Tuesday 22 October 2013

PG tips: 'So' at the O2

I think I can safely say that the one album I've spent the most money on over the years is 'So' by Peter Gabriel. I absolutely adore it (although it isn't even my favourite Gabriel album - that's 'Us'), but it was the one I had first. My cassette copy from first time round is now a 'thing of the past' - replaced by the CD... then the reissued CD... and I even caved in and bought that recent anniversary boxset with the demos, vinyl, posters, tea towel, socks (this may not be strictly accurate)...

But I have a lot invested in that record. Literally. And now PG - like so many others before him - was doing one of those 'my hit album' nostalgia shows, with 'So' as its inevitable focus. Thanks to the organisational skills of our friend Maryam, we had got tickets months ago, and by the time last night arrived, I felt this odd combination of near-unbearable excitement and strange apprehension. I had this very slight fear that PG might mistreat his hit record in some way, sabotage it with some kind of quirkiness, and that I might come home and cradle my copy of 'So' softly, wishing it better.

My only explanation for feeling this way is the apparent struggle between 'old stuff' and 'new stuff' going on at Gabriel HQ. As far as I can tell, he has always been fascinated by innovative technology, use of the web ... in other words, the future of almost anything except music. But actual new material from him is perplexingly scant. Instead he revisits and recasts old music. For example, the 'Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours' project, where he produced magnificent orchestral versions of his own tunes and a range of covers, while challenging those artists to 'cover him back' (and the results of that are on 'his' latest record). Or the recent souped-up DVD releases of older shows. Or the clutch of 'Growing Up' DVDs that worked and re-worked his sets from that era in a variety of ways. And it isn't just his own music. I can't help but feel that his whole other musical life - WOMAD and the Real World label - is in some way a search for the roots or origins of the sounds that obsess him, as if there's some kind of answer buried in the global soil.

The show doesn't get off to a conventional start. In fact, PG sits at the piano and just starts talking to us, taking us through it, so we won't be frightened. First, we're getting an 'acoustic' set, so raw that the opening song is still a work in progress. (How many unfinished songs does PG have, I wonder?) Then, a darker, more electric mid-section, and finally - 'if you survive that', he jokes - they'll play 'So' from start to finish.

At first, you might think - "Snakes alive! - the 'So' material is TWO SETS away. Truly this man is a maverick." But the wily old fox knows exactly what he's doing. The pacing and stagecraft of the entire concert are majestic. He must realise that there are probably two types of audience member in the building - longstanding fans who will be happy whatever he does, so he doesn't need to worry about them; and the rest, who are essentially waiting for 'So'. So he cranks up their expectations, as slowly but steadily as he can, so that when, some ten songs in, 'Red Rain' kicks in and the entire arena is drenched in crimson lights, the release is absolutely euphoric.

It only dawns on me gradually how wise this whole approach is. 'So' the album has some monster hits, obviously, but overall it's actually quite an introspective and involving listen. Live - with the original band, no less (who, slightly disarmingly, almost all look like they should be played by Ben Kingsley) - it's a revelation.

As you might expect, we all went completely hatstand during 'Sledgehammer', the second track in the sequence. (And endearingly, the audience were largely of 'a certain age', so that when the next song started there was a palpable sense of "Great! It's 'Don't Give Up'. We can sit down again." A Mexican sigh of relief rippled around the O2 as everyone gratefully collapsed back on their rear ends again.) But no-one will remember 'We Do What We're Told' or 'This is the Picture' from the record as full-on funk workouts. That's all changed for this tour. The intricate rhythms and percussion patterns - courtesy then, as now, of magician Manu Katche on drums - are all present and correct but with a brand new power and urgency.

I mentioned the stagecraft earlier, and it helped make one of 'So's most spine-tingling moments even more memorable. For 'Mercy Street', surely one of the eeriest songs ever written, the energy was dialled down and everyone played with real restraint. PG lay flat out on his back as some of the mobile onstage lights and cameras both surrounded and craned over him - and sang the entire song (beautifully) like this, stretching his arms out in appeal or curling from side to side in the foetal position. We could see the bird's eye view of him through one of the cameras by watching the video screens at the side. The insistent quietness of the song, nagging, intimate, drew the entire O2 into an awed hush. 

But for all that, 'So' was only part of the story. I was delirious with happiness throughout the entire gig. As an 'Us' fan, I was well catered for - with an acoustic 'Come Talk To Me', a joyous 'Secret World' and an absolutely immense 'Digging in the Dirt'. The band were seriously intent on lifting the roof off the place. Catching us unawares, the arena was plunged into darkness when they switched gears from acoustic to full-on electric mode in the MIDDLE of 'Family Snapshot'. Some of the more wayward album tracks - 'The Family and the Fishing Net' (from the 4th album) and 'The Tower that Ate People' (from the Millenium Dome album, 'Ovo'), for example - were resurrected and performed with such ferocity, it was as if they were the most massive hits ever to stalk the earth. Which they probably should have been.

There will be an 'official bootleg' of the gig (and all the others from the tour) available on the PG website ... and they were filming the whole thing for DVD, too. This may well mean I still haven't finished spending money on 'So'. I don't mind at all.

1 comment:

  1. So (no pun intended!) pleased to read this as I'm not as familiar with PG's oeuvre as you - it's given the night an extra dimension, and I will have to invest in the tracks I didn't know, just to do a compare and contrast with what we heard last night. MJ xx