Blue Snaggletooth Reviews:

Peter Gabriel - i/o The Tour


16/9/23 (Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia PA)

Band - Peter Gabriel, Tony Levin (bass), Manu Katche (drums), David Rhodes (guitar), Don-E (keyboard), Richard Evans (guitar, wind), Ayanna Witter-Johnson (cello, piano, vocals), Marina Moore (violin, viola), Josh Shpak (trumpet, French horn, keyboard)

Set List

Part One
Washing of the Water
Growing Up
Four Kinds of Horses
Digging in the Dirt
Playing for Time
Olive Tree
This Is Home

- Interval -

Part Two
Love Can Heal
Road to Joy
Don't Give Up
The Court
Red Rain
And Still
Big Time
Live and Let Live
Solsbury Hill

In Your Eyes

Photos by my wife (on her phone and we were pretty far up so quality could be better)

During "Washing of the Water"

These next two I think were taken during "Panopticom"

This is from "Darkness," showing off a very cool screen effect used during that number and "Love Can Heal"

In 2023 I decided it was worth it to go see Peter Gabriel live again. I know for a fact that he puts on a good show, because I'd seen him three times before - more than I've seen any other performer in person, including Genesis. (EDIT - this is entirely false, as other articles on the site can show! The artist I've seen by far the most times live is The Musical Box, at a grand total of seven. Sorry - I forgot! I'm not as old as Pete but I'm getting there.) In fact, I'd seen him first more than twenty years previously, in November of 2002 for his Growing Up tour. Then I'd seen him again in June of 2003, while he was still Growing Up; and then a third time for his Back to Front tour in 2012. That was, for those of you who haven't spotted the math, ten years after the first time; and this latest performance made it more than twenty. Fans of Pete have to be ready to deal in these huge time increments. It took him ten years after Us (1992) to release Up (2002), and twenty years after that before he started releasing tracks to his latest (and, at the time of this writing, still not fully released) album, i/o, in support of which this September 2023 performance would be. At this rate, I told my son (who by the way had not even been born when I first saw Pete live, and as of this writing is an 8th-grade teenager), Pete's next album will come out in 2053, when the artist is 103.

Beyond my fond memories of the creativity and showmanship from his earlier performances, I added the regret of not having seen Pete when he performed with Sting during their Rock Paper Scissors tour of 2016. At the time it sounded like a great double billing, as I enjoy the music of both artists; but I lazily imagined that, like his previous tours which I'd attended, this one would be documented by's "Encore" soundboard releases, so I could afford to miss it and just buy a recording later. I discovered afterwards that I was sadly mistaken in this assumption. I also had intentionally not gone to see Genesis during their most recent Last Domino tour, so I was due an outing.

I went, as I had on every previous occasion, with my wife; who, though not as big a fan as myself, likes Pete well enough and was willing to indulge my smugly Pete-splaining all the music to her. On the drive down we tried to bone up a bit on the New Stuff. I was completely puzzled and not a little annoyed by Pete's choice to dribble his new tracks out one full moon at a time, with not a one that I could find for download on iTunes. Instead, we had to stream playlists from YouTube off my wife's phone. It's been a few years since I've freed myself from the physical chains of compact discs and gone totally digital, but I'm still rather shackled to my iPod, so I had very little familiarity with the new material beyond a single listen, and I have to admit to being not that impressed. Some, such as "Love Can Heal," I had liked right off; others, like the confusingly titled "Panopticom," left me as bewildered and ambivalent as the artist's release schedule. But I was certain that, like any aging live artist, he would stick to the safe material and play mainly from his back catalogue. My wife and I were both thoroughly in agreement that the previous studio album Up was a very strong album, and we would have been happy to hear only tracks from that; but I expected a hits parade from the 80s and 90s, with a few of the new tracks carefully mixed in, or disposed of at the beginning while people were still sitting down.

We arrived at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, in good time (which turned out to be most fortunate). In the men's restroom I thankfully reflected that there is nothing like a Peter Gabriel concert to make a 45-year-old feel young again; unlike mine, all the other heads shuffling between the urinals and sinks were fully gray.

A couple of things distinguished this show from typical live shows right from the beginning. One was that Pete had no opening act whatsoever, and the other was that he started almost exactly on time. His punctuality was particularly easy to confirm, because there was a video graphic on the empty stage of a giant clock, with a worker busily erasing the hands and repainting the correct time as each minute ticked by. At only a few minutes after 8, the starting time on the ticket, the worker erased the clock hands entirely and Pete walked out to greet us.

He had an amusing opening monologue, in which he simulated the spark of life that scientists say started the chain of evolution that led to us all sitting there and listening to him. There was a manufactured "campfire" set front and center, into which he playfully struck a spark using a light dropped from on high by cable. He talked about the idea of people being represented by avatars, and playfully claimed that none of the band were actually performing tonight; that we were instead witnessing his avatar, which contrary to the usual practice had been aged 20 years into the future and given 20 more kilos of weight. The real Peter Gabriel, he claimed, was lying on an island somewhere at that moment and "looking like a Greek god."

He then settled in with longtime partner and bassist Tony Levin (who got plenty of big applause that night) around the campfire and began playing "Washing of the Water." The circular screen which had been showing a clock now switched to a full moon, which would slowly rotate and move from its light to its dark side (to mimic Pete's full moon themes and the "bright" and "dark" mixes of all his new tracks). As the song progressed, the rest of the band slowly trickled in, until they were all sitting in a companionable circle around the fire.

The great thing about famous artists like Pete is that they can attract a very competent backing group. I was impressed by pretty much everyone he had with him that night, including the several new faces. Two particular highlights were Josh Shpak and Ayanna Witter-Johnson. I loved Josh's trumpet playing, particularly the flavor and new life that he was able to breathe into the more familiar songs. Ayanna has a gorgeous voice and had a chance to show it off - and to show that she's not just a voice, since she had a beautiful cello solo later in the performance.

After "Washing of the Water," the campfire circle broke apart (literally, as Pete's crew - still decked out in orange jumpsuits as they have been since as far back as 2002 - deconstructed that part of the stage) and the band went into "Growing Up."

So far my wife and I were in familiar territory and loving it. After this song, however, Peter spent a few seconds talking about artificial intelligence (the general drift seeming to be that he was in favor of it) and then we heard several new songs, starting with "Panopticom." The circular screen revealed its ability to completely tilt down towards the band, and showed a swirling eye. A lot of Pete's visuals, as he was happy to mention between songs, were made by other artists and were very interesting to look at, showcasing the creativity and collaboration that have been hallmarks of his "solo" career. Another innovative thing about the stage setup which became clear as the show went on: there was a series of tall, narrow screens (nine in all, not accidentally the same number of screens as there were band members) which could be seamlessly separated and reconfigured into different groupings, with different videos or graphics being displayed on each group or screen.

Following "Panopticom" came "Four Kinds of Horses," which opened with the screen showing a digital countdown, the timer starting at something like 3:30. I was curious as to what would happen when the timer hit zero. The band managed to time the song so that the countdown ran out just as Peter sang "explode" in the song, and the graphics promptly mimicked an explosion and sent all the band members into negative. Having never played in a band, I'm not sure how difficult this feat of timing is, but it certainly seemed impressive to me.

Then came the title cut, "i/o." I will say that, as often happens, these live versions of the new songs had me seeing more of the positive aspects and appreciating them more. But I was still surprised at Peter's brave choice to play so many of them. We had a brief respite from the new material with a nice gritty performance of "Digging in the Dirt," but then it was back again to the new stuff with "Playing for Time" and "Olive Tree."

Pete mentioned between songs about the memorable opportunity he'd had to play music with bonobo monkeys, and then told us that the scientist doing these studies on the monkeys was in the audience, and had her stand up. In the "interval" that did come a little bit later, some video clips of the monkeys messing around on keyboards were played. To round out the first half of the show, before the interval, we had "This Is Home" (which I don't think I'd managed to hear at all before) and the obligatory "Sledgehammer." I was amused to see that, while 2023 Pete was much less active in terms of dancing and jumping around, he still indulged in the two-handed hammer swinging dance that he's always done for this song.

I felt on very safe ground after the first half of the show, and thought I had Pete's number. I assured my wife that I had seen this intermission coming, and that most definitely once the band came back it would be all old numbers and crowd favorites. At first it seemed like I might be right, since they opened the second set with "Darkness," one of the harder tracks off Up. For this song they moved a new set of screens down in front of the band and were able to make use of a very cool effect where they could somehow control the opacity of the screens. Pete stood behind one and became a silhouette, which was then repeated as a fuzzy echo across the other screens; but at other times we could see through the screens to the rest of the band.

Things got even more interesting for the next song, "Love Can Heal." This one is one of my favorites of the new tracks; during it, Pete had some kind of rod or wand, and as he waved it near the screens, it was as if he was drawing on them: a cloudy, misty drawing appeared where he gestured, and he seemed to be able to shoot it off along the screens at will. It was a really amazing effect and I was left thinking how we were witnessing not just a musical performance but a live art installation. I was disappointed when, after just these two songs, the screens were taken away, and we never got to see this effect again.

The next song was another new one, "Road to Joy," which I theorized was an intentional (and rather out-of-character) attempt on Pete's part to move away from his depressing, "old white man" song rut that he seems to have fallen into of late. I have to admit to finding its positivity a bit forced and disingenuous. But the next song was "Don't Give Up," which for me was one of the highlights of the show, because Pete sang it as a duet with Ayanna and she was fantastic. We experienced another dimension of the stage: a raised platform with railing onto which Pete and Ayanna climbed to belt out the memorable gospel-inspired bridge.

Next came "The Court," with accompanying video of a sort of straw man being burned. This is one of the newer songs that struck me more favorably than the rest. Looking at the set list written out, I now see that Pete was pretty much alternating between old and new songs at this point. Some watery graphics which came (I think) at the beginning of "Love Can Heal" had tricked me into thinking he was about to perform "Red Rain;" it was instead played at this point in the show, followed by "And Still." Peter explained that this slow, touching song was about his mother, who had passed away since he wrote it. I believe this is the song where Ayanna had her cello solo.

After this song came one of the more jarring and unpleasant transitions. "And Still" was so moving and sad, I was imagining that Peter was having trouble keeping back the tears; but as soon as he finished the song, he looked at the crowd and said, "What time is it?" It turned out it was "Big Time." Don't get me wrong, I like this song well enough, but it almost felt sacrilegious to play such an upbeat, rousing anthem so soon after the tragic one.

The new track following "Big Time" was "Live and Let Live." It was a very positive song about acceptance, forgiveness, and moving on, which he introduced by talking about Nelson Mandela. This was one of my least favorite of his new songs, I have to say. It felt corny and ham-fisted to me. During it some live video footage of the audience was put on the screens so we could see ourselves cheering.

Fortunately to round out the show came the always welcome "Solsbury Hill," which he's been playing since way back in 1977 (before I was even born), and which still sounds fantastic. This was ostensibly the end. We didn't have to endure a lot of enforced clapping before the band returned for the first encore, which again was an old standard, his pretty much guaranteed, de rigueur encore, "In Your Eyes." It was performed just as it usually is live, with the extra lines at the beginning and end and all the extra instrumental and vocal flourishes. I will say that I didn't like it when Pete let the keyboardist Don-E (whose actual name I believe is Don McLean, though he was never introduced that way during the show) try a vocal improvisation. I had no problem with the stuff Don had done earlier in the show but his addition to "In Your Eyes" felt inappropriate and disharmonious.

After this, Pete surprised me one more time, as he'd been doing in little ways all night. I thought they were done, because the band once again left the stage with a lot of bowing and the typical renaming of everyone. But my wife pointed out that the lights had not yet come up; and sure enough, back they came again for the perennial "Biko." (Notice that, the rest of the show notwithstanding, he played it very safe with the ending numbers.) This is a very powerful number and a lot of the effect of it depends on how much the audience participates and how involved and engaged they are. Unfortunately our particular section of the arena was pretty staid and tame and didn't do a lot of the vocalizing at the end, or shaking of fists in support of equality. But it was nevertheless cool to see Pete turn his mic to the audience and tell us, as he has so often before, that "the rest is up to you." One by one, as the song reached its final spiraling cadence, the band members left the stage, until only the drummer was left keeping time with us. Then he, too, departed, and the lights came up to signal that our evening with true art and artists really was over.

I think I spent more time pointing out disappointments and weaknesses in the show than is really consistent with my overall impression. I enjoyed it very much, and I'd see him again do this exact show. Though I didn't always love the new songs, I admire Pete's integrity and courage in doing what a younger artist would do and actually playing his new music, the music he cares about and has just finished committing to recordings. His staging, as always, was innovative and impactful; his backing band was talented and amazing; and as I said, we watched real art being made. Though his voice sounded a bit rough and tired at times, Pete still hit the high notes and still had a big presence on stage.

I read a couple of conflicting reviews of the tour before writing this; one person saying that they greatly disliked his new material and implying that Pete had somehow ruined his reputation by choosing to play so much of it; another person with the exact opposite opinion, who felt that his new songs were just as great as his old hits. I suppose I fall somewhere between those extremes. I'd be much happier if Peter had actually released his whole album and made it available for download on the typical platforms, so that more of his audience had the chance to fully immerse ourselves in the music before seeing him. Maybe I'm just being the old dinosaur here, and not him, but I'm amazed that he could do what he did with the new material and still fill arenas the way he apparently is continuing to do. Though I'm criticizing him for this, at the same time I have to admire him for still being the sort of iconoclast he has always been. I can only hope he is still around, doing similarly surprising and iconoclastic things, in 2053 when his next album comes out.

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