Music Review: Peter Gabriel – i/o Live

Peter Gabriel

i/o Live

23rd June, 2023.

AO Arena, Manchester.

Main Images: Maggie Levin (2023).


It’s been almost twenty years since Peter Gabriel has toured new material. In 2014, he treated audiences to his anniversary tour of the spectacular 1986 So album, which set alight the video-box boom on MTV with the smash hit Sledgehammer.

Not since Still Growing Up in 2004, though, has a range of new material been staged. No time like the present, then, to get the newbies out and give them some air. In this, the former Genesis front man performed with gusto. Of the twenty-plus songs on display in this two-and-a-half-hour celebration, more than half are from the yet-to-be-released i/o, with only seven being released – in conjunction with the dawn of a new moon – as singles on varying platforms.

Weird or masterly? The proof’s plain for all who come to bear witness.

It’s a brave man, however, who ventures into the virgin lands of the Unknowing Response, armed largely with unaired tunes with which to entertain more than the most die-hard fans. That Gabriel – So album aside – boasts a sparse hits collective when it comes to recognisable numbers [Games Without Frontiers and Biko possibly being the exceptions] more than the devoted would pick up on, is itself surprising.

So it is that, as though setting out his stall from the off, silently and almost unnoticed, Gabriel enters stage left and welcomes the enthralled gathering with some banter. “I’ve done what ABBA have done; turned up as an AI representation of myself. Mine went wrong, though. I’m twenty years older, twenty pounds heavier … and bald!”

And so, it begins. Tony Levin, his long-time cohort on all thing’s bass, joins the man beside a campfire and breaks into an astonishingly moving Washing Of The Water from the 1992 album Us. Drifting onto stage to join them come the rest of his band, with David Rhodes (guitar), Richard Evans (bells, whistles, percussion) and Manu Katche (drums) all renewing their relationship with the maestro.

Growing Up follows on. This deliciously formed livener from 2002’s Up, still felt a bit incongruous without that tour’s Zorb being rolled around, but great music is great music is great music. Strange to say then, that two songs in, like mendicants on New Year’s Eve, already we’re saying goodbye to the old and ushering in the new. The next three songs – a raucously poppy Panopticom, an audaciously rich Four Kinds of Horses and a sure-fire hit – were such things still the name of the game – is the earworm title track of the album and tour: i/o (Input / Output, in case you were were wondering).

All of this, thanks to yet another sublime set design from Robert Lepage, takes place beneath a gloweringly full moon suspended above Katche’s drumkit like a conscience. Maybe it is, but that the big screens are left unemployed until the next song, Digging In The Dirt, can be said to have been a little frustrating.

That said, Playing For Time is a beautiful piano ballad, reminiscent in tone to Father, Son, and is  a melody suffice to soothe the most savage of beasts.

That, in a nutshell, is what sums Peter Gabriel up. He knows what to give, when to give it and – arguably most importantly of all – how to give it. In a lesser talent’s hands, this show might well be headed for disaster. In Peter Gabriel’s, however, all is safe and sound and secure.

That Sledgehammer closes the first half is like an insurance policy that’s never going to be cashed in. Nobody is leaving early because their favourite hasn’t been played. The man is way too good for such disrespect.

Of course, it helps when your band are craftsmen and craftswomen. Ayanna Witter-Johnson is testament to this. More to the point, the faultless duet of Don’t Give Up is testament to this. As rich now as ever, Kate Bush could barely have been expected to deliver more poignancy than Witter-Johnson did here, and the crowd simply lapped it up.

Nature and tech are entwined throughout. With images of jungles and oceans and clifftops sashaying between the huge screens floating high above, it is Peter Gabriel behind an array of gossamer like screens, in silhouette, singing the disorderly, lavish and utterly superb Darkness which leaves the most vivid impression.

Then, just as we think the big hitters are being rolled out – Secret World, perhaps, or maybe¸ Mercy Street or San Jacinto – here comes another two new songs: Love Can Heal and Road To Joy, neither of which have been released.

Gabriel has a habit of this, playing things his way. One day it’ll bite him in the bum, but today is not that day. Somehow the freshness of the synth driven vibes is almost as intoxicating as being stuck in the bar of the Savoy for a couple of hours.

By the time Red Rain and Big Time and the grandest dame of all, Solsbury Hill, have all been aired, so too have a further four new songs – including the elctro-synth heavyweight Live And Let Live – and the audience are still baying for more and more and more.

Before the gig had even started properly, in the seat behind, there’s a man punching his fist in the air at the climax to The Court as though it might have been his and his partner’s wedding song … and that had only been a video playing and despite the fact the song’s very existence had been completely unknown four months earlier!

In Your Eyes and, finally, Biko close proceedings out. Nearly two and half hours on from doffing his cap at the notion of being merely an AI representative of himself, the 73-year-old Gabriel leaves the stage with his usual signature plea: “As always,” he purrs, “what happens now … is up to you,” while the haunting strains of Biko, driven by the awe-inspiring Manu Katche’s thick, melodious beat, are all that remains of an inspiring, heady and, at times, rousing night of superb music, delivered superbly.

Yes, more classics would have been welcomed. Secret World is always going to be a big miss from any Gabriel set. That said, however, i/o the concert remains a tour de force of an experience that connoisseurs will revel in, while more grounded and less experienced fans will joyously exclaim: ‘I was there when he played …whatever it was he played … for the first time.’ 

  1. Set 1:
  2. Set 2:
  3. Encore:
  4. Encore 2: