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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Concert Review: Peter Gabriel at Radio City Music Hall

Peter Gabriel
Veteran English art rocker Peter Gabriel brought his New Blood Tour to Radio City Music Hall this weekend. Mr. Gabriel's current tour has more to do with 19th century art songs than rock and roll. His latest, Scratch My Back, is a set of twelve covers--songs by other artists. Six of them are from Mr. Gabriel's contemporaries (Neil Young, Lou Reed) and six are from younger artists like Radiohead and Arcade Fire. The show featured the singer eschewing the traditional rock format, and performing with piano and a full symphony orchestra.

Attempts to combine the power of an orchestra with a rock band dot the history of rock'n'roll, from '60s experiments like the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed and Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra More recently, Yes, Metallica and Dream Theater have done their own orchestral projects. But in this case, the drums and guitars are left in their road cases, replaced with the 54-piece "New Blood Orchestra", a hand-picked ensemble of taleneted young players, under the careful baton of Ben Foster. Thanks to Mr. Gabriel's talents and the brilliant, sometimes witty arrangements by John Metcalfe, the experiment is a success.

Mr. Gabriel performed the entirety of Scratch My Back in order, as a song cycle of sorts. The songs work well live. David Bowie's "Heroes" and Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" were melancholy, almost dirge-like. "My Body is a Cage" (the Arcade Fire entry) is a raging, minimalist crescendo. The song owes debts to Metallica's "One" but the minimalist arrangement recalled Ravel's Bolero. The grim mood was lifted by "The Book of Love," a sweet, yearning song by the Magnetic Fields. It was accompanied by whimsical, chalk-line animation which mused on the nature of commitment.

The second half of the show featured Mr. Gabriel's own material, again re-arranged for orchestra. The energy picked up as Mr. Gabriel hit the soaring high notes of "San Jacinto." The set featured a range of songs from his long solo career, standing crowd favorites "Solisbury Hill" and "In Your Eyes"  alongside more esoteric tracks. These included a propulsive "The Rhythm and the Heat", the confessional "Washing of the Water" and "Mercy Street", the poetic tribute to the work of Anne Sexton. The deepest revisions were made to "Signal to Noise", with the soprano vocals of Ane Brun replacing the qawwali vocals of the late Nusret Fateh Ali Khan. Mr. Gabriel has left his world music obsessions behind on this tour. In the process, he has discovered something new and refreshing in his music, aided by the power of the orchestra.

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