Peter Gabriel promised to play his landmark "So" album in its entirety on Tuesday night in San Jose.
And the response from ticket buyers was a resounding, "So what?"
In other words, the event was hardly a hot ticket. Some 8,000 fans turned out to the HP Pavilion, which typically sets capacity at around 13,000 for a major rock show. The floor was packed, but the second deck was basically a ghost town.
That's a decent tally -- especially in this economy, on a Tuesday night -- but it was a far cry from what the occasion deserved. Gabriel is, after all, one of rock's true visionaries and 1986's "So" stands as his crowning achievement. Yet, hearing him play it live was something that many music lovers decided they could skip.
Their loss. Because what they missed was "So" great.
The 62-year-old British musician, however, still needs to work on making an entrance.
While other acts like to make a big splash when they first take the stage, Gabriel is content to simply stroll out to the microphone and clinically dissect what's to come. The scene is not unlike a history professor telling the class what chapters will be covered on the midterm.
The show was broken down into three thematic sections -- none of which, thankfully, had anything to do with the French Revolution of 1848. He'd start with an acoustic set and then follow with an electric one, wisely leaving "So" for the closer.
Gabriel started with the unfamiliar -- an unfinished song that appears to go by the working title of "OBUT" -- and then steadily moved his way toward the tunes we all knew by heart.
The acoustic set was lovely, as Gabriel tickled the ivory and led his top-notch band -- featuring many of the musicians from the original "So" tour -- through one gem after another. His vocals were achingly intimate on "Come Talk to Me," the lead track from 1992's "Us," and thoroughly commanding on the smash "Shock the Monkey," from 1982's "Peter Gabriel" (his fourth eponymous affair, which was released in the U.S. as "Security").
The band plugged in for the fifth number, the memorable "Digging in the Dirt," and then continued the charge through another "Us" cut, "Secret World." The biggest upside of this "electric" set was that it brought Gabriel away from the piano to the front of the stage, allowing him to showcase his highly theatrical performance skills. Nobody moves like Gabriel in front of a crowd — he's stiff, robotic and calculating, yet always in bizarrely appealing ways. He's also a master of conjuring moods through seemingly simplistic lighting schemes, provided on this tour by portable rigs wheeled around the stage.
It was then time for dessert -- "So" -- and it was mighty tasty. Gabriel kicked off the disc with an alluring "Red Rain" and then proceeded to run through the masterpiece in order. Of course, it was his "order" -- which differs slightly from the original track listing. Legend has it that Gabriel always intended to close the album with "In Your Eyes," but had to move the song to the start of Side Two for some technical reason. In concert, however, it's back as the closer.
The "So" section felt like a greatest-hits set -- and, in a way, it was. The album, which has sold some 5 million copies in the U.S. alone, produced so many marquee songs, all of which still sound strong in concert. In particular, "Sledgehammer" still packs quite a wallop and "Don't Give Up" (even minus Kate Bush's original vocals) remains heart-wrenching. Ironically, one of the least memorable tunes of the set was the closer, "In Your Eyes" -- which is never going to be as good without Youssou N'Dour.
Following the "So" album, Gabriel and his band returned for a two-song encore of "The Tower That Ate People" and, of course, "Biko," the still-moving tribute to South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.
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