The i/o Tour’s first U.S. show was filled with emotional and cerebral engagement
Last song first. And a rhetorical question: Is “Biko” the most dramatic, most moving exit song ever?
It has been Peter Gabriel’s closer (or one of the final encores) for decades, so it was not a shock to find it the last song of the nearly three-hour show at Boston’s soldout TD Garden on September 14th. It hasn’t lost a shred of power, musically or culturally. Quite likely, it’s gained resonance, especially considering the landscape of 2023 America.
“Biko” is set in South Africa, and mourns/rages against the police murder of imprisoned Black activist Steven Biko in September 1977. I knew of the case back in the day and thought it brilliant when Gabriel made this powerful song from the horrific situation three years later, putting it into the pop zeitgeist if you will. If you didn’t – or don’t – know the case (I know, I know, some of you weren’t even born) you don’t have to know the specifics to be brought near tears by the music and words.
I will, however, give you a bit of the backstory: Biko was the 21st Black person in 19 months to die while in police custody. “There had been so many mysterious prison deaths,” Gabriel told me in 1980. “When Biko was actually taken in there seemed to be enough world attention that I thought it would guarantee his safety.”
Biko died from severe brain damage, impaired blood circulation and acute kidney failure. Police brutality was widely suspected. But South African police claimed Biko initiated a “scuffle” in which he was killed. An official inquest supported the police.
VIDEO: Peter Gabriel “Biko”
In Boston, Biko’s visage loomed over the band on the circular screen as well as the side video screens. But Gabriel broadened the song’s scope by saying “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up for what’s right” – that is now, as ever – and dedicating it to “all those people putting their lives on the line.”
At the Garden, drummer Manu Katché provided the big beat (martial-cum-heartbeat) and trumpeter Josh Shpack and flautist Richard Evans wove a serpentine spell along with synthesized bagpipe sounds from keyboardist Don McLean.
The musicians sang that song-closing, uplifting South African chant, which sounds like “ah-uh-oh” and then abandoned the mics, turning the vocals over to us. They left the stage one-by-one, first Gabriel, then bassist Tony Levin (Gabriel’s longest-time collaborator, 47 years) and guitarist David Rhodes (44 years) and the relative newbies, cellist-pianist-singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson and violaist-violinist-singer Marina Moore, vet Evans (who also played guitar), and then McLean. Left alone, pounding out the stark tribal beat was Katché, our voices circling his hard hits.
How did we get there?
Well, it was quite a journey, one with spectacular sound and ever-shifting visuals, utilizing evocative work from BarthélémyToguo, Olafur Eliaason and Cornelia Parker, among others. It began with a solitary Gabriel taking the stage and talking about the dawn of humanity, of evolution, of the difficulty of differentiating the real from the fake in this day and age and joking, as Levin joined him, about the two going back to “when people had dinosaurs as pets and we had hair on our heads.” They played the quiet and contemplative “Washing the Water,” the other band members walking on to sit around a campfire-like circle for “Growing Up.”
And then it was time to stand up and rock. Or maybe art-rock. Gabriel and company were off into three songs – “Panopticom, “Four Kinds of Horses” and “i/o” from the still-unfolding-online i/o album. (“i/o” stands for input/output; it’s also the name of one of Jupiter’s moons.) All told, he played 10 tracks. It’s his first album of new material in 21 years and he’s on the North American leg of his first tour since 2016, that one a co-headlining affair with Sting. Gabriel shifted between singing at his keyboard, singing solo up front, or doing silly synchronized dance steps with bandmates Levin and Rhodes.
Note: Gabriel does make you look up words. “Panopticom,” for instance. In a press release he said, the song was “based on an idea I have been working on to initiate the creation of an infinitely expandable accessible data globe: the Panopticom. We are beginning to connect a like-minded group of people who might be able to bring this to life, to allow the world to see itself better and understand more of what’s really going on.”
And “i/o,” he explained had to do with us not thinking of ourselves so much as individuals, but part of humanity, “part of everything.” The song climbed and climbed, hitting a peak of grandeur.
When I first spoke with Gabriel all those years ago, “risk” was a word he used frequently when discussing music. He spoke of music in terms of “investigating and exploring. My attitude has always been to make the music that I want to make – keep that process clean – and then when it’s finished, try to sell it.”
I’d say that mindset is fully engaged, the risk factor intact, especially when it came to making song choices for the concert. This was not a “greatest hits plus” set, the fallback – and let’s face it, crowd-pleaser – for virtually every classic rocker still on the road.
Gabriel’s invested in the new album – he prefaced many of the songs with brief explainers – and implicitly asked that kind of immersion with us. It wasn’t hard to do. Maybe these songs didn’t have the familiarity or hookiness of the songs on his 1986 MTV-era blockbuster, So, but they were all beautifully layered, textural pieces that mixed slight dissonance and disruption with melodic weight.
Gabriel remains a master of the mesh, of layering, not just of the instrumentation, the arrangements, but of the emotions. And using the arresting video accompaniment – he namechecked many of the artists whose work he employed – to enhance the experience.
Mortality was part of it, too. At 73, Gabriel’s getting on – we’re all getting on – and the delicate, poignant song “And Still” was inspired by the death of Gabriel’s mother in 2016.
Do I have a caveat about the song selection? Sure, I’d have loved to hear more of the early work such as “Modern Love,” “Here Comes the Flood, “Mercy Street” and “Games Without Frontiers.” So, be it; that wasn’t in the cards. And, as noted, this show nearly hit the Springsteen-ian three-hour mark, albeit with a 15-minute break between sets.
No matter what his age, Gabriel has never made what you might call “youth” music, or for that matter, music targeted to his (or any particular) age group. With Gabriel, it’s always been a case of serious fun. That is, the music is fun, but there’s most often an underlying component that takes the song away from pure escapism.
Some of those themes trotted out in Boston: environmentalism, political activism, humanitarianism, togetherness. If he tiptoes up to the preachy line, I don’t find him crossing it. And for all the justified worry about the state of the world in his music, there’s also a sense of calm or, even, transcendence, that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get by. This was most clear in “Don’t Give Up,” a gentle gem of a ballad, a rise-above-it-all duet with Witter-Johnson, taking over the Kate Bush part, sharing the front of the stage with Gabriel, circling each other.
That song did come from So, as did “Sledgehammer,” “Red Rain,” “In Your Eyes” (the first encore) and “Big Time.” So, yes, Gabriel sprinkled some surefire, big-bang crowd-pleasers amongst the new album experiment. His first solo album was represented solely by – you know this is coming – “Solsbury Hill,” the FM radio hit that introduced the post-Genesis Gabriel to a new audience. He introduced it by saying “I used to pass this hill …” and the crowd erupted with cheers. He merrily skipped about the stage while singing it, pounding his chest during the “Boom! Boom! Boom!” part. That song, about happily being taken back home, was, really, the only nostalgic note in the concert. It felt comfortable, delightful.
But Gabriel doesn’t live in the past and neither must we. We must engage with the world around us, and that, pretty much, was what Gabriel gave us: Emotional and cerebral engagement with music of the moment.
VIDEO: Peter Gabriel “Solsbury Hill”