Live Music + Gig Reviews

Peter Gabriel @ O2 Arena, London

19 June 2023


Tracks from forthcoming new album i/o sit alongside classic selections, in an impressive production centred on superb musicianship and artistic endeavour

Peter Gabriel at the O2 Arena (Photo: York Tillyer)

Peter Gabriel at the O2 Arena (Photo: York Tillyer)

The absence of any new material over recent years might suggest that Peter Gabriel has been exclusively focusing on his other interests, like his ongoing involvement in the WOMAD festival and running of his Real World record label and recording studio. But alongside such commendable pursuits he’s slowly been working on his tenth album, i/o. He’s been drip-releasing tracks every month so far this year, with the plan to release the full album at the end of 2023 (it’ll be his first album of new material since 2002’s Up). Tonight’s show at the O2 Arena was to see him focus strongly on this new material while also incorporating selections from his earlier albums.

The first two tracks see him form a circle in the centre of the stage with his band which tonight comprises long standing associates (such as David Rhodes on guitar, Tony Levin on bass and Manu Katché on drums) and new names (like the talented Ayanna Witter-Johnson on cello, piano and vocals). They gather around a fabricated campfire and under a large full moon to play Washing Of The Water and Growing Up to get the show off to a gentle, low key beginning. Afterwards, the stage is quickly reset by his orange-clad crew for an impressively scaled up production. Striking visuals accompany each song, prepared especially by a range of noted artists including Ai Weiwei and Cornelia Parker (who he goes out of his way to credit each time). He also acknowledges the role played by John Metcalfe in delivering the broader sound arrangements.

“It may surprise you all to learn I’m actually an avatar, but unlike the ABBA show down the road, I’m 20 years older, 20 pounds heavier and completely bald” he jokes in one of his early addresses to the audience. It’s the first sign that he’s not afraid to expand upon the songs, with commentary on AI and technology and specifically how they may benefit/harm humanity also appearing. 

Peter Gabriel, David Rhodes & Tony Levin at the O2 Arena (Photo: York Tillyer)

Peter Gabriel, David Rhodes & Tony Levin at the O2 Arena (Photo: York Tillyer)

Panopticon is the first new track to be played and arrives with significant grandeur and scale and title track i/o brings with it a palpable sense of uplift and boost, replete with a suitably arena–sized chorus. It’s also hard not to notice the similarity it bears to the music of Bon Iver (perhaps not altogether a surprise given Gabriel covered Justin Vernon’s Flume on his 2010 covers album Scratch My Back). Other new songs like Road To Joy and Olive Tree strike similar expansive, dynamic notes later in the set but there’s variety elsewhere in the new material that prioritises mood and texture such as the chamber jazz leaning Playing For Time and the delicate, crepuscular Love Can Heal. The show is divided into two sets and the first is brought to a close with the compelling heft and melodic impact of Sledgehammer, which naturally sees everyone rise to their feet.

The proggy heaviness and drama of Darkness opens the second set, Gabriel and the band behind a translucent screen which adds further visual appeal (although many in the audience are still returning to their seats with drinks and miss a significant part of it). It may have been largely down to tonight’s cavernous venue and/or the preponderance of new material but there did seem moments where attention strayed and the connection between performers and audience didn’t feel as strong as it could have been.

As you’d expect however a greater number of hits appeared during this second part of the show and the atmosphere improved accordingly. The serene and poignant Don’t Give Up sees Witter-Johnson admirably take on Kate Bush’s vocals from the original, Red Rain is both yearning and panoramic and Big Time offers further ignition with its energetic funk workout. Solsbury Hill naturally closes the second set to great acclaim and he finishes with the imposing anti-apartheid Biko. Tonight we got past, present and future Gabriel in a show centred on superb musicianship and artistic endeavour. He may not be in the public eye as much as he used to be, but tonight he proved how he can still deliver impressive productions that work on multiple levels.

Peter Gabriel & Ayanna Witter-Johnson at the O2 Arena (Photo: York Tillyer)

Peter Gabriel & Ayanna Witter-Johnson at the O2 Arena (Photo: York Tillyer)


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