Concert review: Peter Gabriel at the SB Bowl
June 13, 2011
The facts of Saturday night at the Santa Barbara Bowl are easy enough to report. Rock artist, and that really is the operative word for the British musician, Peter Gabriel performed with the New Blood Orchestra.
It was a 20-song set, beginning with Gabriel’s solemn remix of David Bowie’s ‘70s “Heroes” and ending right around 10 p.m. on the “hopeful note” of the instrumental “The Nest that Sailed the Sky.”
The rest seems open to debate. The marginal Gabriel fan or someone who scored free tickets, there primarily to guzzle beer and shout out “Sledgehammer!” was bound to be disappointed. This was not in any sense one of those Billy Joel-styled greatest hits concerts.
Gabriel always seeks to take his audience to a higher level, to challenge them visually, socially, and, yes, musically. Oh, he may toss in a song here and there that you know just to keep it familiar, but this is performance on his terms. If you don’t like it, well . . .
Fans know the story of his most recent release, “Scratch My Back.” Gabriel serves up his own unique vocal twist on a number of songs written and recorded by other artists, including Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Randy Newman, and Arcade Fire. The payback comes when these same artists record one of Gabriel’s songs on a future project.
So the audience was assaulted on a variety of levels Saturday night—songs they knew from other artists and old Gabriel classics that had been reworked, all played out against an amazing multi-media display that splashed across multiple video screens.
With the exception of Michael Jackson, no modern performer understands the theatrics that transforms a good into a great concert as well as Gabriel. His musical cohorts for the journey were a mix of British and California orchestra members (as the publicity boasted “No Drums. No Guitars.”)
Gabriel took center stage early, strolling out at 7:20 and sounding professorial as he welcomed everyone and briefly explained the concept behind “Scratch My Back.” He promptly disappeared after introducing Norwegian singer Ane Brun who performed possibly the briefest opening set ever with a grand total of two songs. Not to worry—Brun stuck around as one of Gabriel’s back-up singers throughout the evening.
The opening nine-song set drew heavily from the new album with Gabriel interpreting Paul Simon (“Boy in the Bubble”), Lou Reed (“The Power of the Heart”), Arcade Fire (“My Body is a Cage”) and Magnetic Fields (“The Book of Love”). Gabriel is blessed with one of the richest, most evocative, voices in music—I swear I could listen to the man sing from the phone book. Some have sniped that these “covers” all sound so funereal and soulless. But Gabriel’s approach shines the light on the lyrics and brings new meaning, new power, to each song. I was impressed.
After a 20-minute intermission, the emphasis shifted to more familiar territory: “San Jacinto,” “Digging in the Dirt,” “Signal to Noise.” It wasn’t until the 14th song of the evening that Gabriel finally relented and went to the musical well of “So,” the iconic rock album currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
His nod to poet Anne Sexton, “Mercy Street,” has lost none of its punch, and perhaps resonated even stronger from the new orchestration. “Red Rain” was the only other “So” selection to make the regular set list—the “Sledgehammer” crowd would have to go elsewhere (or just keep drinking).
Gabriel, who had spent most of the evening fairly stationary, actually romped merrily back and forth across the stage as he sang the closing song “Solsbury Hill,” his well-known story of escape from his Genesis rock days back in 1975.
The encore forever in a Peter Gabriel concert has been the classic “In Your Eyes,” quite simply one of the most inspiring and heartfelt songs ever penned. I confess to the obligatory tear in the eye when Gabriel and Ane Brun finished—the song packs even more of an emotional wallop live.
Other Gabriel concerts on the tour have included a second encore of “Don’t Give Up,” also from “So,” but that was dropped from Saturday’s concert, perhaps because of the Bowl’s stringent stop-at-10 p.m. policy. That left only time for a short closing instrumental with Gabriel sitting at the piano.
Credit conductor Ben Foster and arranger John Metcalf for helping Gabriel bridge the world between rock and orchestra. Some musicians of a certain age retreat to these symphony gigs when they have nothing else to offer. Not Gabriel. The three men clearly rethought the music and how best to present it fresh. They succeeded on every level.
I called Charlotte on my cell phone as my friends and I were leaving the Bowl. “How was the concert?” she asked. For once, I didn’t have an immediate response. In truth, I’m still processing. You can’t reduce a Peter Gabriel concert into a short sound bite or blurb, and that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay the guy. I didn’t miss the drums or guitars, but I’m especially glad that I didn’t miss this show.