There was a time when success wasn't such a sure thing for rock star Peter Gabriel. Back in the late 1970s - just a few years after he'd quit Genesis, the band he guided to world-wide fame - Mr. Gabriel was touring the club circuit, playing to small, albeit loyal crowds. Meanwhile, Genesis went on to even greater success with Phil Collins stepping in where Gabriel stepped out.
In an interview at the time, Gabriel admitted that his confidence had been shaken when Genesis soared without him - particularly since critics had predicted that the band would soon fall apart without its intense, flamboyant lead singer. But after an initial struggle with self-doubt, he launched his solo career, which gradually gained momentum with the release of album after album.
Today, in the wake of his most successful record to date - ``So'' - Gabriel is once again playing to huge crowds. Though he's come full circle in one sense, there's been nothing circular in his development as an artist. Gabriel has matured far beyond his days with Genesis - crafting and refining an eloquent musical vision that is both personally probing and world encompassing.
During a recent show near Boston - part of a nation-wide tour that marks his first solo appearances in North America in three years - Gabriel gave a performance that had its rousing and rowdy moments with songs like ``Sledgehammer,'' the first single from ``So.''
But it was a concert that was more moving than exciting. The tone for the evening was set by songs like ``San Jacinto'' and ``Don't Give Up'' - reflecting Gabriel's deeply human concerns and his exploration of individual integrity and morality in a world that often seems to neglect both.
While Gabriel's search begins within himself, there's a sense of a greater good, or a shared vision, in his work. In closing his Boston show with ``Biko'' - his tribute to Steve Biko, the black South African activist who died in police custody - Gabriel got the audience to sing the song's slow chanting chorus with him. Finally, he told the crowd, ``The rest is up to you'' - implying the need for individual action against oppression. He turned the microphone out to the audience, stepped back, and then disappeared offstage. His band joined him one by one, leaving the crowd to sing alone.
Although the themes Gabriel develops are clearly consistent with much of the social activism that has taken off in rock music in the past two years, he's been writing songs like ``Biko'' for years - long before many musicians were even aware of issues like apartheid.
``Music is one of the ways that can combat racism and some of the other divisions between the first and third worlds, and rock has gotten richer for it,'' Gabriel told Spin magazine earlier this year.
Gabriel - who was part of Amnesty International's ``Conspiracy of Hope'' tour - has visited Africa and incorporated African rhythms and musical sensibilities in his work. As his opening act for this tour, he selected Youssou N'dour, a Senegalese singer who sang on the track ``In Your Eyes'' from Gabriel's most recent album.
``What we're seeing at the moment reminds me in some ways of the 1960s, but it is a lot more practical,'' he said in the Spin interview. ``The social engagement of rock musicians is positive, although I don't think we can change the world as directly as many people thought was once possible. What we can do is provide information and then let people make up their minds.''
Peter Gabriel will be appearing in Chicago, Dec. 4-5; Houston, Dec. 7; Dallas, Dec. 8; Austin, Texas, Dec. 9; San Francisco, Dec. 12-13; and Los Angeles, Dec. 15-16.