Yes, I had my reservations going into the concert. The visionary Peter Gabriel succumbing to one of the hoariest over-the-hill classic rock tricks – playing with an orchestra? Really? Call me a cynical old rock critic, but I feared that things might go woefully wrong.
Fortunately, I’m thrilled to report that I was wrong. Dead wrong.
After the briefest, two-song, opening set by Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun (who later joined Gabriel as one of his two back-up vocalists), Gabriel and the sprawling 50-plus-piece New Blood Orchestra (conducted with great vigor by Ben Foster) eased into a droning, hymn-like rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” It was the lone misstep of the evening, an overly solemn re-invention of a song that should be brimming over with triumph and celebration.
During the opening hour-long set, the 61-year-old Gabriel lent his still surprising elastic voice to two more covers from his “Scratch My Back” album – Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” and the tour premiere of Bon Iver’s “Flume,” which was somehow at once warm and crystalline. Neither of them, however, matched the majesty and grandeur of his own songs bathed in the lush beauty and power of the orchestra.
The first set also included “Washing of the Water” and “Downside Up,” a pair of duets with his daughter Melanie Gabriel (who was his second back-up singer), the dark, creepy “Intruder” (drenched in mystery and dramatic flourishes), the seriously rockin’ “Diggin’ in the Dirt” and “Signal to Noise” (the first time that the orchestra was specifically showcased and earned a standing ovation).
But it was the first set closer, the anthem of the human rights struggle “Biko,” that brought the crowd to its feet and kept them there, singing along and raising their fists in the air in solidarity. With the orchestra reaching a crescendo and the audience in full voice, Gabriel walked offstage, saying, “And as always, what happens now is up to you…” It was a magical moment.
Highlights of the second half of the show included “Secret World” and “Rhythm of the Heat” (both stunning orchestra spotlight numbers), as well as tributes to his dad (the string-laden “Father Son”) and poet Anne Sexton (“Mercy Street”).
And while he eschewed his biggest hits – including “Sledgehammer,” “Shock the Monkey,” “Big Time” – the audience was treated to glorious renditions of such catalog favorites as “Red Rain,” “Solsbury Hill” (with Gabriel merrily skipping across the stage like a schoolboy) and the crowd-pleasing encores “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up.”
While not normally a fan of the big-screen projections at big rock shows, I could probably write an entire review of just the rich imagery projected on the videos screens. Even the live camera feeds were inventive, especially the close-ups of the orchestra’s instruments in the heat-of-the-moment action.
Gabriel repeatedly thanked his collaborators throughout the concert, singling out conductor Foster, pianist Tom Cawley, arranger John Metcalfe (who also stepped up to conduct “In Your Eyes”) and the rest the orchestra members. The evening was, after all, a collaborative effort, and quite magnificent, as well.
And as Gabriel declared after the orchestra closed out “Rhythm of the Heat” with a torrential tsunami of sound, “That you can’t do with a rock band.”
Betsy DeMars’ review at The Saratogian
PETER GABRIEL & THE NEW BLOOD ORCHESTRA SET LIST
Heroes (David Bowie)
Flume (Bon Iver)
My Body Is a Cage (Arcade Fire)
Washing of the Water
Digging in the Dirt
Signal to Noise
Rhythm of the Heat
In Your Eyes
Don’t Give Up
The Nest That Sailed the Sky (instrumental)