peter gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra: Chicago 6/20/2011
After many years of attending concerts, I can still say the best show I ever saw was Peter Gabriel in 1982. The “So” and “Us” tours were pretty damn good too. Unfortunately I missed him last time around, so it might come as a surprise that almost turned down an opportunity to go to the “New Blood” show.
Gabriel’s latest album, “Scratch My Back,” is a collection of covers performed with an orchestra. A very interesting project, but pretty subdued overall. “I bet this would be great live” was not the first thought that came to mind. As big a fan as I am, there were no plans made when the tour was announced. I thought about it again, but still did not commit. On the morning of the June 20th show in Chicago, there were still tickets available. I had the day off, so I bought a ticket and drove to the windy city. My enthusiasm began to grow with each passing mile. It dawned on me that I was not going to a rock show, but rather a unique concert experience. Peter Gabriel with an orchestra does sound pretty cool when given some thought.
I was a bit surprised that venue was The United Center, where The Chicago Bulls play. A smaller auditorium would seem more likely for an orchestra, and an artist that hasn’t had a hit in almost 20 years. The ease of getting a ticket and the lack of a sizeable crowd at entry had me concerned. By the time the show started however, there weren’t a significant amount of empty seats. I could also immediately tell that Gabriel wasn’t holding back on his renowned stage effects. Bright red designs were being projected on a long rectangular screen at stage level, and there were different things being shown on two elevated screens at the sides. These consisted of more “New Blood” artwork and promotional videos for WITNESS.
The lights dimmed and the crowd screamed as Peter took the stage. He introduced his vocalist Ane Brun, who performed as an opening act. The talented Norwegian singer/songwriter surprisingly only did two of her folk-style numbers. After Ane’s exit the intro to David Bowie’s “Heroe’s” started almost immediately. The crowd screamed, Gabriel took the stage, and the long screen rose to reveal the orchestra.
After “Heroe’s” came “Wallflower” and Regina Spektor’s “Apre Moi.” I believe this is when trouble started for some in the audience. I don’t know if they hadn’t heard “Scratch My Back,” or didn’t realize that it was an actual orchestra performing. Maybe they weren’t paying attention when Peter described how the project started and the decision was made to eliminate the rock band. The shouts of, “You’re boring the hell out of me!” indicated that certain people had missed the point. This wasn’t supposed to be a rowdy, beer drinkin’ rock show. Sorry folks.
Gabriel is a storyteller. In the old days it used to be only introductory tales to the songs. That night he was talking about human rights, musical inspirations and the artist exchange that led to “Scratch my Back.” When talk about a tour came up it was realized that they didn’t have enough material from just the one album. So the decision was made to compose arrangements of his material as well. It seems they liked this idea the most since only four cover songs were performed. That didn’t bother me a bit. Don’t misunderstand, because the interpretations of other people’s work are fascinating. Especially when he told how much he liked the African Rhythms of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” and pain of breaking it to Paul that all the Africa was going to be drained out of “Boy in the Bubble.” The simple fact is that the true emotional power was in Gabriel’s own work.
Emotional power is what this concert was all about. Sure we all tapped our feet to “Solsbury Hill” and raised our arms during “In Your Eyes,” but orchestral productions of songs like “Wallflower” and “San Jacinto” reach into your soul. Peter was on point as well, using only his voice and face to get the message across. Of course he did have substantial help from Ane Brun and his daughter Melanie. The music drew me in and held me captive. The spell only being occasionally interrupted by the shouts of the poor saps that just didn’t get it.
The only negative aspect was the same complaint I have about “Scratch My Back.” Both on the album and many times during the show it seems as if the orchestra was being held back. I can understand pulling back for effect every now and then, but if you are going to have an orchestra, use it! That is one heavy-duty musical arsenal just waiting to be accessed. “Rhythm of the Heat” is a prime example. There are so many opportunities to let loose in that number, but they didn’t until the very end of the song. I would also recommend not doing this type of thing in an arena. An auditorium/concert hall would have been much more appropriate.
The slight criticism aside, it was a wonderful evening. The length of the performance required an intermission, and explains why Ane Brun only had time for two songs. Even with a three song encore I was still left wanting more. It was beautiful, captivating and moving. As I said before, one of the most unique concert experiences of my life. If you get a chance, don’t hesitate like I did. It almost passed me by. There is also a DVD coming out, so check that out if you can’t do it in person.
Thanks Peter. Once again you have blown me away, and reinforced why you are one of my all time favorite artists.