Solsbury Hill," as carefully timed light routines and colorful graphics beamed on the five screens at the back of the stage. Gabriel and the band regularly broke into choreographed dance steps.

After about ten songs, Gabriel coyly announced, "So now you've earned your dessert," at which point the strains of "Red Rain" opened the track-by-track, note-by-note live recreation of the masterpiece known as So. The screens were bathed in crimson colors for "Red Rain," hues that eerily colored the live shots of Gabriel and his band. The whole crowd seemed to be on its feet as soon as the opening riff of "Sledgehammer" rang out - Gabriel turned the mike to the audience to sing the song's title phrase. Abrahamson emerged at the front of the stage to sing the lead female part on "Don't Give Up," a song with a back-and-forth dynamic that became downright theatric on the Red Rocks stage.

Gabriel lay on his back for the entire length of "Mercy Street," the song dedicated to the poet Anne Sexton. As he sang prostrate on his back, Gabriel looked to the cameras fixed in the revolving light rigs and the circular set piece hanging from the ceiling - the image of his concentrated gaze beamed onto the giant screen to the right of the stage. "Big Time" had a rousing effect similar to "Sledgehammer," and the band lined up in a row for "This Is the Picture."

The rain started to fall as the band launched into "In Your Eyes," the final track from the CD release of So. Unlike the downpour that hit Gabriel's Red Rocks show last year, the drops were sparse, and the effect made the lush live version of the song all the more dramatic. David Sancious recreated the full percussion of the album version on his keyboard, Abrahamson provided the energetic outro duet and Gabriel recruited the sold-out crowd to clap along with the final chorus.

The performance of So completed, the band took their final bows, then turned around to bend over, a gesture their leader called "the Gabriel band salute." It took mere minutes for the full band to emerge again for a two-song encore set, one that saw a final bit of stagecraft. During the final strains of "The Tower That Ate People," the giant sphere began to descend from the ceiling. Gabriel fixed his gaze on the prop, and a camera caught footage of his fixed stare before he was enveloped. A streaming white sheet fell from the sphere and Gabriel was enveloped, fighting against the material before emerging to perform "Biko."

He spoke of activism and resistance, of a newly connected world and the importance of individual action before launching into lyrics about the South African activist who was brutally murdered in 1979. He urged the audience to take up the chorus, he turned his mike toward the stands. "What happens now is up to you," Gabriel said, before exiting the stage. One by one, his band mates followed, and Stephen Biko's image appeared on one of the screens as the final visual cue of the night. It was a moving end to the evening, to a performance that ended up being much richer than a rote recreation of a hit album.


Personal Bias: In my mind, So is one of the single best albums of the 1980s, and Tony Levin is one of the era's best bassists.

Random Note: A group of guys behind me yelled out "PETER!" in an exaggerated English accent after every song. EVERY song.

By the way: Gabriel explained that "In Your Eyes" was originally intended to be the final song on So. However, because of the limitations of the vinyl format (the bass effect tends to diminish the closer the music is to the center of the disc), Gabriel moved it to the beginning of the second side. He fixed that mistake when it came out on CD.

Continue on for SETLIST from last night's show


Peter Gabriel Red Rocks Amphitheatre - Morrison, CO 9/30/12

Untitled Talk to Me Shock the Monkey Family Snapshot Digging in the Dirt Secret World The Family and the Fishing Net No Self Control Salisbury Hill Washing of the Water Red Rain Sledgehammer Don't Give Up That Voice Again Mercy Street Big Time We Do What We're Told This is the Picture In Your Eyes


The Tower that Ate People Biko

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