This year has redefined how major stars conceive their concert set lists. Thank you, Taylor Swift, for the revolutionary, fan-fulfilling marathon playing tunes from nine of your 10 albums, disc by disc. Jonas Brothers, those copycats, followed with a similar concept surveying all five of their albums. And Beyoncé, always an ambitious visionary, devoted nearly half of her just-completed tour to 2022's "Renaissance" album, which was more of a critical than commercial success, and surprisingly skipped her biggest earlier hits to the dismay of many.
Peter Gabriel, ever the unconventional British art-rocker and humanitarian activist, is doing something completely different — but also in the extreme. On Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center, he performed 11 selections from an album that's not out yet — his first of new music since 2002, which is also when he last toured extensively.
The two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Famer (solo and with Genesis) has released several of the new songs this year, each on a full moon, but not all 7,500 fans in St. Paul were probably familiar with the fresh material. He also performed 11 other selections, including the hits "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" that made him an MTV icon in the '80s.
To help the new material connect, Gabriel did a lot of talking. Sounding like a philosophy professor whose class fills up on the first day of registration, he lectured, before playing a note, about the ingredients of life and later about avatars, artificial intelligence and other weighty topics (hey prof, it's hard to take notes in the dark).
He tried to set the stage for each of the new selections from the album "i/o" (input/output), which offer poetic reflections on life, love and existential subjects. Suffice it to say, Gabriel, ever the intellectual in words, sounds and visuals, likes to think big.
Thanks to his amiable if lofty introductions, potent singing voice, stellar band and compelling visuals, Gabriel, 73, provided a rewarding, artful, if oddly paced evening. And he leavened things with occasional rib-ticklers like saying he and bassist Tony Levin, his compadre of 47 years, have been together so long they played with dinosaurs as kids.
While seated around a faux campfire, Gabriel opened the night with a pair of older tracks, the 1992 deep cut "Washing the Water" and the 2002 modest single "Growing Up." Then it was a flood of "i/o" tunes, including "Olive Tree" with its "You Can Call Me Al"-evoking trumpet; "Four Kinds of Horses," a slow, spiraling piece about selfishness, and the congenial "This Is Home," sandwiched around 1992's electrifying "Digging in the Dirt" during which Gabriel's voice was on fire.
Sensing a bit of impatience in the crowd with the new works, Gabriel finally reached into his toolkit for the inevitable energizer "Sledgehammer," during which he did a spirited dad dance. That crowd-thrilling knockout closed the first of two sets in the three-hour program (including intermission).
The second segment had a hit-and-then-sit pacing for a crowd that wanted to party even on a Tuesday night in the half-full arena. New numbers were festive ("Road to Joy," an updated electronic funk), simplistic (the tolerance-themed "Live and Let Live" with its "We Are the World" vibe and "Love Can Heal," with the titular refrain repeated like a mantra), sweet (the beautiful chamber-pop ballad "And Still," dedicated to his mum) and groovy ("The Court," about justice).
Gabriel managed to sneak in some of the hits fans wanted to hear — "Don't Give Up," his 1986 duet with Kate Bush, during which he met the immensely talented singer/cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson at the back of the stage; the slinky funk of "Big Time," during which he punched the air; the tuneful "Solsbury Hill," during which he paraded and then skipped around the stage, and "In Your Eyes," during which he did steps in unison with bassist Levin and longtime guitarist David Rhodes.
Throughout the long night, Gabriel mentioned his musicians by full name multiple times and also gave shoutouts to the visual artists whose work adorned the many big screens around the stage. The coolest visual bit may have been when Gabriel took a wand and waved it over a stagewide plastic canvas creating an instant abstract design as he sang. The philosophy prof is also an artist.