Peter Gabriel: What a Difference Two Decades Make

John Kelman BY

Sign in to view read count
What do you do when you're an aging pop/rock star and the mind may be willing but the body is, more and more, simply not up to the task? For some, it seems the answer is: either make a jazz record, or collaborate with an orchestra. In the past decade, Rod Stewart has decimated the Great American Songbook not once, not twice but five times, beginning with It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook (J-Records, 2002), while Sting has kept things in-house, decimating his own catalog by doing a "rock band with orchestra" retrospective with Symphonicities (Deutsche Grammophone, 2010).

When Peter Gabriel—the ex-Genesis front man who left the progressive rock group on the cusp of greater success for a solo career that has combined its own larger scale success with (ultimately) far greater compositional integrity— released Scratch My Back (Real World, 2010), some longtime fans lambasted it as the sign of an artist who, with nothing left to say for himself, was now resorting to covering other folks' music and (insert "shudder" emoticon here) with an orchestra, to boot. Blasphemy!

This intended two-way collaboration—where Gabriel would cover songs by artists ranging from Randy Newman to Arcade Fire, and those artists would return the favor—scratching his back—by covering one of his songs, has yet to yield that promised follow-up record. "You do one of mine, I do one of yours," Gabriel explains in the introduction to Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble," early in the set on New Blood: Live in London. "But, of course, herding up these songs is a little bit like herding cats and a bit more difficult than expected. But there will be another record of the replies, which will come out at some point. When we get them. Or [cracking a small grin] some of them, anyway."

In the meantime, Scratch My Back was considerably more successful than those naysayers predicated, with Gabriel's approach to arranging these songs for an orchestra—with nary a bass, an electric guitar or a drum kit to be found—instead accomplished through the singer/songwriter's collaboration with orchestrator/arranger John Metcalfe (and, on a couple tunes, Nick Ingham and Will Gregory). Gabriel took a unique approach to rearranging some very well-known pop tunes, one that referenced, at times, the minimalist tendencies of Steve Reich and the Tintinnabulum of Arvo Pärt}}, performed with a 45-piece orchestra.

But it gets better—or worse, depending on your predilection. With a mere 63 minutes of material on Scratch My Back (and that's the two-disc Deluxe Edition, with two more songs and a couple of remixes on the bonus disc), hitting the road meant expanding the repertoire to full concert length. With the studio recording New Blood (Real World) released the following year, it turns out (not surprisingly) that Gabriel had already anticipating the need for more material, in this case using the same general cast of characters to create new orchestral arrangements of fifteen of his own songs (again, speaking of the two-disc Deluxe Edition, with its second disc of instrumental tracks and one additional vocal song, "Blood of Eden"), going as far back to his eponymous 1977 Atco debut, and straight through to Up (Real World, 2002), his last album of new material, and beyond.

"Gabriel with strings!" cried the naysayers; but if the songs on New Blood bore a closer resemblance to Gabriel's original recordings, it's because this singer/songwriter, who has taken as much as a decade between studio releases—ignoring the special Ovo (Real World, 2000) millennium project—had already built so many layers into his music, that Metcalfe was starting, not from scratch, but with a considerable wealth of source material than he did with many of Scratch My Back's more simplistic songs. That said, New Blood was more than mere transference of bass, guitar, keyboard and drum parts to a larger orchestral context; it was a reinvention that, while retaining all the familiar touchstones, took Gabriel's songs to new, previously unanticipated environs.

With the near-concurrent release of New Blood: Live in London (on DVD, Blu-Ray and 3D Blu-Ray, not to mention the more mundane two-CD audio set, titled simply Live Blood), and Secret World Live—which documents Gabriel's 1993 tour in support of Us (Real World, 1992), and here seeing legitimate release on Blu-Ray and, in remastered and digitally restored form, DVD for the first time—it's as good an opportunity as any to examine how things have changed in the ensuing two decades, beyond the now 62 year-old's "expanding girth," as he described it in concert on Growing Up (Geffen, 2003), which documented his tour in support of Up.

Gabriel's girth has, indeed, expanded, and the svelte, short-haired (and largely disguised onset of hair loss) and goateed good looks have been replaced by a forced acceptance of male pattern baldness, graying hair (for what's left) and, yes, still a goatee (albeit a gray one). But if some of the antics in the arena-bound Growing Up tour were a tad cringe-worthy, ten years later the British songwriter has clearly accepted the inevitability of aging far more gracefully. And if New Blood: Live in London does, indeed, represent the end of his orchestral musings—as Gabriel indicates in the 18-minute interview, included as a bonus feature—then his approach to this 2011 concert tour his bodes well for his return to the rock world, whenever that will be.

Peter Gabriel—Secret World LivePeter Gabriel
Secret World Live
Real World/Eagle Entertainment

After the breakthrough success of So (Geffen, 1986), there was surely no shortage of pressure on Gabriel to record a follow-up that matched, if not bettered, the string of radio and video-friendly hits (this was, after all, the age of MTV) that he'd managed with his fifth solo recording since 1977. But Gabriel has always been a patient and thoughtful artist, and so, concurrent with nearly two years of touring in support of So—documented on POV (Geffen, 1991)—another VHS concert video crying out for issue on DVD/Blu-Ray—Gabriel was already diving into a completely different project: the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. It was only after the release of the soundtrack album, Passion (Real World, 1989) and aptly titled Passion Sources (Real World, 1989), that Gabriel turned to recording a follow-up to So, though work on it had, of course, already begun.

If Us (Real World, 1992) possessed plenty of commercial potential in songs like "Steam," the angry "Digging in the Dirt" and funky "Kiss That Frog," the darker nature of the album—more overtly autobiographical than what had come before and addressing the breakup of his first marriage, and his failed relationships with actress Rosanne Arquette, and his first daughter, Anna—didn't stop it from being, if not quite as successful in the international charts as So, then pretty darn close, also winning three Grammy Awards (all in the Music Video category).

Live, however, Us' denser, brooding qualities were replaced by his most ambitious and impressive stage performance yet. Gabriel has always possessed a theatrical bent—right back to the Genesis days and his notorious costume changes—but here, with two stages joined together by a lengthy runway, Gabriel made the leap into the upper echelons of arena rock. With staging so large that he was simply unable to perform in some of his past venues (like Ottawa, Canada's Civic Centre), Secret World Live captures Gabriel's collaboration with Canadian Robert Lepage, using a wide-scoped multi-camera shoot that puts armchair fans in the midst of the action—on the stage, in the front rows, and in the nosebleed section; and with digital restoration of the video and new Dolby 5.1 Surround and DTS Digital Surround mixes, it's never looked—or sounded—better.

With a core band featuring longtime bassist/stick wiz Tony Levin, drummer Manu Katche and guitarist David Rhodes, Gabriel's set list weighs heavily on music from Us, though his choices from past albums more than achieved a balanced program, with a particularly fine look at the minimalist-informed "San Jacinto," from Security (Geffen, 1982); a buoyant version of "Shaking the Tree," originally written with and for African singer Youssou N'Dour and appearing on a Gabriel recording here for the first time; as well as four tracks from So—the megahit "Sledgehammer," the more balladic "Don't Give Up," the anthemic "Red Rain" (included here as a bonus track, since it was initially left off the concert video and included on the album, with "San Jacinto" treated in reverse) and the Afro-centric best-selling "In Your Eyes," with guests Papa Wemba and Molokai substituting, here, for original collaborator N'Dour.

With a bigger budget, Gabriel was also able to recruit a bigger band and, for the first time, a permanent backup singer in Paula Cole, who does a fine job throughout the 102-minute performance. Indian violinist Shankar and duduk player Levon Minassian push Gabriel even further into the world music arena that, from a pop perspective, he'd helped created through his significant work in the 1980s—from his protest anthem to Stephen Biko ("Biko"), his creation of the Real World label to provide a home for musicians from around the world, and, most significantly, his important contributions to the genesis of the World of Music, Arts and Dance festival (WOMAD) in 1980, and which has grown into a force for exposure, education and positive change.

Beyond the tremendous staging—who else but Gabriel could pull off a finale like "Secret World," where, to a droning pulse, his band mates step into a large suitcase laid flat on the stage, one at a time (to great applause) until, left alone onstage, the singer closes the case, picks it up and walks off, with a mothership straight out of Steve Spielberg's 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Gabriel's theatrics were always heavily considered, and that includes the dance moves throughout, with his band mates also participating. Still, it never feels anything less than natural. And with the use of a videocam attached to Gabriel's head, "Digging in the Dirt" has never looked—or sounded—more vitriolic.

A strong set, a kick-ass band, an at-the-time unparalleled stage experience? Secret World Live, nearly 20 years later, hasn't aged a bit, and is as exciting, engaging and flat-out excellent—better, even—from the vantage point of the living room as it was from an arena seat.

Peter Gabriel—New Blood Peter Gabriel
New Blood: Live in London
Real World/Eagle Entertainment

Not everyone has the ability to naturally transfer from big to small; grand gestures, necessary to reach tens of thousands of people in a large arena, are often over-the-top when seen in more intimate surroundings. But if Gabriel has proven himself, over the years, to be one of the world's more intelligent and astute pop stars—despite some unexpected and surprising gaffs with his Growing Up tour—he redeems himself entirely with New Blood: Live in London. In relative terms, this is a stripped-down performance—no theatrics or props, but some wonderful stage lighting and the judicious use of video screens behind the orchestra—with Gabriel more static, onstage, than he's ever been; yet he remains naturally charismatic. And if his between-song patter of old was more scripted, here he may well be saying some of the same things each night, but his delivery feels more like he's addressing someone in the audience. Self-effacing, as he introduces "Boy in the Bubble," the vibrant opener to Paul Simon's massively successful Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986), with: "It was a very happy song in its original incarnation. But we stripped all the African blood out of it, and we're left with another...miserable...white man's song."

His easy manner of engaging the audience is also seen elsewhere when, after his powerful opening of "Intruder" (originally from his third eponymous album, from 1980 on Geffen and commonly known as Melt) engenders massive applause, he quietly quips, "Yeah, I wouldn't clap for too long or we'll do it again." Midpoint during "Downside Up," a brief bass solo is introduced as "Mister Chris Laurence on the bass," followed by "Rob Farrar, shaker," and then, simply "and that's you, on the hand claps," inviting audience participation without any of the usual obvious and uncomfortable devices.

Along with the New Blood Orchestra, Gabriel has two female singers—one, Melanie, is his daughter, who first joined her father's touring band for the Growing Up tour and, sadly, remains as painfully average as ever. Ane Brun's excessive vibrato on "Don't Give Up" is another weak moment, though guest Sevara Nazarkhan's participation on "In Your Eyes" is, at least, if still not as good as Youssou N'Dour's original turn, then certainly much better than Gabriel's regular backup singers, who are truly at their best as backup singers.

But it's a minor quibble for a nearly two-and-a-half hour performance that, along with three tracks from Scratch My Back and all but one track from New Blood ("A Quiet Moment"), includes new orchestral arrangements of "The Drop" and "Signal to Noise" (from Up), "Washing of the Water" (from Us) and "Biko" (performed here for the first time). The best way to enjoy New Blood: Live in London is, perhaps, to forget about the originals, and rather than pining for what these arrangements aren't—loud, rock-edged and electric—celebrating them for what they are. It's a challenge that Gabriel addresses in the bonus interview, saying that there are some who didn't like his other records, but have now come to his music through these new orchestral arrangements. Indeed, rather than disrespecting or decimating his fine catalog with a "band with strings" project, Gabriel has actually reinvented his material in an entirely different context that not only works but is, in a few instances, actually better (the propulsive "The Rhythm of the Heat" and near-ambient encore, "The Nest That Sailed the Sky").

If Gabriel appeared to be stretching (unsuccessfully) to reach some of the higher notes on the Growing Up tour, there's no such problem here. If anything, his voice is better than it's ever been, with the deeper low end that comes with age and, if not quite the upper range that he used to have, then certainly the wisdom to know when to avoid it. For a setting so large, the 45-piece orchestra-driven New Blood: Live in London is refreshingly intimate, with more between-song patter that explains the context for the material. Gabriel makes clear that if he can't do what he did twenty years ago with Secret World Live, what he can do, as he moves into his mid-sixties, is no less compelling—and just as relevant.

Tracks and Personnel

Secret World Live

Tracks: Come Talk to Me; Steam; Across the River; Slow Marimbas; Shaking the Tree; Blood of Eden; San Jacinto; Kiss That Frog; Washing of the Water; Solsbury Hill; Digging in the Dirt; Sledgehammer; Secret World; Don't Give Up; In Your Eyes. Bonus Features: Red Rain; Behind the Scenes; Timelapse; Quiet Steam Gallery; The Rhythm of the Heat (from New Blood (Real World/Eagle Vision, 2012)).

Personnel: Peter Gabriel: vocals, keyboards; Manu Katché: drums; Tony Levin: bass, vocals; David Rhodes: guitar, vocals; Jean Claude Naimro: keyboards, vocals; Shankar: violin, vocals; Levon Minassian: doudouk; Paula Cole: vocals; Papa Wemba and Molokai: special guests (14).

Running Time: Feature: 102 minutes; Red Rain: 6 minutes; Behind the Scenes: 15 minutes; Time Lapse: 3 minutes; Quiet Steam Gallery: 6 minutes; The Rhythm of the Heat: 6 minutes.

New Blood: Live in London

Tracks: Intruder; Wallflower; The Boy in the Bubble; Après Moi; The Drop; Washing of the Water; The Book of Love; Darkness; The Power of the Heart; Biko; San Jacinto; Digging in the Dirt; Signal to Noise; Downside Up; Mercy Street; The Rhythm of the Heat; Blood of Eden; Red Rain; Solsbury Hill; In Your Eyes; Don't Give Up; The Nest That Sailed the Sky. Bonus Features: Blood Donors (documentary/interview).

Personnel: Peter Gabriel: vocals, arranger (1-6, 8-22); Melanie Gabriel: vocals; Ane Brun: vocals; Tom Cawley: vocals; Sevara Nazarkhan: vocals (20); Ben Foster: conductor (1-19, 21, 22); John Metcalfe: musical director, conductor (20), arranger (1-6, 8-12, 14-22), additional brass arrangement (13); orchestration (1-6, 8-12, 14-22) additional orchestration (13); Nick Ingham: arranger (7), orchestration (7, 13); Will Gregory: arranger (13); The New Blood Orchestra.

Running Time: Main Feature: 141 minutes; Blood Donors: 18 minutes.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Peter Gabriel

Post a comment



Shop Amazon



Read Wayne Shorter: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read John Clayton: Career Reflections
Read Mark Murphy: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz
Read Immanuel Wilkins: Omega is Just the Beginning

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.