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Peter Gabriel's performance art rock

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Peter Gabriel is an artist obsessed with duality. In his concerts at the Rosemont Horizon last weekend he moved from isolation to community and union, and traveled between contrasting realms--earth and water, male and female, circles and squares, African and European culture. Of equal importance, however, was a duality Gabriel probably never intended to be a factor in either his 16-song performance or his career: the conflict between his music's deeply personal nature and the requirements of pop-music superstardom. This conflict, and Gabriel's occasionally overworked presentation, at times made an often-brilliant performance easier to admire than enjoy, as Gabriel's elaborate visual production frequently overwhelmed his music.

Gabriel's current tour uses two stages, designed by Robert Lepage, a French Canadian theater director. The first stage is square and occupied the standard position at the west end of the stadium, facing out toward the audience. The second, circular stage was set about 80 feet in front of the first, in the heart of the main-floor seats. A narrow runway, outfitted with the kind of pedestrian conveyor belt you find in airports, ran between the two, bisecting about half the Horizon's main floor. A movable projection screen, as large as the screens of many a multiplex, hung above the square stage. At different times the screen displayed live and prerecorded video images from positions at both the front and rear of the stage, hung rooflike above it when not in use, and spun wildly a full 360 degrees above the band members' heads, prompting me to ponder the extent of the tour's liability insurance. A number of trapdoors allowed for set changes, surprising appearances and disappearances by the performers, and other special effects, including an especially noteworthy one at the end.

Gabriel's highly theatrical presentation is meant to serve elaborate and ambitious ends--to illuminate his work's underlying, largely confessional themes. The effort is remarkable for, among other things, the continuity of ideas and images.

Gabriel's humble apprehension of himself and the human race in relation to the earth's magnitude. A photograph of the planet, taken from space, looms on the video screen above a kneeling Gabriel on "San Jacinto." Maps of the world are printed on the gray rectangular scrim that surrounds the first stage at the concert's beginning and the blue dome that covers the second one at its end.

An onstage chair as a reassuring image of domestic safety and warmth, first on "Washing of the Water," then on a set-closing "Secret World," which also features the image of a gently turning chair on the projection screen as part of a succession of revolving household objects (a bed, a lamp).

A tree in the center of the circular stage, representing African women on one song ("Shaking the Tree") and the lost paradise of male/female intimacy on the next ("Blood of Eden").

Human faces as an emblem of self-definition, both healthy and unhealthy. Overworked on "Digging in the Dirt," the image is more effective on "Secret World," during which the spinning furniture on the video screen gives way to revolving images of the band members' heads.

Repeated images of circles and revolving objects, in the examples already given and in the second stage's design, representing women, the earth, and the organic natural world. By contrast the second stage, representing men, serves as the launching ground for Gabriel's expressions of male sexuality, "Sledgehammer," "Kiss That Frog," and "Steam," which is accompanied by images of the industrial world, such as churning pistons.

Water as an image of masculine sexuality on "Kiss That Frog" and "Steam" and as an emblem of Gabriel's loneliness and yearning on "Across the River," "Washing of the Water," and "Here Comes the Flood." The maps draw attention to the contrast between water and land, represented by "Digging in the Dirt" and the songs associated with earthy femininity.

Journeys and passages. With the help of the runway's conveyor, Gabriel repeatedly travels between the two stages, between the masculine and feminine. During the concert-opening "Come Talk to Me," he strains against a telephone receiver's taut cord to reach the circular stage until the line drags him back into the cagelike phone booth from which he started. On "San Jacinto" he leaves his band on the circular stage, crossing the runway on a shipwreck survivor's wooden raft, and winds up behind the video screen at the rear of the square stage, physically and visually separated from his band and the audience.

Unfortunately, the music wasn't always equal to the presentation, especially early on as the sound crew adjusted to the Horizon's deplorable acoustics. The first three songs were reduced to a blare, Gabriel shouting against keyboard blasts that nearly drowned him out. The funky bottom that drummer Manu Katche and bassist Tony Levin (a rhythm section without better) might have created on "Steam" was reduced to mush, and the bombastic rendition of "Games Without Frontiers" robbed the song of its wily subversiveness. The mix improved soon afterward, but Gabriel's vocals remained too loud until his headset mercifully shorted out during "Blood of Eden," almost halfway through the show, and was replaced with a hand-held microphone. Despite the improved mix "Sledgehammer," near the show's end, suffered. Starting well with David Rhodes's spare, sputtering guitar groove, it was too loud and too dense in the middle but finished with its ecstatic gospel call-and-response ending intact. At least "Sledgehammer" has a monster hit's wild energy and excitement going for it, but the dark, solemn "Across the River" and "San Jacinto," though performed well, were a bit labored and overlong.

The weaknesses of these renditions point to a larger issue--the extent to which Gabriel's elaborate showmanship overwhelms his songs rather than illuminating them. There's an old theater adage that if the audience applauds the scenery the show's in trouble. I thought of that during "Steam," as the crowd cheered wildly for the twin jets of stage smoke that repeatedly shot up behind Gabriel. And inevitably a show so elaborate produces some distracting technical glitches: the short in Gabriel's headset, the failure of a second one to come on during the first lines of "Digging in the Dirt," and what seemed to be repeated problems miking violinist Shankar's instrument.

Two consecutive songs, both commenting on Gabriel's experience in group therapy, illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of an extravagant presentation. Originally written as a commentary on his mid-70s departure from Genesis, "Solsbury Hill" is as tired a song as any in Gabriel's catalog. But at the Horizon it became fresh and exciting: essentially Gabriel used the stage show to remake the song while keeping the music the same. "Solsbury Hill" speaks of ending unhealthy relationships in order to achieve one's own identity and autonomy. The heart of the song is in the chorus, which repeats variations of the lines "My heart going boom, boom, boom / Hey, I said, you can keep my things / They've come to take me home." But as the band played here, the video screen displayed grainy home movies of a young child playing by himself, with his sister, and with his parents, shifting the song's focus from Gabriel's relationship with Genesis to the one with his family. The idyllic images and the joy in the song's chorus suggest that whatever else therapy taught Gabriel about his family (and it couldn't have all been happy), it taught him to identify what was best about his home. During the song Gabriel, Levin, and Rhodes--longtime bandmates--ventured from the first stage to the second with the enthusiasm of little boys playing explorer, creating the sense that Gabriel felt a newfound confidence and preparedness to undertake challenges of every kind.

For "Digging in the Dirt," the next song, Gabriel mounted a video camera on his head, and grotesquely distorted close-ups of his face were projected onto the video screen. The ugliness of the images, exacerbated by Gabriel's jarring movements and his coarse singing, detracted from a more potent and eloquent moment: Gabriel moving aside a set of tarps to reveal a large, white sculpture of a face. This rite of exposure clearly was intended to contrast with the video projections, to convey how through group therapy ("I'm digging in the dirt / To find the places I got hurt / To open up the places I got hurt") Gabriel replaced a harmful, distorted image of himself with a healthy sense of identity. That upturned face lying on the circular stage, which stayed in my mind long after the show, didn't need the gruesome video to make its point.

Gabriel has always been prone to overreach, from his Genesis-era rock operas to his world-music explorations on Security, his 1982 solo record. So when his stage show goes overboard and his music suffers, much of the responsibility has to lie with him. To some extent, though, Gabriel's superstardom licenses and even requires such excess. In stadium rock shows heaping amounts of spectacle are meant to compensate for not seeing the performer up close, for the lack of a genuine connection between performer and audience that can occur in a small venue. On one level, Gabriel is simply observing that requirement, though with greater imagination and daring than most performers I've seen.

At the same time, this requirement often works against his music and his efforts to move beyond spectacle, to make his performance a genuine vehicle for communication. The music suffers from being performed at the high volume it needs to be audible and rousing in caverns like the Horizon. As for communication, I wonder how much of the audience (including several of my relatives and friends, who caught Gabriel's second show) even considered the implications of Gabriel's images and ideas. I'm not sure that a stadium filled with people waiting to hear "Sledgehammer" is the best environment for expressing your experiences with therapy and your struggle to achieve and preserve intimacy.

The fact is, Gabriel sold out the Horizon two nights in a row thanks to his strong post-Genesis following, two of the most unlikely minor hits ever ("Games Without Frontiers" and "Shock the Monkey," which was surprisingly absent from the Saturday set), MTV exposure, and "Sledgehammer." His success has come in spite of his personal material, not because of it. Most pop fans attend arena rock concerts to sing and cheer and dance along to their favorite songs, to put aside weighty, difficult matters. Gabriel, no fool, understands this. So in concert and on Us, his most recent record, he's sugared his brooding, pain-racked songs with jubilant delights like "Steam" and the cheerfully dumb "Kiss That Frog." At the same time, he does work hard to connect with his audience despite the gigantic venue, using his introductions to explain his songs' origins and ideas. I'm just not sure to what extent he got his points across: I kept noticing how during his quieter, less familiar numbers (they amount to the same thing) a lot of folks headed out to buy refreshments or use the bathroom.

Yet it was the quiet, subtle moments, the moments dwarfed by the crowd and the venue, that were the best parts of Gabriel's show. Sometimes the technology worked to the song's advantage, sometimes it was beside the point. But these moments consistently took place on or en route to the circular, "female" stage and featured keyboardist Joy Askew, the lone woman in Gabriel's multiracial, multinational six-piece backing band. After finishing "Across the River," Gabriel took a long wooden pole and, boarding the people mover, created the illusion of ferrying himself across a body of water to reach the second stage. Shrouded in darkness, with the image of gently rippling water on the video screen behind her, Askew followed behind him, beginning a procession of band members that seemed a mysterious passage into an uncharted realm. Having brought the entire band to the circular stage, Gabriel redefined the space in the Horizon, making within it a more intimate place. There, he and the band performed "Shaking the Tree," a delightful song Gabriel wrote with Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour for, in Gabriel's words, "the women of Africa and the women of the world." In the context of this carefully planned and orchestrated show, this song brought out Gabriel's playfulness and spontaneity: he briefly usurped Katche to play drums at the beginning, then danced in a circle with Rhodes as he played.

"Blood of Eden," which followed, was the sort of quiet song that sent folks running, but it contained one of the concert's most remarkable visual images. Askew and Gabriel sang the song as a duet, highlighting its theme of a couple's struggle to mend a broken relationship. At song's end, Gabriel reached out from behind Askew to touch her gently on the shoulder, a gesture that was poignant, tender, and powerfully private in the midst of so many people.

The show's initial conclusion made visionary use of the elaborate technology to create shiningly simple images. The conveyor belt brought a set of luggage to the edge of the first stage, where the band had just finished a compelling rendition of "Secret World." Taking an oversize suitcase in hand, Gabriel crossed the runway halfway, put the suitcase down, and opened it. One by one the band members walked to it, stepped inside, and disappeared. Levin finished the band's unusual exit with some comic resistance, being lowered halfway and popping up again like a jack-in-the-box before Gabriel stuffed him down. Then Gabriel shut the case and, as if carrying a great weight, dragged it the rest of the way to the circular stage. There, the blue dome printed with the map of the world descended to cover him, the earth literally swallowing him up.

In defiance of the convention of finishing with a bang, this elegiac ending kept with the themes of isolation and voyaging that ran throughout the performance. When the dome rose again for the first encore, revealing the entire band assembled beneath it, it suggested an egg hatching--an image of rebirth that also revealed Gabriel to be part of a community rather than alone. The lustrous rendition of "In Your Eyes" that followed reinforced this impression, as Papa Wemba, Gabriel's opening act, joined the other musicians onstage, creating a sense of tribal celebration of the love the song expresses.

For all the high tech of Gabriel's concert, the show's finest moments arose from Gabriel's relationships with his fellow musicians and from the emotional depth of his music. His creativity, innovation, and desire to push the limits of concert performance are all laudable, as is his desire to communicate. Ultimately, however, Peter Gabriel's greatest strength is in the humanity that therapy has helped him uncover. It speaks for itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin-Photo Reserve.

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