It is 51 years since Peter Gabriel elevated Genesis from a burgeoning cult band to the stuff of music press covers by unexpectedly taking the stage at a Dublin gig clad in his wife’s Ossie Clarke dress and a fox’s head. It was a long time ago – “when dinosaurs roamed the earth and me and Tony both had hair,” as he puts it tonight, casting a glance in the direction of bassist Tony Levin’s shining pate – but clearly a lesson from that evening stuck with him. If you’ve got a tough sell on your hands – and tricky 22-minute songs played by reticent public schoolboys were never likely to elbow Bowie and Marc Bolan from the front pages in 1972 – it helps to dress it up.
So it is with Gabriel’s current tour. It’s not so much that the show is long, although the two sets top out at more than two hours. It’s that half of the 20 songs he performs are new, the contents of his first album of fresh material in 21 years, i/o, which may or may not come out at the end of this year. Some of them have trickled out online – Gabriel has been releasing a new song every full moon – but half of them have not.
It’s a risky business – in 2023, arena gigs by rock stars of Gabriel’s vintage tend to lean on the greatest hits, not stuff no one in the audience has heard before – but Gabriel has form here. A decade ago, he opened shows on his world tour by playing a new song he hadn’t actually finished writing, with the house lights up. Tonight, he frames the new material in elaborate staging – screens of various shapes and sizes rise and fall, one sequence features Gabriel and his backing band performing seated around a camp fire, another has him performing behind a vast, rather prophylactic-looking length of clear plastic that suddenly and repeatedly turns opaque, casting the singer in silhouette, or functions as a kind of see-through cinema screen, overlaying him with projections – and tees up the songs with lengthy explanations, delivered in halting French to the Parisian crowd. As far as a non-francophone can gather, one song might be about AI, another may have something to do with meteorites.
He intersperses them with the Peter Gabriel songs everyone knows. The set is light on deep dives and early material: only an encore of Biko and the closing Solsbury Hill, which still sounds like the first warm day of an English spring nearly five decades on, survive from his initial brace of eponymous albums. It’s heavy on the singles from 1986’s 6m-selling So. Sledgehammer has the 73-year-old busting some surprisingly boyband-ish dance moves – it’s unclear whether he’s doing this with a raised eyebrow or simply lost in the music and the song’s famously lubricious tone – while an authentically moving version of Don’t Give Up features the night’s most simple yet striking bit of theatre: while vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson sings the choruses originally performed by Kate Bush, Gabriel sits slumped on the drum riser, head bowed, as if their desperate pleading isn’t getting through to him.
In fact, the tracks from So don’t seem to be there merely as an insurance policy. Their sound seems to complement that of Gabriel’s synth-heavy new material, which, if it’s noticeably more serpentine than Red Rain or Big Time, is also less dense and more direct than the contents of 2002’s Up. i/o finds him ruminating on the simple pleasures of walking a dog and connecting with nature; Four Kinds of Horses is a surprisingly gentle vision of environmental apocalypse. A lot of it feels haunted by mortality, not least the beautiful And Still, which reflects movingly on Gabriel’s relationship with his mother, who died in 2016.
Moreover, the new material appears to be going over well with the audience. Certainly, there’s no noticeable stampede for the lavatories and the bar when a hitherto-unknown song appears. In the stalls, one excitable fan reacts to the songs’ climaxes by punching the air in triumph, middle fingers raised, as if he’s watching Limp Bizkit. It’s a peculiar response to Peter Gabriel singing about environmental catastrophe, or his late mum, or indeed walking his dog, but if nothing else, it feels proof that the gamble his new tour represents – “une expérience live atypique” as Gabriel puts it during one of his halting speeches – is paying off.