BY ALLANAH PINHORN
1986 was a big year. The Challenger space shuttle exploded, the Phantom of the Opera debuted in London, England, I was born and Peter Gabriel released “So,” his bestselling and multi-platinum album.
Now, to mark the 25th anniversary of the “So” release, Gabriel has launched “Back to Front,” a North American tour featuring not only the original band members, bassist Levin, guitarist David Rhodes and drummer Manu Katché, but also the entire album, played front to back, including Gabriel’s arguably biggest hits “Sledgehammer,” “Red Rain,” “Big Time,” “In Your Eyes” and “Mercy Street.”
However, the night, hosted at the Air Canada Centre, began on a different note. With no fanfare Gabriel stepped onto the stage, sat down at the piano and proceeded to play my personal favourite, “Come Talk to Me,” a lament about the frustrations he felt trying to connect with his daughter. He outlined the evening: a mostly acoustic set, then something a bit more electric, drawn from his entire discography and finally, the “So” album. The plan was a treat to fans like myself, who love the deep, introspective and worldly songs that exist outside of the “poppy” “So.”
During the pre-pop set Gabriel stalked the stage, like royalty. His voice soared above the crowd, a schoolboy grown; gravel drenched in caramel. Joni Mitchell can’t do it anymore, neither can Stevie Knicks, but Gabriel can: piercing cries that lift into the rafters, undaunted by age or wear.
The stage setting, by Gabriel standards, was minimalistic. Unlike previous tours, where he was known to enter the stage via a bright red telephone booth, or crowd surf in a giant bubble, “Back to Front’s” setting was primarily dominated by large boom lights equipped with cameras. They cast an ominous tone over the night, like beings in their own right.
The lighting was white, stark against the black stage, and the booms cast strange reflections onto the scrim, creating shadows of a dystopian, broken city, toppled buildings and trees. Whether this was intentional or not, it worked, and fit well with the fractured, stop motion images on the screens around the arena. It only changed for moments: when Gabriel lay on the stage, bathed in purple, while singing “Mercy Street,” or during “Red Rain,” when the crowd was cast in blood-like light, like a flood had washed over. They were drastic, and powerful, changes to the bone-white light of the electric set.
The audience’s biggest reaction of the evening came when the opening strains of fan-favourite “Solsbury Hill” rang out, which then led right into the “So” content, without a break or even a notion that it was beginning.
The songs of “So” were accompanied by an appropriate flashing, neon and pixelated look, taken right from the MTV screens of the day. The exception was “We Do What We’re Told” (Milgram’s 37), which played host to the lighting rigs, piloted by stagehands, and a dense guitar sound, which would only be repeated during the grating and heavy “Tower That Ate People,” played as an encore.
The biggest moment of the night came when Gabriel sang “Don’t Give Up,” his famous haunting duet with Kate Bush. Guest-vocalist Jennie Abrahamson took Bush’s role and showcased her absolutely soul-stirring voice. It gave me goosebumps. Gabriel then finished with the boombox ballad “In Your Eyes,” another pleaser that got the crowd going.
Not to break habit, the last encore of the evening was Gabriel’s “Biko,” a protest and rallying song about anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, who was killed in police custody. An almost indescribable experience, during the tribal refrains of “Biko,” Gabriel lead us, singing with fists in the air, in unity; in defiance of the hate that led to Biko’s death. “As always, what happens now is up to you,” were Gabriel’s parting words.
Then he slipped offstage, leaving just us, together, celebrating in song until the lights came up.
The night was a complete and powerful Gabriel experience for any kind of fan, with songs from the lesser known to the radio-friendly. However, missing in my opinion were some softer songs, such as “Downside Up,” or “Father Son.”
The Back to Front tour continues until Oct. 14, including a stop in Detroit. If you can make it, go. You won’t regret a moment of the experience.