Peter Gabriel at the Santa Barbara Bowl (Oct. 9, 2012)
Paul Wellman

Peter Gabriel is known as an innovator, a poet, a musical genius. And he proved those descriptions true last week when he brought his Back to Front Tour ​— ​a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his most popular album, 1986’s So ​— ​to the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Gabriel greeted the audience by breaking down the evening’s agenda. “Part one is the acoustic course,” he said. “Part two is the savory course, and part three is dessert, or pudding as we call it [in England].” Then, sitting at his grand piano, Gabriel introduced legendary bassist and longtime collaborator Tony Levin, who joined him on the first song of the evening, a new number called “Obut.” Three more cuts followed, including “Come Talk to Me,” a desperate, lyrical lament for communication between two people that was reinterpreted beautifully as a semi-acoustic number; “Shock the Monkey,” Gabriel’s first song to make the U.S. Top 40 and which still evokes the frenetic energy it did when released 30 years ago; and “Family Snapshot,” the frightening and poignant confession of an assassin that remains one of the Gabriel’s most brilliant lyrical achievements.

For part two, Gabriel went electric, taking his place behind a synthesizer and backed by a full band. Together they brought six more tunes to life, the newest of which were 20 years old. Still, the set never sounded dated, as Gabriel’s song structures and musical amalgamations have always been years ahead of their time.

The pudding came by way of So, which Gabriel played in its entirety. With its fusion of electronica, world music, and progressive rock, So launched Gabriel’s solo career to an unprecedented height upon its release, and hearing the record played live without interruption was a reminder of why. The compositions are musically expansive (“Red Rain, “That Voice Again”), lyrically heartbreaking (“Mercy Street,” “In Your Eyes”), and socially charged (“Big Time,” “We Do What We’re Told”). Gabriel’s delivery is still as compelling as ever, his vocal range powerful and pitch-perfect.

Gabriel is known for his theatrical performances and cutting-edge videos (who can forget the brilliance of “Sledgehammer” or the disturbing “Shock the Monkey”?), and he brought his technical experimentation and scene-setting flair to the Bowl stage. Cameras were incorporated into the show on several songs, with images manipulated to suit the mood of the piece ​— ​e.g., static lines, black-and-white, soft focus, etc.

Gabriel and his band played for the better part of two hours before the night ended. The last song of the evening came by way of “Biko,” his ode to the South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, who was killed by police in 1977. In prelude, Gabriel reminded the crowd,“This song is still relevant for all the people living in Syria, China …. What happens now is up to you.” It was a sentiment that rang especially true coming from an artist who is equally as relevant, 25 years later.

Set List

1. “Obut”

2. “Come Talk to Me”

3. “Shock the Monkey”

4. “Family Snapshot”

5. “Digging in the Dirt”

6. “Secret World”

7. “The Family and the Fishing Net”

8. “No Self Control”

9. “Solsbury Hill”

10. “Washing of the Water”

11. “Red Rain”

12. “Sledgehammer”

13. “Don’t Give Up”

14. “That Voice Again”

15. “Mercy Street”

16. “Big Time”

17. “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”

18. “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”

19. “In Your Eyes”

20. “The Tower That Ate the People”

21. “Biko”


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