"Peter Gabriel: an avatar bewitches the Arena of Verona!" - Review by Raffaele Sestito on behalf of VeroRock.it. Photos by Raffaele Sestito, Claudio Bustamante, Achille Benigni and Maurizio Astolfi.
VERONA, Arena, 5/2023 - Peter Gabriel calls, Italy answers. Nine thousand fans of all ages from every corner of the boot throng the stands of the Arena di Verona, for the first of two Italian dates (the other is Milan) of the i/o The Tour, which started May 18 from Krakow.
|A full nine years have passed since the 2014 "Back To Front Tour." During this span, the former Genesis frontman has remained on the sidelines of the music scene - busy, as always, with a myriad of other social and humanitarian activities - performing only in 2016 with his friend Sting on the "Rock, Paper, Scissors Tour." A project, the latter, which further procrastinated the writing of tracks for the new album, whose title (i/o, an acronym for input/output) and no less than five singles (released to coincide with the full moon phases) are known, but not yet the release date.|
The stage set-up for this tour consists of fixed and movable elements: a screen positioned high up in the center of the stage that tilts 90 degrees, two side screens that allow visibility to more distant and off-center spectators, and a modular system of nine panels that slide vertically and horizontally. Providing a natural setting for the concert is the Arena, with its imposing beauty.
It is just past 8 p.m. and the annoying drizzle that has been nagging us since the afternoon has mostly subsided. Gabriel appears alone on the stage wearing an orange jumpsuit, as if he were just another technician, and a manuscript in Italian: "Time is our master...I'd like to take you back four and a half billion years, when our planet was dead and may still be dead unless we are very careful...it's getting harder and harder to separate the real from the fake...it may surprise you to know that what you are looking at right now is my avatar while I, in fact, am relaxing on a Caribbean beach and looking like a Greek god, sorry, Roman! Enjoy." Reflections, laced with a hint of irony, on the impact of climate change and the rise of artificial intelligence over human intelligence, which he says would have the power to turn us into an obsolete species.
|The songs are performed by the stainless rhythm engine formed by Tony Levin (bass and double bass) and Manu Katchè (drums) with David Rhodes (electric and acoustic guitar) as the perfect finisher. The ensemble is completed by Richard Evans (guitar, flute and vocals) and four new faces: Marina Moore (violin, viola and vocals), Ayanna Witter-Johnson (cello, keyboards and vocals), Josh Shpak (woodwinds and keyboards) and Don E (keyboards).
The long musical marathon - twenty-three pieces on the setlist, including as many as ten new ones - begins with an acoustic mini-set. It opens with Washing of the water, performed by the Gabriel-Levin duo ("we have been collaborating together since we both had hair," the frontman will say) which is followed by Growing Up, which is more tribal and dramatic but above all less dance-like than the studio version, played by all the band members arranged in a semicircle as in an ancient ritual, with images of the phases of the moon in the background. From the looks of complicity that the musicians exchange and from the irony with which Gabriel comments on his initial smear on the song's lyrics ("this is the first bullshit of the night") one senses that the atmosphere is relaxed, there is no tension despite the prolonged absence from the stage and the insidiousness of a tour that is in its early stages.
It is the turn of the new album, which takes off with the notes of the three singles Panopticom (the transparent sharing of information as a precondition for equitable and sustainable development), Four kinds of horses (different levels of consciousness narrated in the parable of the four horses of the Āgama Sūtra) and i/o (the interconnectedness of people and things in the universe), whose catchy melodies and fine, full-bodied arrangements benefit from the superlative acoustics of the Roman amphitheater. Judging then by the reception given to Four kinds of horses, it can be said that i/o has produced an instant classic. The set, somewhat anonymous in "off" mode, is transformed by the music into a spectacular palette of colors and animations.
|Gabriel holds to master Stanley Kubrik's dogma that the future is not believable unless it includes the past. The unreleased Road to Joy (the recovery of the senses after seeing death up close) perfectly combines tradition and innovation, recalling the rhythm and refrain of Steam (from the album Us), presenting it in a new stylistic guise, closer to funky jazz canons. Irreverent are the hands spinning on screens pointing a middle finger at a skull, a symbol of passing away.
The beautiful Playing for time is practically a contemporary rendition of Here comes the flood, one of the excellent exclusions from the set list perhaps because the title evokes the drama that the people of Emilia Romagna are experiencing these days.
Gabriel surpasses himself by pulling two masterpieces out of the hat, And still and Love can heal, which are the best answer to those who, aprioristically, object to the excessive space given to the last compositions. The first is a moving remembrance of his deceased mother that touches unthinkable emotional peaks at the beginning of the concert ("And still your hands feel cold / those hands that brushed my hair"): the pain of losing a loved one becomes a source of inspiration that gives form and color to art. The second is a hymn to the therapeutic power of love: in a setting of sampled aquatic sounds, Gabriel ideally plays the role of an orchestra conductor, channeling the band's rarefied chorus and the heartbreaking notes of cello, transverse flute and French horn to the audience.
|A couple of the unreleased tracks played tonight shine with reflected light. The refrain of the bluesy This is home recalls Lionel Ritchie's splendid Se la; Olive tree is the piece that deviates most from Gabriel's admittedly wide and varied repertoire: meditative stanzas with a vague American folk-rock flavor alternate with joyful refrains, led by Shpak's muted trumpet adjunct, that come close to some of the compositions of his friend Phil Collins.
But all that glitters is not gold. Live and let live is a feeble attempt to fuse pop and gospel, What lies ahead has all the air of being a still unfinished song, in ideas and arrangements.
Gabriel's audience also needs certainty, which means classical repertoire. It is the album So that once again plays the lion's share, with no less than five songs ranging from the danceable Sledgehammer and Big time to the dreamy Red Rain, punctuated by rhythmic guitar and soaring drum rolls with the red-and-white-tinged backdrop fittingly framing the scene.
The female component has always occupied a prominent space in Gabriel's discography and live performances. The talented Ayanna Witter-Johnson, recently on the team, duets beautifully with the singer on Don't give up and on the first of two encores with an ethnic aftertaste, In your eyes, on which the Gabriel-Levin-Rhodes trio improvises a coordinated dance routine that unleashes the audience's desire to dance. Unmissable is the autobiographical Solsbury hill, emotional as always Darkness, which deals with the theme of the end of life with anguish. Second mishap of the evening, the false start of Digging in the dirt, later performed beautifully.
The concert opened with a strong call for awareness and closes with an equally strong call for equality. Drums, synthesized bagpipes and a few but effective electric guitar chords introduce Biko, a moving dedication in memory of activist Steven Biko, whose brutal murder in prison would make him a symbol of anti-apartheid. A simple but extraordinarily effective communicative tune, on the finale of which the nine musicians leave the stage one by one, amidst choruses from the audience extolling the South African martyr.
|The 20 years of compositional lethargy that followed the release of Up and the absence for more than a five-year period from the big stages portended an artistically uncertain future for Gabriel. Tonight the frontman appeared in excellent physical and vocal shape and, more importantly, not at all fulfilled by a glorious solo career: getting back into the game at seventy-three is a sign that one still has something beautiful and interesting to tell. The release of the new album is still a long way off, but tonight we had a chance to hear it previewed virtually in its entirety: it is a work that still bears the Gabrielian trademark, with less rhythm and more heart.
The next day we return home with the regret that we did not continue the itinerary to Milan but with the knowledge that we witnessed a show within a show: a unique mix of sounds, colors and lights in the beautiful natural setting of the Arena of Verona.
1. Washing of the water (acoustic)
2. Growing up (acoustic)
4. Four kinds of horses
6. Digging in the dirt
7. Playing for time
8. Olive tree
9. This is home
12. Love can heal
13. Road to joy
14. Don't give up
15. The court
16. Red rain
17. And still
18. What lies ahead
19. Big time
20. Live and let live
21. Solsbury Hill
22. In your eyes