Waldbühne, Berlin, Germany
Friday 26th May 2023
Well, it has been a while – Peter Gabriel has not significantly toured since the curious Rock, Paper, Scissors tour with Sting in 2016, and that pleasure was confined only to North America. Europe has not seen a tour from Gabriel since the extended Back to Front tour celebrating the So album, which ended in 2014. If that seems quite a while then the advent of a new Peter Gabriel album can only be practically measured in terms of geological eras, with no new original studio album since Up in 2002, which he toured until 2004. In that context, it is hardly surprising that there is a great air of anticipation for this latest tour in support of the massively long-awaited new i/o album. It is, perhaps, a testament to Gabriel’s enduring appeal that after over 20 years since his last studio album and nearly 10 years since he toured in this part of the world, the enormous amphitheatre of the Waldbühne in Berlin is sold out, with 22,000 expectant fans wondering just what the great man is going to present to them.
Peter Gabriel is not afraid to inject humour into the proceedings and it takes a while for the crowd to realise that the man shambling on in an orange jumpsuit (worn by the whole stage crew) and a cap is actually the star of the show. He addresses the crowd in German, not a language with which I am too familiar, but even I can make out that he is mischievously informing us that, like the ‘ABBA Voyage’ show in London, he is actually a projected Avatar, albeit somewhat older, heavier, wider and, as he takes off his cap, balder than in his heyday! He sheds the jumpsuit and sits at a piano as legendary bass player Tony Levin walks on with his Chapman Stick and they surprise just about everyone by starting the show with a delicate, acoustic version of Jetzt Kommt Die Flut, the German language version of Here Comes the Flood. This is not a song they have been opening shows with elsewhere on this tour, and it is met with rapture by the German audience.
The rest of the band join them on stage and sit in a semi-circle at the front as Gabriel introduces Growing Up, with the suggestion that like ancient man, we can all gather ‘growing up around the fire’… and somehow, in the wooded valley of Waldbühne, over 20,000 humans are also drawn in to the comforting glow of the metaphorical campfire with a song sensitively and significantly transformed into a fascinating acoustic version, complete with trumpet and violins. I am not entirely sure how he managed it, but then again, Peter Gabriel is no ordinary artist.
Having drawn us into his community, Gabriel opens up the atmosphere by launching into the first of eleven new songs played during the evening, the excellent Panopticon. Based on the idea of all-seeing A.I., Panopticon is an instantly infectious song which wheedles its way into your brain with its ear-worm hooks, feeling like we’ve known it for years. It is clear from the start that, yet again, Gabriel has assembled a special band, around the core of his usual cohorts Tony Levin, David Rhodes and Manu Katché, and that he has also collaborated with some outstanding visual artists to represent his songs.
The new songs continue with his observation on the marriage of religion and violence expressed in terrorism in the starkly beautiful Four Kinds of Horsemen, in which Ayanna Witter-Johnson on cello and Marina Moore on violin particularly shine – the apocalypse never sounded quite so beguiling. In contrast, i/o, described by Gabriel as being ‘about the interconnectedness of everything’, is much more optimistic and celebratory, with a catchy chorus it feels like we’ve known for years, which the crowd picks up to sing along, even as a brand new song. These songs show the ‘dark’ and ‘bright’ side of Gabriel, mirroring the formats in which he is releasing new i/o songs each month with different ‘dark’ and ‘bright’ mixes. Talking of brightness, the one disadvantage of this beautiful arena, and starting at 7pm due to the local curfew for live music, is that much of the first half is played with bright sunshine into the eyes of many in the crowd. However, it seems apt that by the time we reach the second trio of new songs, Playing for Time, Olive Tree and This is Home, the sun finally sinks behind the trees and the magic of the arena palpably multiplies as the lights and visuals come into greater effect. Playing for Time starts with Gabriel simply playing the piano, joined by cello, violin and Levin’s beautifully judged bass as the light appropriately fades away. This lovely new tune also showcases Gabriel’s remarkable voice, which seems to have lost none of its quality, range, resonance and feeling. Olive Tree features some funky horns from the incredibly energetic and multi-talented Josh Shpak, who is a live-wire throughout the show. In contrast, This is Home is characterised by a restrained bass backing and delicate violin as images of home, such as a cup of tea and a garden scene through a window, plays soothingly on the screens.
Of course, it is not all new songs and Gabriel ensures fans have some old favourites, punctuating the first half with two gems. Digging in the Dirt is magnificently re-imagined, underpinned by some great bass from Levin, described by Gabriel as the ‘Emperor of the Bottom End’. Shpak adds some stylish trumpet flourishes and Rhodes gives the song real balls with some remarkably dirty guitar. It is clear that even when Gabriel looks backwards he is not content with just trotting out the same old versions and is keen to find something new in his songs. The first part of the set ensures no-one is left unsatisfied as the band perform a raucous, playful version of the classic hit Sledgehammer with the 73-year-old Gabriel belying his age, stomping around the stage enthusiastically and dancing in unison with Levin and Rhodes, whilst some rather… shall we say… suggestive film of tumescent mushrooms and other ever-so-subtle sexual images graces the screens, and the crowd joyously sing the choruses along with a fist pumping Gabriel. Gabriel’s performance all night seems to show no signs of him significantly slowing down or declining – he seems in remarkably great shape and on the evidence of how fit he is for these shows there could be quite a few years left for future shows… if he doesn’t disappear for years at a time again!
The band and crowd take a well-earned breather and thoughts turn to the setlist, with over half of the first set being completely new. On social media there have been some complaints about the balance of the setlist, bemoaning too many new songs and the lack of favourites such as Mercy Street and Games without Frontiers. One can assume that those making those complaints are probably the same who complained that Gabriel has not released a new studio album for over twenty years! Here they are then – the new songs – get used to them! However, I can also say that as a very long time Gabriel fan I did not care a jot that there were a lot of new songs. In any case, Gabriel’s previous Back to Front tour and the Warm Up tour of 2007 were effectively ‘greatest hits’ type tours already with no new album to promote – he has done a number of those songs so many times it must be getting boring going over the same old ground. Quite apart from that, the quality of the new songs is absolutely outstanding, justifying their inclusion, and by the evidence of a very happy crowd at this event, they are also content with hearing a mixture of old and new.
The second half of the set takes a distinctly different direction with Darkness as a be-hatted Gabriel leads the band through the darkly dissonant drama about overcoming fears. New song Love Can Heal, apparently inspired by ‘locked in syndrome’, is utterly mesmerising with a gentle, whispered vocal opening backed with some gorgeous backing vocals from Marina Moore and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, and a delicate flute from birthday boy Richard Evans. The Road to Joy injects colour and energy into the evening with suitably joyous trumpet stabs from Josh Shpak and some smooth keyboards from Don E. The whole gig kicks up to a new level of excellence and emotional impact with a stunningly beautiful rendition of the classic So hit Don’t Give Up, with a stage divided into blue and red halves, presumably signifying male and female. Gabriel’s voice has lost none of its presence as he embarks on this emotional song, the ‘Kate Bush’ part taken up by the remarkable talent of Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who soulfully interprets the song in her own distinctive and enchanting way, the whole crowd in her thrall as she commands the stage with grace and power – we may just have seen the birth of a new star, such is her impact. She interchanges perfectly with Gabriel as they journey between their symbolic halves of the stage in one of the highlights of the whole evening.
The Court is one of my favourites of the five new songs released so far, and it does not disappoint in a resplendent live version. In front of an image of a primitive fire being built, the band play a smoothly rhythmic groove about the justice system, brilliantly balanced with the soft human vocal harmonies of the backing singers. It is interesting to note that the album which features most in the set, apart from the new songs, is the iconic 1986 album So, with five songs being drawn from it. So is obviously Gabriel’s most popular album with sure fire hits, so that is hardly surprising, but there also seems to be an affinity between the atmosphere and feel of that album with its glorious synthy, rhythmic rock/pop style and the sound palette developed for many of the i/o songs, which seem to share aspects of that smooth, beautifully orchestrated and hypnotically rhythmic approach.
The widescreen and dramatic groove of Red Rain is a real crowd pleaser, with some particularly effective violin from Moore (and thankfully the only ‘rain’ that fell on this open-air venue!). The So songs continue with the frankly bonkers fun of Big Time (with some very amusing graphics) turning up the tempo and excitement levels, Gabriel bouncing around the stage gleefully. The infectious groove of Manu Katché’s drums drive it all along powerfully, and Don E embellishes the piece with some deliciously funky keyboards.
Gabriel shows his confidence in his new material by featuring two of them towards the end of the set, and his trust in them is justified in different ways. And Still is inspired by his relationship with his mother, who died in 2016, and is suitably elegiac with cello and flute from Witter-Johnson and Evans, and a touching French horn from the versatile Josh Shpak. However, the star of this song is the warmth and emotion of Gabriel’s wonderful voice, singing personal lyrics with such feeling… a remarkable achievement to share such clearly private reflection and genuine feeling in front of thousands.
The final new song is the joyful and inclusive Live and Let Live, another great song which you know you have never heard but somehow connects straight away. It is a thing of joy and affirmation, putting smiles on everyone’s face as the stage is bathed in brilliant and clearly symbolic rainbow colours. When one considers that this iconic star is presenting such a clear expression of inclusivity and love in an arena literally in the shadow of the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium, an event not remembered for its tolerance and sense of shared humanity, the message is clear for everyone… and the crowd absolutely love it. There is only really one song which can follow such a celebratory climax to finish the main show, and the arena erupts as the familiar melody of the timeless Solsbury Hill chimes across the valley, lighting up the show like the rays of an English pastoral sunset. The whole crowd are on their feet, punching the air in unison with Gabriel as he sings “Boom, Boom, Boom!” A great way to end the main show.
However, there is more, of course, and Gabriel and his band delight the audience with a rapturous extended and joyful rendition of In Your Eyes, beginning with Tony Levin’s comically deep vocal interchange with Gabriel. The band are flying along in perfect unison and the wonderful visuals display close-ups of the eyes of each band member bathed in colour – it is very striking imagery of the ‘Windows to our Souls’. The song and excellent performance taps into the great energy of the crowd, who have totally bought into Gabriel’s optimistic and positive messaging. As with all bright things, there inevitably comes a darker side, and the final encore is the anthemic and moving Biko, with its focus on oppression and the fight for freedom. The crowd are on their feet, singing along as the band emotively play out this hymn to hope born out of great evil. The band gradually vacate the stage, just leaving Katché pounding out the rhythm until even he fades away leaving the crowd still singing… and that’s the way it should be, as Gabriel connects with his audience, and they take it on from the concert.
Well, was it worth the long wait? Of course it was – Gabriel and his band enchanted an enormous and very engaged crowd with an intoxicating mixture of great musical skill and high-quality vocals. The new songs shone like newfound diamonds embedded amongst some real gems from the past. Gabriel has lost none of his lyrical mastery with his poetic and insightful words, touching on important issues and deeply personal matters. Put all that together with a world class stage show, brilliant lighting and evocative, startling imagery and you have simply one of the best shows available on the planet right now. Yep, he played a lot of new (and very good) songs, but remember, Peter Gabriel is first and foremost an artist, not a jukebox. Put away your pre-conceptions. Go with an open mind and – just as importantly – an open heart: Live and Let Live, after all!
01. Jetzt Kommt Die Flut (‘Here Comes the Flood’ sung in German – Acoustic)
02. Growing Up (Acoustic)
03. Panopticon (New song)
04. Four Kinds of Horses (New song)
05. i/o (New song)
06. Digging for Dirt
07. Playing for Time (New song)
08. Olive Tree (New song)
09. This is Home (New song)
12. Love Can Heal (New song)
13. Road to Joy (New song)
14. Don’t Give Up
15. The Court (New song)
16. Red Rain
17. And Still (New song)
18. Big Time
19. Live and Let Live (New song)
20. Solsbury Hill
~ Encore 1:
21. In Your Eyes
~ Encore 2:
Peter Gabriel – Vocals, Piano
Tony Levin – Bass, Chapman Stick, Additional Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Manu Katché – Drums
David Rhodes – Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Richard Evans – Guitar & Flute
Ayanna Witter-Johnson – Cello, Keyboard, Lead & Backing Vocals
Marina Moore – Violin, Viola, Backing Vocals
Josh Shpak – Trumpet, French Horn, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Don E (McLean) – Keyboards, Keytar
[Photos by Leo Trimming and Topsi Mueller. TPA would like to Thank Topsi Mueller for permission to use her photographs.]