I had not until recently embraced a means of mourning the death of my father. There were enough differences between us that a wall remained around his memory, and maybe I wasn’t all that interested in finding a way through it.
Then Peter Gabriel re-entered my life by means of his fresh concert tour at Capital One Arena here in DC. Gabriel knocked on my wall and installed a door. And he promptly walked right through it.
You see, Peter Gabriel was one of the very first artists I collected as a boy, happily chasing down the first four self-titled Peter Gabriel albums. One of the first things I realized about Gabriel was that he was the same age as my own father. Dad, not a loquacious man, was Peter’s opposite in many ways. Gabriel threw on a suit and sang about romantic frustration in “Modern Love” or engaged in psychic battles in “Shock the Monkey,” and he seemed to be living a parallel life to my father, airing aloud what it means to be a man in the world of the moment.
At Capital One Arena on Sept. 20, Peter Gabriel appeared anew as a father figure, expressing optimism at the power of artificial intelligence, warmly conveying his admiration for his bandmates and his crew, and gently immersing the audience in his love of advanced audio-visual technology. From his very first moment on stage, Peter Gabriel was kind and yet authoritative. He embraced knowledge of life and death, and he shared it through music and some technical wizardry.
The show began with Gabriel and his eight bandmates sitting around a campfire scene in a setting reminiscent of an Irish traditional music session or even a bonfire singalong. In his early selections, Gabriel revisited Up (2002) and Us (1992), singing a contemplative “Growing Up” and a vindictive “Digging in the Dirt” from those respective albums — for me, powerful songs that process finding yourself in traditional male roles. When Peter Gabriel spoke to me in these songs, he was suggesting that whether through contemplation or lashing out, you were trying to find find that place of comfort and understanding and eventually healing.
Watch the official music video for “Digging in the Dirt” by Peter Gabriel on YouTube:
At the heart of the show was the forthcoming Peter Gabriel album, I/O, his first record of new material since Up 21 years ago. At Capital One Arena, Peter divided the show into two acts, and the I/O songs dominated the first act, gently giving way to classic Gabriel numbers in the second act. To date, he has issued eight singles of the album as he builds to its publication (apparently later this year). Halfway through the first set, Peter performed the title track of the album, a song about being “part of everything.” Late in the set, he performed “Olive Tree,” an allegory of growth as if through receiving sunlight and water.
Peter Gabriel closed the first act with perhaps his most famous song, “Sledgehammer,” the call of man to mate and to seek a sexual partner.
All of the numbers were presented as big old-school pop numbers, often with a giant portal screen behind the players. The portal would act as canvas or as teleporter, swirling and radiating as it flashed portraits or scenes to display. It was wondrous and mesmerizing.
In the second act, Peter Gabriel began the set behind another bit of technological wonder — a translucent video screen from which he performed behind. But as he did, he waved into existence glittering images, cloud embankments, and iconic shapes. This was a particularly effective means of communicating the feelings within “Love Can Heal,” a slow-burning ballad from I/O. Peter turned the other way with “The Court” and its condemnation of how we have lost control of facts, and indeed perhaps lost control of ourselves through investment in social media. Whether encouraging love or admonishing misplaced priorities, Gabriel ultimately was very fatherly in the best sense of the word.
Watch the Oranguerillatan official video for “The Court” by Peter Gabriel on YouTube:
For a stirring performance of “Don’t Give Up” from So (1986), Peter was joined by bandmate Ayanna Witter-Johnson for a duet. Ayanna, the celloist in the band, was a very effective partner in place of Kate Bush, who appears on the recorded version. As a boy, one of my prized possessions was Peter Gabriel’s CV compilation of eight music videos, and I surely watched that tape to death. There was nothing more soothing and reassuring to my teenaged self than watching the Gabriel/Bush embrace in the Godley & Creme video for “Don’t Give Up.” And so seeing the song live resurfaced a lot of feelings. I wondered if my own father might feel like the protagonist of “Don’t Give Up,” and I found solace in it.
The second act contained other memorable songs from So — “Red Rain” and “Big Time.” Peter Gabriel closed the main set with “Solsbury Hill” (1977). That song has been with me since I was a boy, and it conjures memories of Dad, showing up after days or months away to move us again to another place but to move us together in hopes of starting something new, maybe some taste of shelter, maybe some place of permanence.
“Hey,” he said,
“Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.”
My father became very kind later in life, quite preoccupied with the comfort of his family, whereas perhaps he was more of a rash and temperamental man for much of his time on this earth. I believe he would have connected with a live show by Peter Gabriel, and he would have found a lot of himself through the music. The message would have gotten through any remaining walls between us.
Rest in peace, Dad. Thank you, Peter Gabriel.
Here are some photos of Peter Gabriel performing at Capital One Arena on Sept. 20, 2023. All pictures by Mickey McCarter.