Peter Gabriel @ Birmingham Utilita Arena – Saturday 17th June 2023


Reviewed by Paul Quinton

This gig at the Utilita Arena was part of Peter Gabriel’s first UK tour in nearly nine years, and came in advance of his first new album for 12 years, I/O. The arena looked quite full as a clock projected on the screen at the back of the stage counted the minutes down to show time, although, for those who know the venue, two blocks of seating on the floor had been removed as the view would have been obscured by a pretty extensive sound desk.

Peter Gabriel – Birmingham Utilita Arena – 17th June 2023

If ever a gig had a low-key start, it was this one. Gabriel appeared stage left and proceeded to talk about the issues of the day, particularly his long-standing concerns about the environment. He then introduced Tony Levin, and they moved to the centre of the stage, which at this point had seats arranged around a mock campfire, to sing the apt ‘Washing of the Water’. They were then joined by the rest of the band for another couple of songs, before the stage took on a more traditional look. The staging as a whole was excellent, a collection of vertical rectangular screens and a larger oval one, all moving across and up and down the rear of the stage, a different configuration for every song.

A lot of the artists of Gabriel’s seniority, as and when they do tour, rely on packing the show with the ‘hits’, but that’s not his way. More than half the opening two sets, each an hour long, was new material, some of the new songs had been released individually online over the last few months, several hadn’t, although most of them had detailed introductions. The first impression of much of the new music is that it’s very synth based, and in many cases is quite intimate and atmospheric, even in such a big arena, and although there are some big issues being addressed, quite often, the songs have quite personal subjects. ‘Panopticon’ talks about having a lens that can look over the whole world, seeing everything around you, while ‘I/O’ describes the simple pleasures of walking your dog and being close to nature, whereas ‘Four Kinds of Horses’ continues the environmental message. Although at a lot of gigs, playing new songs, especially as many as this, can often result in a fair proportion of the crowd heading for the bar or for a toilet break, in this case you felt that the great majority of the crowd were almost leaning forward, absorbed in the music, and several of the new ones got a really strong reception.

Almost as if rewarding the crowd for its attention, he dotted his more well-known songs around the set, and as most of these were comparatively up beat, with ‘Digging In The Dirt’ raising the tempo of the opening set significantly, and then an immaculate ‘Sledgehammer’ taking us up to the interval with Gabriel, Levin and guitarist David Rhodes cutting some synchronised dance moves at the front of the stage.

The start of the second half seemed to catch some by surprise, with a lot of the crowd seeming to be scrambling back to their seats when the band resumed the show, and the second half followed the same pattern as the first. These songs strike a cautiously optimistic note, as in ‘Road to Joy’ and ‘Love Can Heal’, but there’s also ‘And Still’, with thoughtful memories of his late mother. As for the more well-known songs, these were hit an even higher level than those in the opening set. ‘Red Rain’, with the stage bathed in a deep red light, an exuberant ‘Big Time’, and, best of all, an equally moving ‘Don’t Give Up’, with singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson taking Kate Bush’s part with an almost serene assurance, as if those weren’t huge boots to fill.

The main set ended with ‘Solsbury Hill’, still as exuberant and joyous as ever, with the crowd word perfect. The first encore was an extended ‘In Your Eyes’, including a brief vocal contribution from Tony Levin, some synchronised swaying from almost the whole band, and Gabriel conducting the crowd. Gabriel introduced the band individually, who left the stage briefly, then returned for the song that’s become a civil rights anthem, ‘Biko’, which always ends with the band exiting one by one as the crowd sing the final chorus, many with their fists raised to emphasis the message.

Peter Gabriel has never been averse to doing things differently, including how he puts a show together. For a lot of bands it would have been quite a risk to fill the majority of the set for an arena tour with completely new material, and leave out some of your best known and successful songs, no ‘Games Without Frontiers’, ‘Here Comes The Flood’ or ‘Shock the Monkey’, for example, but such was the quality of the new songs and how well they were played, the crowd were absorbed for the two plus hours of the show. Here’s hoping it’s not another nine years before he comes back.

Set 1:
Washing of the Water
Growing Up
Four Kinds of Horses
Digging in the Dirt
Playing for Time
Olive Tree
This Is Home

Set 2:
Love Can Heal
Road to Joy
Don’t Give Up
The Court
Red Rain
And Still
Big Time
Live and Let Live
Solsbury Hill

In Your Eyes

Encore 2: