Wednesday, June 22, 2011

From a Musical Genius, an Evening of Often Absorbing New Blood If Not Quite Regenesis -- Concert Review: Peter Gabriel

Concert Review

Peter Gabriel & the New Blood Orchestra
June 20, 2011
United Center, Chicago

I can't say that I've listened to--or even thought about--Peter Gabriel all that much in recent years, but I still consider him one of the great musical innovators of my lifetime. As well as one of rock's best vocalists ever.

While his work with Genesis and then on his own bespeaks vast and enduring brilliance, at 61 it appears that his most fertile creative years are behind him. In the quarter-century since the So album--and its groundbreaking videos--made him a megastar, he has managed to release only two records of original songs on which he sings. I was oblivious to his 2010 Scratch My Back collection of cover songs and though I enjoy the sound of a symphony, I hadn't initially bought a ticket to see him backed by the New Blood Orchestra.

But after being reminded that friends were going to his Monday gig at the United Center and reading several stellar reviews from earlier tour stops, I was fortunate to find a half-price ticket on the lower level. Getting nearly three hours of high quality music from dozens of musicians for just $45 certainly qualifies as worthwhile and I respect that Gabriel didn't undermine the integrity of this foray by, as he put it, affixing an orchestra on the back of a rock band. There were no guitars to be heard.

Photo Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune
Having also respected Gabriel for not cashing in on a Genesis reunion tour--despite overtures from his ex-bandmates--I can't say I expected him to simply deliver his greatest hits with violins and bassoons (especially having perused past setlists, roughly the same as performed here).

But respect and rapture are two different things, and especially during the first hour of the show, when Gabriel mined many of the covers found on Scratch My Back--including David Bowie's "Heroes," Paul Simon's "The Boy In the Bubble" and Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage"--along with some lesser-known songs of his own, things tended to languish. While I cringed when some buffoon yelled, "This is boring me!" I couldn't entirely disagree. It wasn't until the wondrous-in-any-form "Biko"--one of the best socially-conscious songs ever written--that the first set really caught fire. Only to lead into a 15-minute intermission.

Fortunately, rendering the performance an overall success, the second set and encores featured several highlights, not just in showcasing some wonderful Gabriel songs--"San Jacinto," "Signal to Noise," "Mercy Street," "The Rhythm and the Heat," "Red Rain," "Solsbury Hill," "In Your Eyes,"--but with some appropriately angular orchestral interpretations as well.

I did feel that the orchestra often seemed a bit too restrained, or perhaps constrained. I would have loved to hear them swing a bit on the omitted "Shock the Monkey," "Big Time" and/or "Sledgehammer" and hearing an innovative arrangement of "Games Without Frontiers"--or even "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"--would've have been thrilling (and also a smart nod to the fact that some folks did spend over $200 apiece for this atypcial "rock concert" that filled only about 2/3 of the arena).

I still remember the performances I saw Gabriel deliver in 1986--as part of Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour--and 1987 as being absolutely phenomenal. Though it had its moments, the show I saw in 2002 didn't wow me nearly as much. So it makes sense that he would now explore something different and tour with an orchestra.

With the timber of Peter's phenomenal voice remaining robust, even if he isn't the kinetic stage performer he once was, the evening had enough quality music to make it very enjoyable. But I can't deny that I likely would have been just as happy--if not more so--with more of Peter Gabriel's own songs played in a more conventional fashion. Going into the show, the punster in me was planning (or at least hoping) on calling the show a re-Genesis. But as the title of this post suggests, the "New Blood Tour" didn't deliver that strong a testament.

Here's a clip of Biko from Monday night; not shot by me

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