If Peter Gabriel’s sold-out TD Garden show on Thursday were someone’s first concert, they might walk out with a number of misconceptions about how these things are done. They might assume that every artist performs multiple sets with full 15-minute intermissions in between or that it’s standard to take the stage alone to frame the show with a monologue about the dawn of humanity and the evolution of the planet for several minutes before a note of music is played. They’d perhaps labor under the delusion that it’s typical for a performer to diligently credit his collaborators, whether the musicians on stage or the artists responsible for the images and films that scroll above the stage.
But mostly, they could end up expecting all performers to be simultaneously as cerebral and as openly emotional as Gabriel, or as powerful. From his days fronting the art-rock era of Genesis, he’s always had a flair for theater, but the stagey trappings of Thursday’s concert only served to concentrate and elevate the material. The opening two songs — the melancholy but warm and welcoming “Washing of the Water” and the primally earthy drone of “Growing Up” — took place around a prehistoric campfire, and the image that it conjured was of making music for community if not survival, rather than to entertain others.
Fittingly enough, the band’s focus shifted to the audience with the dark surveillance-state warning of “Panopticom,” performed under a giant all-seeing eye. The moody “Four Kinds of Horses” was a heavy ticking clock with slouching momentum, while the restrained “Playing for Time” offered hope but not optimism. But there was ebullience as well, from the clomping and frisky “Sledgehammer” (complete with videos of mushrooms growing in time-lapse and insects pollinating flowers and one another, to let there be no doubt about it), to the brightly rhythmic “Road to Joy” and the effervescent, deeply humane “Live and Let Live.”
The core trio who’ve been with Gabriel for literal decades — bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, and drummer Manu Katché — remained as crisply vital as ever. Katché's drums in the shuddering, antagonistic “Digging in the Dirt” were malicious in their indifference and drove much of the apocalyptic vibe of “Red Rain,” but he also offered a delicate, almost subliminal touch against Levin’s full chords on “Don’t Give Up.” And cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson was the vocal MVP, equally adept at Kate Bush’s tenderness on “Don’t Give Up” and Youssou N’Dour’s ecstasy on “In Your Eyes.
Gabriel was seemingly undiminished himself, his tight tenor fully intact as he playfully manipulated multiple out-of-phase projected silhouettes during the dislocated and deliberate “Darkness” and painted video screens from behind with an electronic wand on the beatless throb of “Love Can Heal.” He ended powerfully with “Biko,” Rhodes playing single sustained guitar notes against Katché's spare, asymmetrical, insistent drumbeat, two songs after “Solsbury Hill,” where Gabriel let the crowd take the “BOOM BOOM BOOM” part, offering his heart to an audience that accepted it and sent it right back to him.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
At: TD Garden, Thursday