AUBURN HILLS -- There wasn't a Palace of Auburn Hills when Peter Gabriel released his landmark "So" album in 1986. He also had a great deal more hair, and less husk in his voice and his body.
But 26 years later, "So" remains a singular work, an original and groundbreaking fusion of arty rock and pop with World Music flavors and cutting edge textures. And on Wednesday night, Sept. 26, at the Palace, it sounded as fresh and vigorous as it did when it came out as Gabriel and his band -- the same players from the original "So" tours in 1986-87 -- celebrated the set at The Palace.
But wait...there was more. Gabriel has been a master showman from his days fronting Genesis, so he wasn't about to merely come out and play his most famous album. On Wednesday he offered up what he introduced as a three-part show, taking the small but enthralled Palace crowd through a 21-song, two-hour and 15-minute survey of his solo career, primarily of songs that came just before and just after "So" -- 1982's "Peter Gabriel" (aka "Security") and 1992's "Us" -- in a manner that both complemented and put some perspective on the show's featured attraction.
Gabriel and company started with the houselights up and a trio of unplugged-style songs, including the brand new "OBUT" (a duo piece with bassist Tony Levin), "Come Talk To Me" and "Shock the Monkey," the latter of which had fans clapping along despite its restrained arrangements. The lights came down halfway through "Family Snapshot," and Gabriel delivered full-bodied dynamics for both hits ("Digging in the Dirt," a typically shimmering "Solsbury Hill") and favorite album tracks such as "Secret World," "The Family and the Fishing Net," "No Self Control" and "Washing of the Water," illuminating the proceedings with the same corps of light boom-cranes he used on the original "So" tour, which shifted position via a track that circled the stage.
The video screens, meanwhile, displayed images from point-of-view cameras positioned around the stage, including on the musicians' instruments.
The "So" recitation was anything but rote, kicked off with a powerful "Red Rain" that led into a buoyant rendition of "Sledgehammer." Backup singer Jennie Abrahamson was a superlative fill-in for Kate Bush's parts on "Don't Give Up," and Gabriel dubbed the tune's chanted coda "the song for Detroit."
The concept also gave Gabriel a chance to give less-celebrated "So" cuts such as "That Voice Again," "Mercy Street" and particularly the trancey, African-flavored "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" their due before closing with the spirit-lifting "In Your Eyes."
And while taking his bows, Gabriel also led the Palace crowd through a singing of "Happy Birthday" for his 11-year-old son Isaac Ralph.
The encore contained one surprise, the industrial-strength "The Tower That Ate People" from the 2000 "Red Planet" soundtrack, during which Gabriel was encased in a tall fabric cylinder while he sang the final choruses. The night closed with another throwback -- "Biko," Gabriel's resonant 1980 protest anthem about the late South African activist Stephen Biko which the singer made relevant by introducing it with references to current-day civil rights struggles in countries such as Bahrain, China and Russia.
All of that made Gabriel's first appearance in these parts since 2003 a memorable one, and here's hoping he doesn't wait as long -- and comes back with something equally compelling. (An official recording of the show, by the way, is being sold at www.themusic.com).
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