THE PERFECT CONCERT IS STILL POSSIBLE by Steve Houk

At the ripe old age of 51 and with hundreds and hundreds of rock concerts under my belt, you’d think that me seeing another ‘perfect’ concert would be pretty unlikely at this point. I mean, there have been a bunch for sure: at the top of the list would have to be Bruce at his peak in 1980 (and many times after), Zep at MSG in 1977, Pink Floyd’s The Wall,  maybe Skynyrd three months before the crash at the height of their popularity, certainly U2 on a number of their tours, even Brian Wilson doing Smile after years of reclusion, plus another selected few….they were the perfect shows of my life, and it would seem that getting another at this stage that is close to those is pretty unattainable and rather unlikely.

Until last night. Add another one to the list. Last night at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Peter Gabriel put on, well, a perfect concert. Sound, lighting, song selection, band, voice, background singers, feel, tone and emotion, there was simply not a weak or slow moment, not a bad note, not a moment where you might have wondered when it might be over, or when you could hit the bathroom or get a beer. Flawless is a word that came to both my and dear friend Todd Jones’ mind as the concert progressed. Not a small feat given Todd’s very demanding, musically-educated standards, and well, my simple bulk of great shows I’ve seen over the last 35 years. But this concert, this performance, was as good a show as you will ever see, anywhere, anytime, and it was put on by a 62 year old man who has been putting them on for decades.

Mr. Gabriel promoted the show as the S0 Back to Front tour, where he would play his 1986 multi-platinum album So, by far his most successful album ever, from last song to first, after an opening set of some of his own favorite songs, which ranged from the obscure to the eerie & strange to the bit more well-known.  But on this night, Gabriel and his incredible band, featuring all of the musicians who played on So and other than maybe his bandmates in Genesis are the most accomplished and talented band he has ever had, played a concert so tight, so powerful, so deeply personal and so, well, goddamn good that anyone there had to walk out thinking like we did: that we had just seen perfection live.

An amazing surprise: superb vocalists Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson relax at their hotel after last night’s Gabriel gig in Fairfax.

It started right at the beginning, with the ‘opening act’, fabulously talented singer/songwriter Jennie Abrahamson and her longtime musical colleague Linnea Olsson, who played a gorgeous short set of beautiful original Abrahamson compositions and delighted a crowd most likely not expecting a warm up (we didn’t) but ending up very pleasantly surprised. Turns out the duo was given the opening slot after singer Ane Brun fell ill (both are singers in Brun’s band as well), plus the background vocal slots for Gabriel’s sets, and what serendipity it would turn out to be, as the duo blended in perfectly with Gabriel and his incredible band, featuring legendary bassist Tony Levin, percussionist Manu Katche, guitarist David Rhodes and jazz fusion (and even one time Springsteen session player) David Sancious. This ensemble was locked in sync from the first note of Come To Talk To Me, which came early in the “acoustic” part of the show, to Gabriel’s epic ode to human rights Biko which closed it some 80 or 90 minutes later to the fist-raised chants of “oh, oh ohhhhh” and reminded me of singing the chorus of U2’s 40 so  many times as we walked out into the night.

(L-R) Tony Levin, Peter Gabriel and David Rhodes dance and play in sync during a recent concert.

And in between those, well, you got it all and got it flawlessly. Before rolling So, he opened his set with an as-yet-unfinished song called OBUT, admitting there were “no lyrics to it yet”, and making random sounds over a churning music bed hammered out by his phenomenal band. He then navigated magnificently from signature mysterious and powerfully offbeat Gabriel tunes like The Family and The Fishing Net, Family Snapshot and No Self Control to more mainstream yet still Gabriel-edgy songs like Shock The Monkey, Digging In The Dirt, Solsbury Hill, Secret World and Washing Of The Water. 

And then….there was So. An album (yes I do have the vinyl as well as the CD) so reminiscent of my life in the mid 80’s that it would cause me numerous tear-stained flashbacks throughout. And the versions of these songs played on this night, however hard it is to imagine, were even better than the original album versions, as this band of seasoned pros at the top of their game shined stunningly on every song, even transforming the more overplayed songs from the record like Big Time, Sledgehammer and In Your Eyes into songs that felt, new, fresh, exhilarating and yet, so (ha) familiar.  Chills were everywhere during utterly gorgeous renditions of Don’t Give Up (with Abrahamson nailing Kate Bush’s vocals, even improving upon them if that’s possible), Mercy Street, which had our hero lying  curled up in a fetal position on the floor as a camera shot him from above, and That Voice Again, probably my favorite song of this So review. Two of the much lesser known So tunes, We Do What We’re Told and This is The Picture, were played with an intensity and synchronicity that elevated them above their album predecessors. After finishing So, the band returned to roll a brilliant and obscure Gabriel creation called The Tower That Ate People, before stirring our souls even more with Biko as the finishing touch. Whewwww.

Some of the mesmerizing lighting at last night’s Peter Gabriel show at GMU (Steve Houk photo)

Oh yes, you can also always count on stunning lighting and multimedia effects from a Gabriel show and this one did not dissapoint, and in some ways exceeded many of his previous shows if that’s possible. In addition to lush and gorgeous HD quality shots of the band (the best camera presentation I have ever seen at a show) mixed in with effected video images and symbols, five movable lighting structures reminiscent of the alien machines in War Of The Worlds stalked the musicians throughout, casting an eerie yet mesmerizing aura over everyone on stage. It was a perfect yet subtle addition to this perfect show.

And his voice? My buddy Todd, who is a Gabriel aficionado and professional musician in his own right, shook his head repeatedly throughout, in awe and wonder and Gabriel’s ability to hit the high notes you thought he wouldn’t try, as well as the deep and profoundly moving ones he is famous for. His voice alone took this show into another hemisphere, and kept us there throughout.There may be another ‘perfect’ concert or two in my future. Who knows. I mean, I’ll be in the same building in a month or so to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse with Patti Smith, and that could get close. But even if nothing reaches the level of last night’s Peter Gabriel concert, I can sock this one away as a treasure, a night to remember, one for the ages…and yep, perfection.

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