Peter Gabriel, MEN Arena, 18th May 2003
The MEN Arena is filled with a cacophony of creaks and groans, as a large 30+ aged audience attempts gamely to cope with the worst seating this side of a new Virgin train. Playing the MEN demands a lot of a performer, chiefly the ability to keep peoples’ attention despite the crippling onset of arthritis in their knees and lower back. Still, the babysitters of Cheadle and Altrincham must have been doing well on Sunday night, to judge by the attendees at Peter Gabriel’s first UK show in ten years. Was that the reason so many left early, or was it to seek emergency osteopathy?
Gabriel remains one of the few musicians to my mind that combines an intense artistry and intellect in his craft with output that you would actually choose to hear. This is something that most other highly regarded (by critics) singer-songwriters would do well to learn or, preferably, take as reason enough to retire if they haven’t cracked it yet (goodbye, Nick Cave; farewell, Ryan Adams). Recent album “Up” successfully combines the accessibility of his most commercial period (“So”) with the experimentation of his better work, without wearing the World Music tag on its sleeve.
Live, Gabriel favours his instincts for challenging the audience. Appearing on stage at 7:30pm sharp to introduce The Blind Boys Of Alabama is challenging to their timekeeping, expectations and patience, mainly the latter when the Blind Boys turn out to be an unoriginal gospel act.
There are few major favourites or hit singles in the first half dozen songs and it isn’t until “Digging In The Dirt” that the hot buttons are collectively pressed (mine anyway - I like that “edge of insanity” vibe that Gabriel projects rarely but so well). And when you think he’ll end on a high with “Sledgehammer”, he carries on until the final, stark duet with Tony Levin. There were no bad songs here, but it’s interesting to note how some album highlights fail to work live; “Darkness” has the most intriguing lyrics but here it degenerates into a formless mush apparently designed to frighten off any newcomers, while “Signal To Noise” perforce relies too much on automation and seems perfunctory (indeed, the band leave the stage during its final moments, with little effect on the music). Conversely, “Sky Blue” and “The Barry Williams Show” gain strength from the setting and extra ornamentation.
If we face facts, Gabriel is suffering the same geriatric backlash as many of his contemporaries and will never again marshal popular acclaim and sales as he did around the time of “Sledgehammer”. In live terms, this means that a limited budget was carefully spent on simple, effective visuals rather than a full band (or their hairdressers). Hence, the horns on “Sledgehammer” are sampled while Gabriel careers about the stage in a jacket hung with lights - a straightforward trick but impressive when the main lighting is dropped. His frenetic bouncing in the Zorb during “Growing Up” is almost worth the ticket price alone.
I’m not carping, there’s absolutely no reason for it. This was a great show with some fantastic music played by a seasoned yet keen band and led by Genius. It stands apart from … well, who else is there?
What I recall of the setlist (unordered) was:
Here Comes The Flood
Digging In The Dirt
The Barry Williams Show
More Than This
Signal To Noise
That Voice Again/In Your Eyes
(Thankfully, we didn’t get “The Drop”, the final song on “Up” that was singled out for special praise in every review I read, despite its tentative minimalism. This is rather like eating a sumptuous banquet and then complimenting the staff on the clever way they folded the napkins.)