One of the many highlights of Peter Gabriel’s 1986 American tour was when the singer fell into the outstretched arms of the audience, literally putting his life in the crowd’s hands. In the summer of 1993 he makes an equally strong connection with his listeners, but the integration is more emotional than physical.
But be assured, the connection is just as strong and just as effective.
The overriding theme of the tour and of Gabriel’s current Geffen album, “Us,” is human relationships and all of the wonder and fear they involve. And as each song had its own complex character, so did the ambitious staging and onstage drama that supported it.
The show’s set, designed by Robert Lepage, is both breathtaking in its reach and moving in its subtlety. The minidramas framing each song in the 160-minute show served not only to embellish the tunes with Gabriel’s own vision of them, but to balance out the concert’s sometimes muddy vocals. (The singer relies on a headset microphone.)
After missing a show in Northern California due to a virus, Gabriel for the most part was in fine singing form. The hot-and-bothered “Steam,” where the 43 -year-old demands physical satisfaction, a rearranged take on “Games Without Frontiers” and “Across the River,” all played early on, benefited from their set placement. Only as the show progressed, particularly during megahit “Sledgehammer” and the love-lost anguish of “Blood of Eden,” did Gabriel’s vocals appear taxed.
One of the most mesmerizing moments came during “Digging in the Dirt,” as Gabriel donned a mini video camera, its lens trained in closeup on his eyes and face. As the song about suppressing and then re-evaluating base fears and insecurities unfolded, each minute facial movement and imperfection on his skin was broadcast on an oversize vidscreen.
Other musical highlights included the hymnlike “Washing of the Water”; “Shock the Monkey,” one of several that spotlighted bassist Tony Levin and his unique stick-bass; “Only Us,” which captures the wistful spirit of the new album; and closing number “Biko,” Gabriel’s traditional finale that honors slain South African civil-rights hero Stephen Biko.
Opening the sold-out show was Papa Wemba, a popular singer from Zaire, and his large, dance-happy ensemble. The energetic group, introduced by Gabriel, played a bouncy version of world pop/rock, but was only politely received by a crowd eager for the headliner.