Peter Gabriel at O2 Arena, London

June 19, 2023 at O2 Arena, London

It was 1974 when I first heard Genesis, ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’. Like some aural gateway drug it led to Selling England By the Pound, Foxtrot, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Nursery Cryme, Trespass, then the awful news that Peter Gabriel was leaving. Then relief when Trick of the Tail turned out to be wonderful, although the wonderfulness only lasted a few more albums, after Then There Were Three I jumped ship. In September 1978, the same year that Genesis had earlier headlined Knebworth, there was a second Knebworth gig with The Tubes, Boomtown Rats and . . . Peter Gabriel. I sat there mesmerised; as far as I remember my friend then sold me his copy of Peter Gabriel 2 that had been released a few months earlier. After Knebworth ‘78 I saw him live several more times,  the last being an anti apartheid gig in ‘83 at Selhurst Park. Over the next years I heard bits and bobs, nothing grabbed me, then was shocked to see a middle aged guy at the piano doing ‘Father, Son’ on TV in 2000. 

When Gabriel’s new album and tour was announced late last year for some reason I was keen to go, maybe wondering if this could be the last tour as his album release rate is not exactly prolific. Since lockdown I have been listening to a lot of 70’s music including stuff I was into at the time; was it a nostalgic response, did I expect a seventy-year-old Gabriel to play a set made up of tracks from his first four albums?! I had a lot of catching up to do, bought the compilation Hit (Miss), the album Up and the excellent book Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel by Daryl Easlea.

So… here we are sat in the cheapest seats, as far away as you can get from the stage in the cavernous O2 Arena, about ten rows from the back, forty years on from Selhurst Park. It would be interesting to work out the distance we are from the stage; I guess it’s the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle, Pythaguras’ theorum (see accompanying photo to get an idea). I have kept up with the tracks Gabriel has released off his forthcoming album: ‘Panopticom’, ‘The Court’, ‘Playing for Time’, ‘i/o’, ‘Four Kinds of Horses’, ‘Road to Joy’; one a month to coincide with the full moon. They’re good, intelligent, growers dealing with important subjects; possible positive uses of our collective ability to document global activity, the pursuit of justice, experiences, memories and the self, interconnectedness and interdependence, contrasting expressions of spirituality, escape from being trapped within ourselves. Each track has had an associated artwork and text. I’m intrigued as much as excited by the prospect of this gig; reviews so far have been very positive.

A voice tells us to take our seats as the show starts in 15 minutes. I’m always interested in support bands so we do. . . but a lone figure appears on stage and starts to chat. After a couple of sentences I realise it’s Peter Gabriel; relaxed, amusing, intelligent. He introduces a campfire scene and the gig starts, the musicians sat round the ‘fire’ under a full moon, low-key, possibly the most incongruous start to a major venue gig I’ve seen. He has assembled all the component parts of a conventional rock gig and then completely subverted the whole thing – excellent. And in many ways that set the scene for much of the evening – very few rock cliches here. Want a greatest hits show? Sorry, wrong gig. Want a big ego strutting his stuff? Sorry, wrong gig. Like some of the new tracks, large swathes of the evening are thoughtful, intelligent, reflective. It is track five, ‘i/o’ when the evening starts to pick up pace followed by ‘Digging in the Dirt’; but the best track by far in the first half is a new track not yet released, apparently called ‘Olive Tree’ – stunner. A couple of tracks later the first set closes with ‘Sledgehammer’, the majority of the O2 takes off. The delivery is all a bit too ‘Tom Jones’ for me.

I guess it was about 20 minutes later when the second half kicked off with ‘Darkness’, Gabriel sounding at times a little like Blixa Bargeld. ‘Road to Joy’ sounds great online, live it was even better. Next track up was ‘Don’t Give Up’ with cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson subbing for Kate Bush. . . Only she didn’t, she completely made it her own, and as the evening progressed she came increasingly to the fore as a singer, cellist and pianist. 

Gabriel has put together a top line band including long time collaborators David Rhodes, Manu Katche and Tony Levin, who looks disconcertingly similar to the last time I saw him forty years ago! 

After ‘Don’t Give Up’ was the slightly PG3 new track ‘The Court’, all edgy and urgent followed by ‘Red Rain’, another high point. A few tracks on was ‘Big Time’, I thought it seemed a bit lame in this context but suspect I was in a minority of one! The second set ended with ‘Solsbury Hill’ – still sounds genius. The encore was was ‘In Your Eyes’ but then a second. . . ’Biko’. Linked by Gabriel in the intro to contemporary struggles the song has lost none of its power and poignancy.

The underlying characteristics of Gabriel’s tour 2023 are courage, humility and trust: courage to include so many new tracks and construct such an unusually paced gig; trust in the audience to stay with him in what was far from a historic best-of/bangers-type gig; humility because he seemed to constantly point away from himself to other band members, to the artists of the associated art works, to his wider team, the implication being of the importance of collaboration and cooperation. In an individualised, alienated, competitive political economy it was an evening that subtly pointed to other, better models of society.


Referenced for set list.

Irwin, Corey. 2023. ’Peter Gabriel Plays First headlining show In 9 Years: Videos and Set List’.

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