Concerts can be curious events.
The things that make a gig memorable might be found in the unlikeliest of places and sadly not always for the right reasons. Tonight, the show, Gabriel explains, will be in three distinct parts. First, an informal ‘acoustic’ warm-up; second, a broad slice of full-on material; and finally, on the occasion of its 28th anniversary, the entirety of So in the album’s original running order.
Inexplicably, however, as Gabriel makes his droll introduction, some sections of the arena seem to be only half-listening to him. As things get underway, too many people are talking and show no sign of shutting the fuck up any time soon. Unaccountably, their yapping continues through the gentle hymn-like semi-acoustic new work in progress entitled What Lies Ahead, which Gabriel explains is still in a state of flux as he hasn’t yet finished the lyrics.
As the band volume increases, by the time they get to No Self Control, in a depressing moment of life imitating art, the punters’ aberrant chatter turns up to 11 so their sparkling wit and conversation might not be obscured by anything as vulgar as the music in the arena.
‘I don’t know how to stop, no I don’t know how to stop,’ sings Gabriel. Sadly, neither do the yappers. You have to wonder exactly why these loud-mouthed boors are here? The answer seems to be that the price of So’s crossover success that took Gabriel from cultish underdog into the commercial mainstream comes with this kind of collateral damage.
As if to remind us that there’s more than a fair share of long-term fans present, somewhere between Shock The Monkey and Darkness, a character in the hall yells out “Supper’s Ready!”, surely a contender for the Freebird of the Gabriel crowd. It gets a rousing laugh and brings a smile to the singer’s face. The nods to his back catalogue don’t quite go back as far as that, but with a setlist that goes all the way to his first post-Genesis release, the diehard fans at least are well served.
The problem of how to span the distance between audience and performer in the shed-like environs of venues like tonight’s is something the man who used to dress up as a highly mobile sunflower has put considerable effort into solving. Bridging the inherent lack of intimacy, a retinue of camera crew, engineers and boom lighting operatives, whose faces are hidden behind blank masks, transfer the on-stage action into a real-time music video via the vast screens arranged behind the band. Throughout the performance, a sea of bobbing mobile phones aimed at the stage suck in all the light, energy and spectacle into tiny pixels and tinny audio for consumption at a later date.
Though familiar, the spirited choreography between Gabriel and his long-time cohorts, guitarist David Rhodes and bassist Tony Levin, hasn’t lost any of its joyous good humour. The band seem entirely at ease and are clearly enjoying working together. Keyboard player David Sancious, drummer Manu Katché, and the relatively newer additions to the live roster, singers Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson, are quite simply flawless.
The man himself wanders casually between centre stage and his keyboard stations, cutting a slightly eccentric figure in his smock-cum-hoody outfit that occasionally reminds us how on the money TV spoof character Brian Pern is. Though not without moments of humour and self-parody, the bulk of Gabriel’s music exposes the secret interior world of attraction and obsession, of taking a stand in the face of daunting odds and bearing witness.
It’s a testament to the essential integrity residing at the core of Gabriel’s musical vision that such messages are left largely intact and undiluted, despite the attendant gloss and unwanted distractions of an arena show.