The hippies went home happy

Music - Jason Cowley enjoys a spectacular live performance from Peter Gabriel

The exuberance of Peter Gabriel's stage persona has long contrasted with the reticence of his personality and the brooding introspection of his often experimental music. He is an outlandish showman. He was outlandish as the young, long-haired lead singer of Genesis in the mid-1970s, when he used to dress up as a flower and sometimes dive from the stage into the arms of so many adoring hippies, and he remains the same today in stout, bald-headed, middle age. His current Growing UP tour of Europe, with its elaborate light show, its stunts and special effects, and its revolving circular stage, is as extravagant as anything Gabriel has ever presented. It is certainly, at an estimated cost of £1.5m, the most expensive. Through the influence of the Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage, it is choreographed with the fastidiousness and flair of a ballet. There has been little to compare with its range and ambition in contemporary rock and pop live performance.

Gabriel is on tour, for the first time in a decade, to promote his recent album, UP, and to remind us what a durable and innovative pop presence he is. UP is, on first listening, a work of concentrated melancholy which takes you on a journey from darkness (the title of the opening track) through to a strange, more hopeful accommodation with the elemental forces of our mysterious world. But tonight, at the Wembley Arena, supported by his dark-haired daughter Melanie, on backing vocals, and by established collaborators such as the guitarist David Rhodes and bassist Tony Levin, Gabriel, though dressed entirely in black, is in unexpectedly good humour as he sings with his usual gravel-throated ease. Performing in the round, he communicates well with the audience - not all of whom are bald-headed former hippies - and introduces each song with wit and irony.

He is also, for his age, extremely energetic - he rides a bicycle on stage, he sings one song, a duet with his daughter, upside down while harnessed to a circular gantry high above the stage, and, on another occasion, he clambers into a huge transparent plastic ball, which resembles nothing so much as an amniotic sack, in which Gabriel is suspended, at once eerily separate from the world but communicating with it. For "Sledgehammer" he wears a heavy coat of flashing lights (which means a small hunched figure holding a wire lead must follow him around the stage). During "The Barry Williams Show", his satire of confessional daytime television shows such as Jerry Springer, he climbs a gantry to film the audience with a hand-held camera - as well as his band members, also dressed in black, below. It is all very spectacular.

Gabriel has done more than any other contemporary rock musician to pro- mote music from Africa and Asia, and his support for progressive causes is well documented. Tonight, as he banters with his overwhelmingly white audience, his expressions of dismay about the unchecked power of America and the recent conflict in Iraq receive robust applause. Increasingly drawn to mysticism, he introduces one song, the sentimental "Father, Son", by saying that it was inspired by a yoga holiday that he and his aged father had taken together in Devon. "We spent the week doing yoga and getting physically very close to each other. It was a powerful experience." And to think the old boy was probably hoping for a long break in the Bahamas!

The disappointment of the show was that "Sky Blue" and "More Than This", which are the best songs on UP - the most subtle and affecting - were destroyed here by feedback and a shuddering bassline. The raw and extreme "Signal to Noise" and "Darkness" from the new album were, by contrast, ideally suited to the hard, driving relentlessness of the live performance. Many of his older fans would have been disappointed that he played so little from his back catalogue, though their patience was rewarded by a jaunty rendition of his first solo hit, "Solsbury Hill", which at least sent the hippies home happy.

UP is available from Virgin/Real World Music