Peter Gabriel At Jones Beach Theater
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By Randee Dawn
For veteran fans of Peter Gabriel, watching the singer lie down flat in the middle of the stage, alternately staring up into a camera and curling in a fetal position while singing the haunting, plaintive "Mercy Street" — well, it completely makes sense.
And it was precisely those kinds of fans (a little less than 15,000 to be precise) who came out Sept. 23 to listen to the 62-year-old Gabriel take a trip through his hits … but on his own terms. Sure, he no longer emerges on stage dressed as a flower (as he did in his Genesis days), but the six-time GRAMMY winner is still half-musician, half-performance artist. There's always a healthy dollop of the surreal and unpredictable in his cargo trousers.
The plan was to play his So album in its entirety in celebration of the album's 25th anniversary, but Gabriel held off delivering that main course initially. Instead, the piano/cello duo of Swedes Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson led things off with a four-song set. Then, Gabriel, a longtime human rights activist, strolled onstage like an MC to introduce the legal team for Russian rock band Pussy Riot, who stood to his side with the husband and daughter of jailed singer/activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. In August the three members of Pussy Riot were each sentenced to two years in a prison camp for staging a protest against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
"It takes a lot of balls to make a protest," said Gabriel, who is among the musicians to have come out in support of Pussy Riot.
But no So yet — instead, Gabriel launched into an "acoustic" set of four tunes, during which he was plainly lit by house lights while sitting at the piano, lyrics appearing to scroll by on a carefully placed laptop. As he growled through an unfinished new song and hits like "Shock The Monkey" (he's still able to hit those top notes), the crowd was suitably enthused. But then the showmanship really kicked in midway through "Family Snapshot": house lights died, video screens lit up and fans were launched into Gabriel's well-produced world as he dashed from piano to synth for a "retro" song set while hand-maneuvered cranes waved lights around like searching three-eyed aliens.
"You're burning the place down!" shouted a fan, which might have been a bit of an overstatement, but it's hard to deny that Gabriel — even all these years on — has the presence to keep any live show, well, lively. With the "retro" set over, it was finally time for So, which he blasted through with nary a break. (Truth is, the entire set prior to the encore was done sans break.) And Gabriel proved he will do anything to tell his tales onstage, strolling around with a suitcase ("Don't Give Up"), doing a little dance shuffle ("This Is The Picture") and disappearing in a gray curtained tube for an encore performance of "The Tower That Ate People." Even after shutting a song down ("Washing Of The Water") for beginning badly, he noted, "That's probably the third f***up of the evening, for those with ears open."
Fans gave Gabriel a lot of leeway, joining in with arm waves for "In Your Eyes" and fist pumps for the traditional final tune, "Biko." After all, his greatest piece of performance art is in manipulating his audience into feeling they are part of the performance. And the audience is always delighted to give back.
"OBUT" (unfinished new song)
"Come Talk To Me"
"Shock The Monkey"
"Digging In The Dirt"
"The Family And The Fishing Net"
"Washing Of The Water"
"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"
To catch Peter Gabriel in a city near you, click here.
(Randee Dawn is a New York-based entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Emmy magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and on the podcast "Well Told Tales," and she is the co-author of The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.)