Spending my teenage years growing up in Bootle, a suburb of North Liverpool, there was a strange phenomenon afoot, that of the local scally scene that lent itself to the worship of both Pink Floyd and Genesis. It was a very North Liverpool thing. Driving up to the Peter Gabriel gig in Manchester tonight with our photographer John Johnson, also a Bootle boy, we talked about this strange branch of proggy fandom. The T-shirts were generally Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall for Floyd heads, and Abacab and Genesis (yellow shapes) for the Genesis crowd. The Genesis fans would fall into two very distinct categories – Gabriel or Collins, and if you didn’t know every word of the 90-minute opus, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, you weren’t worth knowing.
Perhaps this long-forgotten fact explains why there were so many middle aged Scouse men in Manchester’s AO Arena tonight, they were literally everywhere. From 8.00, a pre-filmed man stood behind a huge semi-transparent clock, hanging above the stage, cleaning it and changing the time (in real-time), to symbolise… time. The passing of it and how humankind has moved through it was a theme that ran through tonight’s show and started here. Similarly, from 8.00, a lone scouser was already shouting out Peter’s name and also the title of one of his biggest hits – “Solsbury Hill”.
At one point later in the show, Gabriel talks about how we are all individuals, and notes, “There’s one here tonight.” This presumed Bootle invasion tonight, much like the high level of fandom from the area is interesting as Gabriel’s music is International and mythical. Visit Bootle and you’ll understand why this contrast is so curious. His show tonight continually questions human behaviour on a worldwide stage, and how the threat of AI looms large. The tour title i/o, references how Humans have inputs and outputs, much like computers, and how we are fast becoming programmable machines.
Much like every show Gabriel has ever performed from the garish alien / plant bodysuits of early Genesis through his many solo incarnations, tonight is no exception, and over two sets there is a strong sense of narrative.
Set one opens with Gabriel in a flat cap (his own avatar, the real Gabriel is apparently lying “ripped” on a beach looking 200 years younger), catching an asteroid in his hand and using it to ignite a campfire at the front of the stage, the magic has started early. The first track, “Washing of the Water” is stripped back to just Gabriel and bassist Tony Levin, sitting at the campfire with an enormous moon in the background. Gabriel simply balances a keyboard on his knees. The sound builds as the remaining players join in the round for “Growing Up”. This bare-bones moment makes the move to the full stage for “Panopticon” all the more spectacular. The moon has changed to a huge, sinister blue eye, and live CCTV footage of the band flanks either side of the stage. This almost Orwellian imagery adds to the theme of humanity being controlled and de-humanised.
Gabriel has always been a great supporter of Human Rights, and this campaign is further illustrated by the work of various international video artists whose work is shown on the multiple stages tonight. Gabriel ensures all these artists are namechecked, and also the members of his band…repeatedly.
“Four Kinds of Horses” could almost be a Bond theme, and i/o sees one solitary woman, stood at the front, living and loving every second, flailing her body to Gabriel’s hypnotic beat.
Much of tonight’s content, eleven tracks, are from Gabriel’s new album i/o which is still awaiting release, tracks being teased out gradually online. There are die-hards in the audience who seem non-plussed that we have not had a hit yet from Gabriel’s extensive back catalogue, but when “Digging in the Dirt” emerges, a single from the 1993 Us album, the room truly erupts for the first time with the expected standing, shouting and waving. A solitary scouse voice shouts “Solsbury Hill.”
The remainder of Set one returns to lesser-known material, “Playing for Time”, “Olive Tree” and “This is Home” (all with absolutely breath-taking visuals), before “Sledgehammer” from Gabriel’s masterpiece So album hints as to how Set two will play out. An obvious favourite, this was a massive hit in 1986 along with its groundbreaking animated promo. At 73, Gabriel still looks cool, re-creating the dance from the video as he recites lines that still thrill – “I’ve kicked the habit / shed my skin / this is the new stuff / I come dancing in” Priceless.
Set two opens with the solitary scouser still pleading for “Solsbury Hill” whilst a semi-transparent plastic sheet descends to cover the front of the stage. Gabriel stalks behind it, allowing technical wizardry to animate his form throughout “Darkness”. The rest of the show alternates between lesser-known material and the highlights of So, including a blistering “Red Rain” and a show-stealing “Don’t Give Up” between Gabriel and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, taking the Kate Bush role.
“The Court” is worth a mention here, the most Genesis like of all the songs tonight, with Gabriel prowling the stage in sinister character against a Wicker Man style film by video artist Tim Shaw. “Solsbury Hill” closes the set and Gabriel reverts to dancing elf-like around the stage with images of fields and country roads taking life-long fans back to the summer of 1977 and simpler times away from AI, Avatars and the like.
The first encore consists of an elongated “In Your Eyes” from So, the blueprint for pretty much everything Elbow have ever recorded (not a criticism by the way). The song shows Gabriel’s links with world music and once again includes companion vocals from Ayanna Witter-Johnson. Its Euphoric and is a perfect end to the night.
However, Gabriel has one more ace up his sleeve with a final encore of “Biko”, his anthemic tribute to Steve Biko, the political activist who died aged 30 in 1977 in a South African prison cell following alleged police brutality. The players leave the stage one by one, just as they had entered it over two hours ago, leaving drummer, Manu Katché alone with the suspended face of Biko dominating the stage.
As the mass exodus of Gabriel fans returns to Merseyside down the M62, the one-word chorus of “Biko” ringing in their ears, I doubt that many were disappointed, despite the 11 new songs. This is a testament to the genius of Peter Gabriel to be still satisfying his audience with challenging songs, written to be played live with an immensely talented band.
“Games without Frontiers” would have been nice but a minor quibble. This was a breathtaking experience.