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WASHINGTON – With a tip of his cap and a bow, Peter Gabriel emerged on stage to address the crowd.
He started his chat about time, which “has every single one of us in its claws,” moved on to imagination, which “helps us escape,” and grimly joked about artificial intelligence and the increasing difficulty in “telling the real from the fake.”
This professorial approach would blend with extraordinary multimedia and artsy production, stellar musicianship and the live presentation of nearly every song on his long-awaited “I/O” album – and most of his hits – for three hours (including a 15-minute set break).
Gabriel’s tour, which rolled into Capital One Arena Wednesday, kicked off in Europe in May before starting a 20-show stateside run last week that lasts through mid-October. It’s a rare outing for the 73-year-old creator, who toured with Sting in 2016 and last hit the road solo more than a decade ago.
'Sledgehammer'? Yes, but also lots of new songs
The quiet opening of this scholastic adventure found him sitting, campfire-style, under the massive visage of a moon with “the king of the bottom end,” bassist Tony Levin, renowned for his work in King Crimson as well as his 47-year partnership with Gabriel.
With Gabriel cradling a keyboard on his lap, the pair edged into 1992’s lullaby “Washing of the Water” before the rest of Gabriel’s multicultural band, highlighted by longtimers drummer Manu Katché and guitarist David Rhodes, joined them for “Growing Up” with its lovely layers of string and percussion.
Gabriel, the original lead singer of Genesis who departed the band in 1975 to forge a hugely successful solo career that indulged his interests in world beat and politics, also became an unlikely MTV star along the way.
That guy makes a few appearances on this tour, though the intellectual Gabriel can’t possibly view “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” as more than obligatory inclusions in a set so heavily dedicated to songs he’s been perfecting for decades (his last album, “Up,” arrived in 2002). However, he sold both with verve and visuals as captivating as their lauded videos, delighting the crowd that, after hearing much new material, just wanted to get up and dance.
No Kate Bush, but a masterful duet nonetheless
The only quibble with Gabriel’s show – which might have slotted more comfortably in a theater setting except for the massive, spaceship-like lighting panel and other visual accouterments that require arena space – was its jagged pacing.
While Gabriel has released one new song from “I/O” on the date of the full moon each month since January, most in the audience didn’t seem familiar with the material. The singing guitar riff and chugging beat of “Panopticom” and the brisk title track with its piano backdrop and bursting chorus are invigorating additions to Gabriel’s catalog.
But it took the muscular backbeat, spiky trumpet bleats from Josh Shpak and Gabriel’s deliberate side-hopping on the chorus of 1992’s “Digging in the Dirt” – “this time you’ve gone too far” - to incite the masses.
The beautiful piano-based ballads “Playing for Time” and, later in the set, “And Still,” a dedication to Gabriel’s deceased mother, are artistic requiems but they fit awkwardly in proximity to a crackling rendition of “Sledgehammer” and an ethereal “Red Rain.”
But whether on new material or classics, Gabriel’s voice has retained its distinctive timbre, both dusky and capable of projecting deep hurt or tenderness, the latter of which unfolded during a show highlight.
Mournful bass from Levin opened “Don’t Give Up,” a song still so pretty, so melancholy, so important. The stunning cellist/vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson subbed for Kate Bush’s original vocals during the moving duet, as she and Gabriel climbed stairs atop the stage to exchange emotions.
Peter Gabriel says we need a more 'live and let live' mentality
Gabriel is a generous maestro, frequently namechecking band members, mentioning the artists whose visuals appeared on screen and during the encore that commenced with his percussive masterpiece of adoration, “In Your Eyes,” saluting his production crew.
He also strove to leave the crowd with some optimism, pairing the new hand-swaying “Live and Let Live” (“That’s what we need a bit more of right now,” he said at the start of the song) with the sunny blast of nostalgia, jaunty guitar and "boom boom boom" heartbeat of his first solo hit, “Solsbury Hill.”
Gabriel has always been unapologetic in his artistic quests and that hasn’t diminished with age. More than 50 years into a career, he’s earned that right.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Peter Gabriel celebrates fan favorites, new 'I/O' songs: Tour review