Peter Gabriel: What a Difference Two Decades Make
Beyond the tremendous stagingwho 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 lookedor soundedmore 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 excellentbetter, evenfrom the vantage point of the living room as it was from an arena seat.
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 starsdespite some unexpected and surprising gaffs with his Growing Up tourhe redeems himself entirely with New Blood: Live in London. In relative terms, this is a stripped-down performanceno theatrics or props, but some wonderful stage lighting and the judicious use of video screens behind the orchestrawith 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 singersone, 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'tloud, rock-edged and electriccelebrating 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").