The June 16th Peter Gabriel show was one of the best concerts I've ever seen.
More Than This
Games Without Frontiers
Digging in the Dirt
Don't Give Up
The Tower That Ate People
Signal to Noise
In Your Eyes
It was hotter than hell, humid, and I turned red as a beet, natch, on account of my rosacea. Also, parking at Chastain is always terrible, and we parked a long way from the amphitheatre. For these reasons, I rarely attend events there, but I had vowed I would see Gabriel if ever he returned to Atlanta, so I kept my promise to myself. All of the discomfort was forgotten as soon as he took the stage, but I'm getting ahead of the order of things.
He had a pop star from Uzbekistan, a singer named Sevara Nazarkhan, opening for him. She had a strong voice, and the melodies were fine, but the crowd didn't really warm to her -- it was still very hot outside when she opened, and she kept trying to get the crowd motivated to dance and sing along with her -- people clapped politely, but the singer didn't seem to get the fact that the predominantly-American crowd would have a very hard time singing along, given that none of the songs were in English. I did like the fact that Peter himself was polite enough to come out and introduce her, however, rather than leaving her to fend for herself entirely. Indeed, he was very inclusive of his entire band, and did something I've never seen most "big" artists do -- he bothered to take the time to acknowledge all the roadies, caterers, assistants, engineers and other staff without whom there would be no show. I consider this recognition appropriate, but classy because so few performers actually do it. He's very gracious, but also very entertaining, with a quirky, sometimes ribald, sense of humor.
The sun finally set, the temperature cooled, and we were engulfed by a powerful wall of sound. As of this writing, this was the most perfectly-mixed show I've ever attended. I really can't emphasize this enough: it wasn't just aural, it was like music was coming in through every pore, that we were immersed in layers and details of complex rhythms and melodies, combining and separating, washing over us. I've just never heard a show orchestrated like that. Very hard to describe, but very memorable -- by comparison, the CDs sound like the faintest copies, the last generation of a photocopied document that's been reused and reissued 100 times. I'm not usually a person who is consciously aware of that sort of thing, but this made me take notice. I didn't even know "Red Rain" could sound like that. All the focus was on the sound -- just a few warm red ovals of light on white pedestal screens in the background.
"More Than This" was one of the few songs from his most recent album, Up, that he performed. He followed it with the one song he performed from Us, "Secret World."
Gabriel was looking a bit wizardly: close-cropped, near-bald pate, sharp eyes, black tunic and pants, and a slightly-longer than normal goatee. He led the crowd into "Games Without Frontiers," and had the crowd sing along "Jeux sans frontieres" as he and another band member rolled around on stage on Segways (first time I'd seen one in use) - a visual play on the "games". I have to wonder if half the audience realized that they were singing French, much less that it was the song title, translated. Speaking of the crowd, David and I were definitely at the young end of the curve, unless we count the children brought there by parents.
He introduced "Mercy Street" with the explanation that it was inspired by poet Anne Sexton, that he sees "Anne in the boat," but didn't launch right into it. Instead, he and his whole band gathered in the center of the stage and did a gorgeous a cappella version of the chorus to preface it, then did the full number. Very impressive.
I haven't yet mentioned the visuals -- they enhanced, synthesised beautifully without becoming the focus. When they did come to the forefront, they were used with instructive purpose, to illuminate meaning or emphasize a particular element, rather than being gratuitous special effects. For the most part, images appropriate to the lyrics or intent ("walking through the undergrowth" had images of a sea of grass waving) of the song played on a small round screen -- shaped to subtly reflect the moon motif that is one of the tour symbols.
I'd never thought of it before hearing them juxtaposed at the show, but "Darkness" and "Digging in the Dirt" back to back were perfect bookends for one another in terms of concept, meaning and sound.
walking through the undergrowth, to the house in the woods
the deeper I go, the darker it gets
I peer through the window
knock at the door
and the monster I was
so afraid of
lies curled up on the floor
is curled up on the floor just like a baby boy
-- Peter Gabriel, "Darkness"
It's almost like "Darkness" is the place that has been reached after "Digging in the Dirt" to get there, but -- and here's the cool reverse -- the new album is Up, but in a way, reversing them moves us up because it's almost as if what he saw in the "Darkness" wasn't enough -- if that was it, that couldn't be it, it was so little -- so he has moved back to "Digging in the Dirt" to explore his psyche further. It's one interpretation, anyway. Could be completely wrong -- but there are definitely ties between the two songs, even if I can't quite articulate them as well as I'd like.
don't mess with me my fuse is short
beneath this skin these fragments caught
-- Peter Gabriel, "Darkness"
Fragment is exactly the word that came to mind with "Digging in the Dirt." It was like he was making a video on the fly, not for airplay, but just to further inform the audience during the performance. He came out with a helmet strapped to his head -- odd headgear, with a long, flexible tube coming out of the top, looking a bit like a unicorn with a droopy black horn. During the song, he used it deliberately, purposefully -- it was a camera, much like a medical scope, circular, and he used it to fragment himself during the performance, now focusing on eyes, now spotlighting the angry words coming out of his mouth, now highlighting his face, panning back and allowing us to see the whole on the soft "confessional" parts of the song. Quite skillfully and remarkably done: a simple, but creative and effective tool. It appears he's used it at least since the Eighties, but I'd never seen it.
"Don't Give Up" was next -- perhaps also meaningful in context? Don't give up on the search to find peace from the demons that haunt you? Interestingly, we found out much later in the show, when he introduced the band, that the singer doing Kate Bush's part was his daughter, who had unobtrusively served as a backup singer during most of the show. She did a decent job with it -- it's very hard, I think, to do that part of the duet justice, as Bush has such a distinctive voice.
"The Tower That Ate People," from OVO: Millenium Show, was one I hadn't heard before, but really liked. Always a political artist, Peter mentioned that the people in the tower had found that the more they ensconced and secured themselves, the more trapped they were, a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. (And grieve for more than ever in this post 9/11 world. I hate most of the crap that's being done, and don't think it makes us a bit safer than we were before. No, really. If there is a will, there is a way. I firmly believe THAT YOU CANNOT LIVE YOUR LIFE IN FEAR. It's far too easy to "what if" yourself into a state of isolation. But I digress.)
As if to prove this point, he did something I've never seen any major artist do: he went out into the crowd during a later song, with damned little security. Him, his daughter, a few other members of the band -- I saw one roadie in front to clear the path, and one roadie at the tail end of the procession to close the door to the stage entrance when they went back up. People were touching him as he passed, and it was no big deal. I was really quite impressed. He seems to at least try to both talk the talk and walk the walk, and I quite respect that.
More instructive visuals, and a lot of fun (the man definitely doesn't take himself too seriously) with the extremely catchy "Growing Up": he rolled out on stage in a giant, sphere-inside-a-sphere. Occupying a clear womb within the ball, again reiterating a motif of the tour, the embryo floating in space, Peter did the whole song inside, rolling and bouncing around the stage. "My ghost likes to travel, so deep into your space" -- perfectly illustrated. Afterwards, he made some amusing remarks, talking about having had a hamster as a pet, and learning one of two things: that, 1) Karma exists, or 2) God is a hamster. :)
One of the most personally significant moments for myself and David occurred during the next song, and as soon as he mentioned 6%, I knew where he was going with it! He started talking about the idea of visiting another planet, and meeting residents there that only had a 6% genetic differential with humans, and how remarkable that would be, and how we would treat such a commonality. He then pointed out that we had a race like that right here on the planet with apes and chimpanzees. Now, I know from reading The Hot Zone that that very difference has helped save our collective butts on occasion (Ebola Reston) . . . for those who don't know, I am an epidemological hobbyist to a degree. But again, I digress.
Anyway, in addition to enjoying reading about tiny biological agents that can annihilate us, I have also long been a primate fan. Heck, I mention them even in my very first journal entry. Back when I had funds, I donated to DUPC, and when I have funds again, I will do so again. I believe it is very, very important to preserve that fragile ecosystem -- "last chance to see," as Douglas Adams said. I want future generations to still know the wonder of having Earth-native, non-human intelligence stare back at you.
I realize at this point that most folks reading this have no clue what I'm nattering on about. I am talking about an experience I had, must have been about 1994 or 1995, at Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina. No, not the big anniversary celebration they had, where I got to meet Jane Goodall, Ian Tattersall, and other noted primatologists. No, this was before that, and, neat though that day of festivities was, this was much more personal, much more private.
scottwells wisely told me long ago that secretaries, now administrative assistants, hold the keys to the universe. Scott Wells is always right. More on him in a different journal entry. Through a complex path of connections that sadly no longer exists (institutions grow and become more formalized; it's the way of things), I got to tag along behind an author who was being given a private tour of the facility as research for a book she was writing. I'll summarize . . . the whole thing was remarkable, but one moment in particular stands out. I was attentively listening to Carol, our guide, who was telling us of the vocalizations the aye-ayes make -- their chuffs, their plosives, their eeps (yes, they eep) and so on -- as we were standing in one of the aye-aye enclosures. Musky and dim, a little warm, my eyes were still adjusting a bit to the darkness. I didn't even realize I was resting my hand and arm on the long tree branch arching down through the middle of the area, until I felt something.
I hadn't even heard it: my eyes had been on Carol, and above, looking at the aye-ayes moving on the limbs above our heads. Silently, Poe (they're all named "spooky" names, because of the Malagasy mythos/perspective on them), had moved right down the tree . . . onto my hand . . and arm . . . and then he crawled up and sat on my head. No, I'm not making this up. I couldn't possibly, and I have witnesses. An aye-aye decided to crawl on my head. Fortunately, he did not tap it to determine whether my head was hollow and might contain a tasty grub -- I wasn't quite sure whether he was going to go rooting around in my ear or what. :) After a bit, he climbed back to his tree.
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. That may sound strange, but it's true. I mean, it's not just the novelty: I'm sure you can probably fit the number of people who have had an aye-aye crawl on their head in a rather small room. No, what gets you is looking into primate eyes, and seeing a definite intelligence looking back. It's not at all like looking at a dog or cat, a cow or horse. Not even like a non-domesticated animal, like a squirrel or deer. It's very powerful. Unforgettable.
However, I rather think my experience may pale in comparison to that of Gabriel's . . . . and of my husband's.
You see, after his comments about the 6% difference, he dedicated the next song, "Animal Motion," to the researchers at a local primate research institute. While he didn't mention it by name, when he described his experience there with the bonobos, we knew he was talking about Georgia State University's Primate Language Research Center, and Rumbaugh. Apparently, he'd invited members of the staff to his show as guests, and they were there in the audience.
When David was studying cognitive science he got to meet and interact with Kanzi. My husband is a fairly private person, not given to hyperbole. When he describes the experience, interacting with Kanzi, a genius among bonobos, he speaks with deep respect, and uses the word "amazing." Very little amazes my husband, so it must have been truly profound.
Having that shared experience with Gabriel, knowing that he'd experienced that same sense of awe -- definitely resonated and made the night even more special.
The whole crowd rose up and danced and never returned to their seats when the band broke into "Solsbury Hill." Peter came out in a black jacket studded with large lights that flashed for "Sledgehammer."
He did three encores: "Signal to Noise," "In Your Eyes," and "Biko." Sevara came back out for "In Your Eyes," and received a much more enthusiastic reaction from the crowd -- her voice was perfect for this one. It was only the second time on the whole tour that they did "Biko," and it was quite forceful.
Atlanta begged for more, but Gabriel gave a graceful departure, taking a gently funny little bow with Tony Levin, his daughter, and the rest of the musicians. They bowed front, then back, mooning the audience (more full moon representation in a very silly context), saying that they had to show their "best sides."
Quite a good show. Sold out, too, as far as I could tell. I am very glad I seized the day and got the tickets (decent seats, too).
Small disappointments: would have liked to hear "Steam" as well.
Excellent luck (not birds): not five minutes after we reached the car, torrents of rain (not red) started coming down. It had been raining on Atlanta for several hours already, just not on us. Very good luck.
You can see some shots of the Atlanta show at Tony Levin's web site here.