Peter Gabriel, Wembley Arena, London
Gabriel's flying circus
Friday 23 May 2003
I'll say this for Peter Gabriel: the tickets may cost £35 per (hard, plastic) seat, but you get to see every penny of it up there on stage. And not just on it, but in it, above it, and around it, too.
This matters. I can't count the times I've slogged out to Wembley to catch a show for which the promoter is demanding upwards of £20 per ticket, only to find the act labouring under the delusion that this is a fit price to pay for the privilege of watching a few unkempt blokes play their instruments several hundred yards away. With maybe a few coloured lights being turned on and off in a desultory fashion. It's still rare to find artists who are prepared to treat their fans as other than cash cows to be milked with the least possible expenditure of time, effort and money.
Peter Gabriel, however, delivers on all three counts in his Growing Up Live show, a two-and-a-half-hour multi-media extravaganza presented in the round, in which each song is given a different stage set-up. Between songs, a small army of orange-clad workers emerges to shunt the keyboard units, guitar effects boards and drum riser about the circular stage, so that its outer perimeter can revolve, or a big cloth egg drop down from the lighting gantry, or the lighting gantry itself come down, or the centre of the stage descend, or some other cute novelty to help keep up one's interest. With Gabriel and his band all clad in chic black layered outfits (Yohji Yamamoto, I'd guess, or someone emulating him), and several of them sporting bald pates, the effect is rather like watching a band of Zen monks being attended to. It would be no surprise were one of the technical support team to start washing the singer's feet.
Some of the effects are, admittedly, quite dazzling: at one point, Gabriel and his daughter are strapped into harnesses and strung on rollers beneath the circular gantry, pivoting to walk upside-down around it while singing "Downside Up"; and during "Sledgehammer", Gabriel cavorts around the stage in a jacket covered in flashing bulbs, bringing new meaning to the term "suit of lights".
Others are rather less impressive: walking the wrong way round the revolving stage is like an easy - but expensive - way to moonwalk, and once you've seen the singer squeeze into a giant transparent Zorg ball and roll himself around the lip of the stage, it's a bit of an anticlimax when, later, during "Solsbury Hill", he jumps on a little bicycle and starts pedalling around the perimeter - although the roar with which his circumnavigation was greeted suggests that the audience were well satisfied with his performance. Or maybe it was just because, after all these years, it remains his most open and affectionate tune.
It's just as well that the various songs all had their visual hooks, because after a while they tend to blend into one another. They're impeccably played, of course, but they're all too long, too similar, dynamically, and too richly textured: the sheer "amount" of sound is ultimately overwhelming, the way that over-spiced food can be, rendering some songs bland and airless. Ironically, this is the theme of "Signal To Noise", one of the more successful treatments, with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan vocal samples buoying the song in a similar manner to The Blind Boys Of Alabama's uplifting gospel moans on "Sky Blue", another high point of the show.
But it is perhaps indicative of how the subtleties of Gabriel's music are ill-served generally by the arena experience that the only song from his recent Up album that actually sounds much better live than on record is "The Barry Williams Show", its least sensitive moment. But when you're being distracted by all those coups de théâtre, who cares? What do you pay your money for, anyway?
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