At the beginning of his amazing performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Tuesday night, Peter Gabriel announced that the show would be in three parts: the starter would be a semi-acoustic course, the second part would be a “savory course” served with a bit of electronics, and the third would be “the dessert, or pudding as we might call it,” namely his entire iconic album So, in sequence. And all three parts were incredible.
The first course began with the unfinished song “OBUT,” with Gabriel at the piano accompanied by bassman extraordinaire Tony Levin. This was a rather low-key way to begin the show, but it was intriguing to witness the song coming together.
After this, Gabriel and Levin were joined by the rest of the touring band for So from 25 years ago — David Rhodes on guitar, David Sancious on keyboards and Manu Katché on drums — plus Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson on backing vox. (Abrahamson and Olsson had performed an interesting, short opening set, including a piano/cello/vocal version of Thom Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace.”) The highlight of the first course was “Shock the Monkey,” which had a stellar semi-acoustic arrangement.
The “savory course” included some gems from Gabriel’s solo career, beginning with “Digging in the Dirt” with super-cool lighting effects courtesy of human-operated booms topped by bright beams. This was followed by “Secret World” and some arty spinning graphics on the screens behind and on the sides of the stage.
The outstanding visuals and great music continued, with faces implied by dots of lights during “No Self Control,” and the super-catchy “Solsbury Hill,” which included a playful game of follow-the-leader by Gabriel, Rhodes and Levin.
For the “dessert,” we were treated to the album, a hugely successful mix of pop stylings and musical experiments expertly reproduced by the live band. Several of the songs from this album are true classics: “Red Rain,” “Don’t Give Up” with Abrahamson singing the Kate Bush parts, “Big Time;” and, of course, the big hit “Sledgehammer.”
And the cherry on top was that movie director Cameron Crowe and actor John Cusack made a surprise appearance onstage to hand off a boombox before the song “In Your Eyes,” an echo of the scene from the movie Say Anything in which Cusack’s character played the song, on a boombox, to his girlfriend.
For the song “The Tower That Ate People,” which kicked off the encore, a UFO-looking disk descended and “swallowed” Gabriel, then lifted and created a vertical tube surrounded by spiralling ribbons. Wow! Whoever is in charge of art direction for this tour deserves a huge bonus!
The encore ended with the still-powerful song “Biko,” Gabriel’s tribute to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody in South Africa in 1977. It is sobering to recall that a decade after Biko’s death, when So was released 25 years ago, apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was still in prison.
There may have been some overlap in material with Gabriel’s orchestrally accompanied visit to the Santa Barbara Bowl last summer, but, for my money, Gabriel is at his best with a rocking band, as was the case for Tuesday night’s three-course delight.
Part 1 (Semi-acoustic)
Come Talk to Me
Shock the Monkey
Part 2 (Electric)
Digging in the Dirt
The Family and the Fishing Net
No Self Control
Part 3 (So album)
Don’t Give Up
That Voice Again
We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)
This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)
In Your Eyes
The Tower That Ate People
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.