Updated: Sep 5
A day with Paul Cézanne, Elvis, Dumpling Monkey and Peter Gabriel
22 June 2023
Text by Blake Milteer
We really enjoy visiting Glasgow. It's Scotland's largest city and just an hour's train ride from our home in Edinburgh - we should go more often. Glasgow has a more urban vibe than Edinburgh, which is attributable to its industrial history. It's a great city for cultural attractions and events as well. Our Glasgow excursions inevitably involve great museums/galleries and delicious food, but the main reason for our visit on this Thursday in June was to see a big musical performance.
Museums and food first.
It's easy to spend many hours at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The Kelvingrove is free to visit (except for special temporary exhibitions) and as the name suggests, there's a bit of everything here. The displays are elegantly curated though, with the building organised into two halves: natural/cultural history and fine/applied arts. On this visit, Sarah and I followed our usual plan to begin with a coffee in the cafe, wander separately for about an hour then meet up and walk around together, showing each other what we've found but inevitably discovering new things along the way. Not surprisingly, as Sarah and I roamed on our own, we crossed paths in the fossil section where each of us tends to spend a lot of time.
There are also lots of taxidermied critters. Some are looking a bit ragged, others quite beautiful:
We predictably spent most of our time in the art galleries, where there are excellent collections of 19th century French paintings and British artists with emphasis on the Glasgow Boys and Scottish Colourists. Here are a few standouts from this visit:
Cézanne (1839-1906) wrote in 1904 that, in his view, 'Lines parallel to the horizon convey the extent of a section of nature... Lines perpendicular to the horizon convey depth. Now nature, for us men, is more depth than surface, hence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to make the air palpable'.
Notice how, in this painting, the triangles of field, hills and roofs in diminishing sizes from bottom to middle, take us back through the landscape. It's Cézanne's balancing act that keeps me coming back to his work. The relatively flat way he applied paint, often emphasising shapes by introducing dark outlines (see the horizon) threatens to keep our attention on the surface, but his deliberate orchestration of those same shapes and understanding of colour and atmospheric perspective (his use of blue to 'make the air palpable') creates a vibrant scene that's spacious but self-contained - everything important is in the picture.
This one's an old friend that both of us seek out whenever we visit the Kelvingrove:
Lowry (1887-1976) is best-known for his urban, industrial scenes most often populated with vigorous crowds of people. He also had a fascination with the sea. This painting has a quiet serenity and mystery to it. Lowry spoke of that sense of uncertainty: ‘I’ve always been fond of the sea... How wonderful it is, yet also how terrible. I often think… what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn’t turn the tide — and came straight on? If it didn’t stop and came on and on and on and on… That would be the end of it all.’
As if to remind us that music was the main purpose for our visit to Glasgow, Saint Elvis was there to send us on our way - also, the museum was closing for the day.
We had worked up an appetite at the Kelvingrove, but the day was lovely and we had some time to spare so we opted for a walk along the River Kelvin before dinner.
Dinner time at one of our favourite restaurants. Dumpling Monkey is always a satisfying stop when we're in Glasgow.
The soups are magnificently flavoured, and yeah, the dumplings are good too. We finished with full bellies - and probably wearing some food as we headed off to the Ovo Hydro for the big show.
The walk offered up some new additions to my photographic close-ups of graffiti, drawing attention to the interesting relationships between the paint and supporting surfaces.
Spoiler warning time:
The remainder of this post is about the Glasgow stop on Peter Gabriel's current concert tour. I think the band is about to begin the North American bit of the tour, so if you're going or you're considering it and want to go in cold, then here's where you'll want to stop.
Having said that, below you will find a selection of images (with no video footage of performances), plus our observations on the band (including identification of band members and instruments), the music (including specific reference to a few songs) and the stage design; but you'll have to look elsewhere for set lists or reviews by people who know anything about music.
Projected on a big circular screen above the stage, a member of the road crew painted hands on a clock, counting down to the show's start. Video by Blake.
Because this summer was rammed with with activities, we knew that we wouldn't be able to attend as many performances in Edinburgh, especially during the festival, as we usually do. So this one big show was it.
We hadn't been to an arena-scale concert in about six years; since then we got used to smaller venues where we could get much closer to the musicians and usually hear much greater nuance and immediacy in the performances. Now, I'm willing to tolerate an arena show for Peter Gabriel because he and his sound engineers have always been very attentive to excellent sound quality, sometimes even making these cavernous arena spaces seem intimate. I'm even willing to accept a higher-priced ticket (but not too high) for good seats like those we scored for this show - not that you'd be able to tell from the shitty phone photos below.
So how was it?
The band: each band member is represented on screens in the image above: Gabriel himself was in good form, bringing his usual combination of musical precision and personal warmth mixed with sometimes-obtuse conceptualism. Longtime band members Tony Levin (bass), Manu Katché (drums) and David Rhodes (guitar) provided the musical core and were were excellent as always. Richard Evans (guitar, flute) was with the band when we saw them in 2004 and is back again. For this tour, the band is joined by Ayanna Witter-Johnson (cello, piano, vocals), Marina Moore (violin, viola, vocals), Don McLean (keyboards) and Josh Shpak (trumpet, french horn, keys, vocals). Sarah and myself really enjoyed this iteration of the band. The addition of cello, violin and horns was clearly essential to the performance of new songs and contributed interesting layers to the older stuff.
The music: Gabriel hasn't toured for nearly a decade, and hasn't toured with a significant release of new music for nearly two decades. New songs were the emphasis here. This isn't unusual, as artists have traditionally toured to support release of a new album and usually pack the set list with new material, sometimes to the disappointment of nostalgic audiences. The difference on this tour is that there is no new album. A handful of the songs have been released digitally, one per month over the past six months and continuing, but there's not yet a full album. Unless you follow Gabriel online and have heard the music that way, the tour effectively premiers the fresh material, particularly a few songs that are presumably forthcoming releases.
Some of the new music is absolutely gorgeous. The quieter songs reflect a more apparently personal perspective than Gabriel usually explores, lyrically anyway. Compositionally, these songs also seem to benefit from the orchestral work Gabriel did around 2010; on this tour the addition of strings and horns is essential to their performance. In a sense, they're really the thread that ties the whole set together, and inclusion of some quieter previous material provides context and depth. These more subtle songs are also where Gabriel's exceptional sound engineering emerges, with each of the 9 performers audible in the vast arena - just stunning.
For us, the more poppy songs peppered throughout the set list were not as strong. These included some of the new songs plus older stuff heavily drawing from the 'So' album. For most of these, the sound was a loud muddy mess, at least from our seats. The exceptions were a new song called 'Road to Joy', which was really enjoyable and a fantastically manic performance of 1990s 'Digging in the Dirt'.
The stage/lighting design: this is always a big part of Gabriel's live performances. He's always had a theatrical way of conjuring images, associations and emotions using choreographed movement of band members, props, lighting effects and video. On any given Peter Gabriel tour, some of these elements can be quite powerful, others cringingly prosaic.
At times, the lighting was a bit overwhelming. A major component of the stage design was a large curved, stepped riser on which six of the performers were positioned for most of the show. The riser wasn't solid, but had bright lights all along the front beneath the musicians. Between these lights, which were aimed out at the audience, other backlighting (including video projection) and intense lighting around the circle hanging above the stage, there was little visual emphasis on the performers themselves. Two big screens to each side of the stage helped in terms of performer close-ups, but in another sense added to the distractions.
Among the effective visual aspects of this tour was Gabriel's engagement with renowned visual artists who made work (or provided specifically-chosen existing work in some cases) to accompany the new songs. Outstanding among them are Annette Messager, Olafur Eliasson, Cornelia Parker and Ai Weiwei. We appreciated that Gabriel talked about the collaborations and identified each artist when introducing the songs.
After that memorable show we made it back to the station in time for the evening's last train to Edinburgh. Arriving home at 1:00 am, I had time for a couple hours' sleep before catching the airport bus for a 6:00 am flight to Germany.
Next week's blog:
Part 3: Beekeeping in Lindau, Germany