REVIEW: Peter Gabriel at Fiserv Forum

Peter Gabriel arrived at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee as part of his “I/O” tour Monday evening. It was his first time here since performing with Sting at Summerfest in 2016.

Born and raised in Surrey, England, Peter Gabriel first rose to prominence as the original frontman of progressive rock band Genesis, formed in 1967. He was present on the band’s first six albums (“From Genesis to Revelation”, “Trespass”, “Nursery Cryme”, “Foxtrot”, “Selling England by the Pound”, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”) before departing from Genesis in 1975 due to directional differences with the other members as well as his disillusionment with the music business.

Stylistically, Peter Gabriel’s music is variably described as art rock, progressive pop, worldbeat and soul pop. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, both as a member of Genesis and as a solo artist. Throughout his career and discography he has been a major force in opening Western audiences to not only musical elements of African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures but also global sociopolitical issues and topics. Gabriel is a co-founder of the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival and owner of Real World Studios, both designated as platforms for non-Western music. He has long been involved in humanitarian causes, having launched the human rights nonprofit WITNESS in 1992 plus he has worked with Amnesty International since the 1980s.

Gabriel’s solo debut album “Peter Gabriel 1: Car” was released in 1977, featuring the lead single “Solsbury Hill” which was inspired by both a spiritual experience he’d had at the titular mound and his decision to let go of Genesis in pursuit of his solo career; to this day, it remains one of Gabriel’s most popular and recognizable songs. His second album “Peter Gabriel 2: Scratch” arrived in 1978 and his third album “Peter Gabriel: Melt” came out in 1978, the latter becoming a mainstream breakthrough with his incorporation of African, post-punk and new wave elements as well as overtly political themes; songs like “Biko” and “Games Without Frontiers” honor the South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko and tackle the objective childishness of war, respectively. 1982’s “Peter Gabriel: Security” continued such social commentaries and sonic experimentation with songs like “Shock the Monkey”, “San Jacinto” and “I Have the Touch.”

“So”, Peter Gabriel’s fifth album, was released in 1986 and carried more danceable pop appeal than his previous work. The record features some of his most well-known songs including “Big Time”, “In Your Eyes” (famously included in the John Cusack boombox scene in the 1991 film “Say Anything”), “Don’t Give Up” (a duet with Kate Bush critical of Margaret Thatcher’s administration) and “Sledgehammer” (notable for its stop motion music video, which is the most played music video on MTV of all-time according to Time Magazine). His sixth album “Us” came out in 1992 and found Gabriel touching on more personal themes of family, relationships and mental health, working with Sinead O’Connor on a few of the tracks. His 2002 album “Up” took seven years to complete and deals heavily with birth, life and death. Fast forward to the present, Peter Gabriel is gearing up to release his eighth studio album “I/O” – his first in two decades – in the coming months, which this current tour is in promotion of. He has released a single from “i/O” on every full moon this year starting with “Panopticom” in January.

Gabriel has also scored several films including “Birdy” (1984), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1989), “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (2002), plus he has contributed original songs to “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998) and “WALL-E” (2008). In 2000, he created the soundtrack to the London theatrical performance Millenium Dome Show, titled “OVO.”

His current live band consists of David Rhodes (guitar, vocals), Tony Levin (bass), Manu Katche (drums), Ayanna Witter-Johnson (cello, keyboard, vocals), Marina Moore (violin, vocals), Don-E (bass synth, vocals) and Richard Evans (mandolin).

Monday night’s show was a stunning, electrifying spectacle. Peter Gabriel is a most vibrant performer; the night had moments of him skipping across the stage, doing synchronized dances with Rhodes and Levin and boogieing through his pop hits. Above him and his band was a large circular screen that frequently spotlighted Gabriel, while screens below and on the sides of the circular one projected whimsically animated and radiant visuals created by individual artists for each song, including a short film by Tim Shaw during “I/O” song “The Court.” Gabriel bantered between songs with humorous tales but also spoke candidly about the virtuousness of collectivism, humanity’s relationship with technology and the urgency of human rights. He also graciously and repeatedly praised the musicians on stage with him throughout the show and shouted out the venue’s crew for their fantastic work.

Gabriel divided Monday evening in half with two sets separated by a brief intermission. The concert overall consisted of eleven “I/O” songs, five “So” songs, two songs each from “Us” and “Up”, and one song each from “Car” and “Melt.” The “I/O” arrangements brought plenty of enchantment and enthusiasm around Gabriel’s new material yet he kept that same fervor for the classics. He masterfully captivated both ends of the spectrum in terms of demeanor; for every explosive pop tune Gabriel performed there was a slow and wholehearted love song to follow, projecting passion with his full chest either way. The first set opened with intimate renditions of “Washing of the Water” and “Growing Up” with Gabriel and his band seated in a circle as if around a campfire before they all got in proper position for “I/O” lead single “Panopticom.” The second set began with a new, previously unseen screen lowered across the front of the stage for songs “Darkness” and “Love Can Heal”; the former featured mirror images of Gabriel while the latter engulfed the screen with starlike raindrops and colorful smoke. He performed “Don’t Give Up” with Ayanna Witter-Johnson singing Kate Bush’s part and dedicated “I/O” song “And Still” to his mother. While the first set contained “Us” single “Digging in the Dirt” and concluded with “one from the tool kit” being “Sledgehammer”, the second set found home for a number of Gabriel’s popular tunes including “Red Rain”, “Big Time” and “Solsbury Hill.”

He came out for not one but two encores, playing “In Your Eyes” for the first and “Biko” for the second – the latter of which featured within the circular screen a portrait of Steven Biko as Gabriel chanted with his fist in the air with the crowd echoing him in a powerful event of oneness. As the song ended, one by one he and his band left the stage until there was only Manu Katche’s thundering drum beat to fade things out.

Seeing Peter Gabriel was quite a fulfilling experience. He is an incredibly dynamic personality who has spent his entire career advocating for the celebration of cultures he doesn’t belong to, connecting people worldwide and standing up for those in need. For me it was not only the outstanding production and inspiring nature that made me appreciate his concert but the sentimental value as well. Having grown up listening to his music out of my parents’ adoration for him, it felt like a full-circle moment (when I told them I was going they were quite envious). The only thing that could’ve made it better is if my mom and dad were there with me.

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