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Peter Gabriel comes to KC with new takes on old songs

Peter Gabriel’s live shows now include covers from his “Scratch My Back” collection Peter Gabriel’s live shows now include covers from his “Scratch My Back” collection Samuel Golay, The AP

If songwriters own their songs, then they get to do what they wish with those songs, whether it’s sell one to a soft drink company for a commercial or retire the song forever.

That freedom can cause conflict when those songs are performed live, especially when the performer has a lot of hits and hasn’t been to a certain place, like Kansas City, in a really long time.

Take Peter Gabriel, who brings his New Blood Tour to Starlight Theatre on Saturday. One look at his set list for this tour ought to make the hearts of even casual fans flutter a bit: "Red Rain," "Solsbury Hill," "In Your Eyes," "Mercy Street," "Biko," "San Jacinto," "Intruder."

But anyone who goes expecting to hear those songs performed the same way they were recorded is in for a surprise. Gabriel is touring with the New Blood Orchestra, an ensemble of musicians from each of the 12 stops on his North American tour.

With much assistance from John Metcalfe (former member of the band the Durutti Column), he has rearranged his songs into orchestral form, stripping them of their original arrangements.

The idea was born after Gabriel released "Scratch My Back," a collection of covers he and Metcalfe rearranged for orchestra. That recording is part of a "song exchange," Gabriel said. Its companion — other artists covering rearranged versions of his songs, is still in the works.

"When we went on the road to tour for the ‘Scratch My Back’ album, I thought, ‘The album isn’t long enough; we need other material,’ " he told The Star recently. "So I thought, ‘Why not do some of my stuff for orchestra as well?’ So that’s where it started.

"I tend to do very short bursts of touring because I’ve got young kids again, and I don’t like to be away for long periods. So each time we paused, we’d take a look at things and add more of my songs to the show. Now it’s mainly my material with three or four songs from the song swap."

For Gabriel, the process of transforming those songs into something different — sometimes radically different — was a matter of refreshment and revival, almost a way of renewing his vows with material he has grown old with, but no less fond of.

"When you’ve been playing your hits for 30 years, you can get bored with it," he said. "It becomes not so interesting." Thus the need to "turn them into something different each time you go out."

Some of those transformations on the New Blood Tour are easier for the audience to navigate than others. "The Washing of the Water," for example, maintains its "aesthetic," as Gabriel called it, and its redemptive and meditative vibe. But with a 50-plus-piece orchestra underneath it instead of a rock band, it feels more hymnal, more spiritual.

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Other transformations are more radical, and intentionally so.

"More often than not, I instructed John to be more extreme," Gabriel said. "He did a fantastic job on ‘The Rhythm of the Heat,’ which was recorded with heavy percussion and African beats. It was really exciting to hear the drum parts played on orchestra instruments."

During a recent performance in Santa Barbara, Calif., Gabriel explained the purpose behind his rearrangement of a song that is not his own, one with "much African joie de vivre": Paul Simon’s "The Boy in the Bubble," which is on "Scratch My Back." From the review in the Santa Barbara News Press:

"Gabriel was self-conscious and self-deprecating in introducing his lugubrious cover of Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ Here, he said, we have taken a song and taken away its pop sense, its African groove, to leave the songwriting. ‘Another miserable white man song,’ Gabriel quipped. While ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ may really not be that miserable — its lyrics are too playful — (he) did wipe the groove from it."

Wiping the groove or other primary features of other people’s songs and reconstructing and rearranging them is precisely why some people go to hear live music.

Typically, they are jazz fans. In the world of popular music — rock, pop and country — fans usually expect something more familiar, if not predictable. It’s tough to sing along or disappear into a favorite song if you don’t recognize it or it goes places you aren’t expecting.

However, the New Blood Tour, for the most part, is getting reviews that express little of such dissonance (see accompanying story, Page 6). Instead, they express respect and measured praise for the design and execution of an elaborate and risky concept, for its visuals and music.

From the Financial Times of London review of a show in March: "The orchestral arrangements … weren’t mired in gloom. The effect was like spring. Colours and textures blossomed, the orchestrations were dramatic and Gabriel held the audience rapt with an artful performance."

Fans in the chatroom at www.PeterGabriel.com — where the diehards roam — have been mostly happy with the show. One fan’s review from Santa Barbara: "First half was an eclectic mix of songs, didn’t really build any momentum, and/or audience kind of dead. Maybe it was just the daylight? Second half was pretty great, audience got more into it, darkness fell and the lights were colorful. Had lots of fun."

Some fans have not been completely satisfied with the set list (including the lack of Genesis songs) or with their fellow audience members. There are several complaints about chitchat and lack of interest — "Liked the new visuals; didn’t like the noisy drunks" — a sign that this show isn’t for everyone.

Instead, it’s for anyone willing to submit to one man’s indulgence, to his way of reconnecting with his own creations, with material he has been living with longer than anyone.

Someone who knows about the evolving relationship between songwriter and song was at that Santa Barbara show. David Crosby later tweeted about his experience: "see Peter Gabriel with orchestra if it is at all possible for you. completely changes what is possible musically mind blowing."

Set list for Peter Gabriel’s New Blood Tour 2011

Heroes (David Bowie); *Apres Moi (Regina Spektor); Wallflower; The Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon); My Body Is a Cage (Arcade Fire); The Book of Love (Magnetic Fields); Darkness; Biko; San Jacinto; Digging in the Dirt; Signal to Noise; Downside Up; Intruder; Mercy Street; The Rhythm of the Heat; Washing of the Water; Blood of Eden; Red Rain; Solsbury Hill; In Your Eyes; The Nest That Sailed the Sky

(*In Berkeley, CA, he played "The Power of the Heart" by Lou Reed and his own "Don’t Give Up")

© The Kansas City Star, by Timothy Finn

Last modified on Thursday, 16 June 2011 22:44

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