Peter Gabriel strolled onto the stage at HP Pavilion on Tuesday with the house lights still glaring and the upper tier of the arena empty save for a scant few concertgoers sprinkled throughout the vast space.
Standing at the center stage microphone, Gabriel matter-of-factly began to explain to the audience how the concert would be structured for the rest of the evening. For an ever artistically-minded musician known for the theatrical nature of his live performances, it was a strangely stilted beginning to the start of his concert, exuding all the excitement of a CPR certification course.
Gabriel came to San Jose touring on the 25th anniversary of his much-celebrated 1980s-era gem, So, set to perform the album in its entirety, amongst other greatest hits material. It was a show that held unique promise as a concert experience, and was therefore all the more surprising that the results were merely, well, so-so.
Performing along with many of the highly talented original musicians from So, the 62-year-old Gabriel ultimately put on a mixed bag of a performance, at times stunningly brilliant, and at others, awkward under the weight of it’s own production. He started the show with three strong tracks – “Obut,” “Come Talk to Me,” and “Shock the Money” – only to have them languish under the fluorescent house lights of the hockey arena. Gabriel’s idea (as he carefully explained at the start of the concert) was to convey the atmosphere of an acoustic rehearsal session, or really, as it came across – soundcheck.
The show finally gained momentum as the lights came down and the instruments went electric. Gabriel delved into the depths of his catalogue with tracks like “Digging in the Dirt,” and “Solsbury Hill,” roaming back-and-forth from his keyboard to center stage amid pulsing lights, and embellishing the lyrics via his lumbering dance moves. The surprising inclusion of the obscurity “Humdrum” rounded out this middle set in subtle though engaging fashion.
The evening then transitioned into So, without a break, starting with Gabriel’s soaring vocals on “Red Rain,” and then delivering on all the heft and weight of “Sledgehammer,” much to the delight of his dancing fans. “Mercy Street” quickly proved to be a high point, beginning with a amazing harmony section before Gabriel fell to the floor and proceeded to sing the brooding lyrics flat on his back throughout the massive looming atmosphere of the song.
Yet for as solid as Gabriel and his band sounded, the show began to sag in spots. “Big Time” quickly obliterated the compelling mood generated by “Mercy Street” with its second-rate “Sledgehammer” pop, just as other tracks such as "That Voice Again" proved sub-par to the better material on the album.
As the performance proceeded to the latter part of the night, Gabriel’s choreographed dance moves grew redundant as they persisted from song to song, while the massive production of the light show – involving a small swarming army of lighting technicians, dressed ninja-like for discreetness – really only rendered mediocre (and distracting) results.
Of course, as Gabriel moved through a 10 minute-plus version of “In Your Eyes” and a spirited "Biko," his adoring fans continued to embrace every second of the show. If there were flaws in the performance, or rather, better Peter Gabriel shows to be had in years past, they seemed to be met with a collective – “So?”
All photos by Charles Russo.