Peter Gabriel: What a Difference Two Decades Make

John Kelman By

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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.


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