Soundchecks Music Reviews

Peter Gabriel, New Blood - live in London

141 minutes (E) 2011
Eagle Vision NTSC DVD

Peter Gabriel

review by Christopher Geary

The infusion of 'New Blood' here means fresh arrangements with a full orchestra, for 22 songs, and this concert was filmed at the Hammersmith Apollo on 23 March this year. Peter Gabriel's music has always been about hi-tech (especially as he was a noted pioneer of the Fairlight CMI), so this novelty gig smacks of another somewhat peculiar vanity project, produced in the wake of his indulgent Scratch My Back album. At first, there's a slight disappointment in the sense of a great rock star treading water, creatively, as we know that Gabriel can do so much better (see Gabriel's electrifying Secret World DVD or Growing Up Live). These alternative versions of his songs are certainly different but they hardly amount to big improvements.

In the first third of the show, Gabriel is on better form when covering other artistes' work. The slower and mournful tempo of melancholy for Boy In The Bubble makes a surprisingly effective contrast to the upbeat, almost joyous, energy of Paul Simon's original. So, after the mere oddities of earlier performances of minor tracks Intruder and Wallflower (clearly not Gabriel's best works), this cover is a standout. The problem with following tracks, such as The Drop, Washing Of The Water, and Darkness, is that so few - well, too few - of my favourite Gabriel classics are presented here, so enjoyment is greatly diminished. I can understand how he would prefer to tackle some often neglected material, and that not very many of his various compositions would easily lend themselves to any reinterpretation with such orchestral backing, but that means a lot of this non-rock showcase is probably only suitable for Gabriel completists.

His daughter Melanie is a backing singer on several tracks, but it's Gabriel's matured and highly emotive voice which remains so commanding a presence - no matter what distracting volume the battery of musicians generate, and his measured theatricality supports a front-man show appeal as he's usually the serene heart of much busyness on stage amidst all those twitchy arms and fluttering fingers of 46 classical musicians. At last, nearly halfway through, there's something to cheer. Biko retains the power of a building-to-crescendo strength that made the original song's air-punching protest against tragic injustice soar with anthemic cries. San Jacinto is another song that's perfectly attuned to the aural magic of subtleties offered by a rich variety of orchestral instruments.

Digging In The Dirt is bursting with jagged eclecticism and the noisy discordance of handclaps, Rhythm Of The Heat slow burns and builds high, rising up then subsiding with a string section that really just can't quite match the surging drumbeat finale of elation which distinguished the superb original recording. Red Rain is a magnificent showstopper, benefiting from better camerawork - in its views/ angles, and rhythmic editing patterns (but it would surely have looked better without those cheap animated overlays). Solsbury Hill revels in Gabriel's clowning showmanship, as vaguely reminiscent of a last night of the proms. The duet for Don't Give Up lacks the unique voice of Kate Bush as, unfortunately; blonde warbler Ane Brun is no fit substitute for the sexiest female voice on this or any other Earth.

Overall, this is obviously a triumph against the odds. Gabriel is not the first rock star to overcome the problems of adapting popular songs to an orchestrated format (ELP actually toured with a full orchestra backing the 1970s), and this show only deserves acclaim as a limited success, but on the half a dozen occasions when it works, it does work beautifully and to a near perfection.

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press