Why do we bother with music concerts? Why aren’t we happy just listening to the CD? These were my main thoughts at my lousy seat in the fourth row where an onstage spotlight pole obscured part of Peter Gabriel’s lovely face. The drunk in the seat next to me decided to do interpretative dancing and spontaneous shouting during most of the night. I had spent a small fortune coming to New York City to see this concert and I wasn’t seeing much of anything.
But I could hear just fine. And that is why we go to concerts, isn’t it, for the sheer bliss of a series of notes swell over our ears like a wave of water drops. Not all of the notes were perfect. As a professional singer, Gabriel knows when to catch a listener’s attention by purposefully breaking or scratching a note if he thinks the audience is not paying enough attention.
And then there were times when he just hit a few bad notes. But Gabriel didn’t dwell on these and sung on as if he had sung perfectly to begin with. In such a small arena as Radio City Music Hall, the sound is much crisper and more accurately reflects what’s going over the mike – good or bad. It was a risky move, especially for the notoriously perfectionist Gabriel, but one major theme of Gabriel’s music is recovering from mistakes or problems, which Gabriel certainly did.
All in the Balance
So why am I writing about this concert nearly two months after it took place? Partially because I had a hard drive crash five days later and lost the initial version of this review. I also chanced to meet Gabriel during the soundcheck a few hours before the show and he was a gentleman, as always. I also got to briefly meet pianist and vocalist Tom Cawley in between set. He was clearly radiating happiness at the success of the first set and was amazed that an American (me) would travel to Berlin and then New York City just to see the New Blood Tour.
I had to balance the disappointments of the problems around the show such as the dancing drunk, the light pole and my costly computer problems with the high of meeting Gabriel and Cawley. In order to write a review, the reviewer needs to be part music fan and part Mr. Spock. I had to give the concert some time so the memories and emotions would fall into their proper places instead of being completely obscured by emotions.
A Gig in Three Parts
A Gabriel gig usually consists of one or two opening acts and then a two hour plus concert of Gabriel’s musical minestrone soup of native instruments, aboriginal rhythms, computer sampling and high-tech special effects. This tour was different. It was based on Gabriel’s first solo CD in eight years, “Scratch My Back”, a bizarre funhouse of cover songs set to chamber orchestra and Gabriel’s voice.
During the New Blood tour, the gig opened with Gabriel introducing the opening act, singer, guitarist and later on Gabriel’s backup vocalist, Ana Brun. “New York, New York!” trilled Gabriel as the audience recognized him and poured applause and shrieks down upon him. Gabriel patiently explained the concept behind “Scratch My Back” as the alternative to the musical fast food served up by the pop music industry.
After Brun’s surprisingly short set which definitely left the drunk fellow next to me wanting more, there was another fifteen minute minutes before the first part of the show began – “Scratch My Back” in its entirely. When that was done, Gabriel leaned into the mike and announced, “Like they say in the best hotel lounges, we’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
The third part of the show was the real and raw experiment in progress – orchestrated versions of Gabriel’s own songs. Gabriel fans are pretty possessive when it comes to his songs. Although they admire Gabriel, they can be unforgiving if the man himself decides to mess about with a cherished part of their lives, a favorite Gabriel song. But tonight the audience approved of the changes, due largely in part to the constant efforts of arranger, composer, viola player and Gabriel fan John Metcalfe.
Comparison With Berlin Gig
There were many differences between this gig and the one I attended on March 24 in Berlin, Germany:
- The opening gag about “Sledgehammer” was dropped
- Instead of the screen rising during “Sledgehammer”, it now rose during the line “I can remember standing by the wall” during the cover of “Heroes”
- Some animation for “The Book of Love” was tweaked and became even more comical
- “Darkness” was dropped from the set and replaced with “Red Rain”
- Most of the orchestra was different. In order to save costs, only eight musicians, plus Cawley and conductor Ben Foster were transported to New York
- The orchestration for several songs had changed, some quite radically such as a flute part in “The Rhythm of the Heat”
- Gabriel remembered most of the lyrics, except for Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”
But the main difference was that although I had an unobstructed view and Gabriel did not seem to it any bum notes, none of the songs moved me to tears. At New York, I actually began crying. I do not normally cry during a concert because it can annoy other concert goers and can interfere with my seeing the show. But I felt a painful wrench in my chest during several songs, a sort of pain that bordered on the cathartic. Gabriel’s voice at times goes beyond the ears and down into other parts of you that you thought had died out long ago.
The audience was different, too. At Berlin during the “Scratch My back” part of the show, the audience was noisy – happy, but noisy. At New York, the audience was so attentive that there were actually moments of absolute silence. There were a few hecklers (as there are at any show) but they were faint and, according to testimonies from other audience members, left the building before the last part began. In this part, Gabriel actively urged audience participation, so there was no chances of eerie breathless silences like before.
Gabriel is now 60. Instead of the extreme close-ups, bare arms and very tight trousers of his earlier tours, Gabriel often hides his aging body under layers of voluminous clothing and covers his mostly bald head in shadows. The lighting pole that obscured my view also threw dramatic and almost lava-lamp-like patterns against Gabriel’s face. At times, there were masks of darkness, making him like all of the Gabriels from all of the previous tours simultaneously.
Unlike other tours, Gabriel mostly stood still, bent and rocked in place in order to open up the power of his voice. Gabriel’s voice is a diamond that’s been polished and carved after nearly 40 years of performing and practice. It’s not perfect. Gabriel’s performance of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” in particular lifted many eyebrows in puzzlement because it is, at times, sung badly.
Professional jewel cutters always make sure there is a flaw in any jewel that they cut. If they carved it perfectly, customers refuse to buy it because they claim the stone looks fake. In the same way, Gabriel’s performance that night was exposed and vividly genuine.
Matching him was the New York version of the New Blood Orchestra. At times during the night, Gabriel would leave the stage entirely and stand in the wings in order to give the orchestra its time in the spotlight. The orchestra was another type of voice, but it did not overpower or compete with Gabriel’s glitteringly sharp voice.