For fans of pop bombast, these have been fallow years. Britney and Justin have never heard of it, indie-rockers revile it, and all those alt-metal acts are too busy fabricating hostility to bother with anything high-concept. As for rap, you're more likely to find Jesse Helms at a Snoop Dogg concert than old-school grandiosity.
On Sunday night at MCI Center, Peter Gabriel brought the bombast. All the hallmarks were there: elements of theater, self-seriousness, inscrutable platitudes and a caravan of freaky props, including a giant ball of bubble wrap with a Habitrail of sorts inside. The show was in the round -- the stage was planted in the middle of the arena, a gambit common in bombast's '70s-era heyday. It spun in one direction or another on nearly every song.
And there were costumes. Gabriel's seven musicians were dressed in black overcoats they could have borrowed from the set of a "Matrix" sequel. Gabriel wore a black karate-style wrap that gave him the look of Obi-Wan's kid brother and, it turned out, doubled nicely as action-wear. Over the course of a 2 1/2-hour show he walked upside down, rode a silver bicycle, jogged in circles and rolled around in that bubble ball, which he steered with hand straps and some energetic footwork. At moments, it looked like he was getting the world's silliest workout.
In our post-"Spinal Tap" world, it's hard to imagine that Gabriel was taking all of this seriously. From his early days as a prog-rocker in Genesis -- he once showed up onstage wearing a triangle face mask -- there was just the faintest trace of in-on-the-joke winking. But not much. The guy clearly has a solemn, Broadway side, and now that he's 52 years old we can assume it hasn't faded with age.
At moments he slipped over that fine line that separates clever from stupid. When his daughter, backup singer Melanie Gabriel, sat in a steel dinghy and was slowly rotated around the stage for a lap or two, sitting stock-still, things were getting too precious. As a feat of nerve and stagecraft, though, the show offered plenty of moments of utterly berserk fun.
Fun, though, wasn't always the point. Gabriel started slow and eerie, alone at a keyboard console for "Here Comes the Flood," a moody puzzler from his first solo album in 1977. And the tone for much of the night was established by "Up," his first album in a decade and a pretty dreary excursion through an industrial dystopia where, apparently, catchy hooks are outlawed. "Up" has sold poorly -- about 125,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan -- which might explain why the show was so meagerly attended. It looked as though thousands of seats were empty.
Gabriel spent most of the evening wearing a wireless headset, roaming around the stage without an instrument to play, which freed him to run, pedal and dance through the odd decathlon he'd set up for himself. The band, which included bassist Tony Levin and the tireless drummer Ged Lynch, added real menace to those "Up" downers, a few of which summon an almost Orwellian atmosphere. ("Signal to Noise" could be Muzak at a very frightening factory.)
Gabriel brought in the Blind Boys of Alabama, who had opened the show with a moving set of gospel standards. For "The Barry Williams Show," a poke at confessional talk shows, he pointed a video camera at the crowd while his own image as a cameraman was imposed on a circular scrim that hovered for parts of the show.
Gabriel wisely switched musical moods about as often as new egg-shaped thingies and cone-shaped scrims descended from the ceiling -- which was often. A pair of Tanzanian singers enlivened "Animal Nation," and when Gabriel turned up the lights to play hits like "Sledgehammer" and "Solsbury Hill," a celebration ensued. Without that celebration, the night would have demanded too much of an audience that clearly had little emotional connection to Gabriel's slightly frigid new songs. The guy is surely one of the last great maestros of bombast, but if you're going to watch an adult roll around in a giant plastic ball, it's more entertaining if you can hum to whatever he's singing.