Low on hits, high on drama, 1970s British progrock’s enfant terrible Peter Gabriel’s new orchestral show — look, ma, no drums, no guitars, just loads of strings and woodwinds — is a clever extension of an extraordinary musical career whose massive challenges befit an artist of his calibre and strength.
Faced with the prospect of touring his hits — an option that clearly has no appeal— or lashing out anew with an expensive original opus that would likely be buried in the stampede of young pop artists favoured by contemporary media, the 61-year-old composer has chosen to reinvent some of the best songs of his past repertoire, dressing them up in elaborate orchestrations, illuminating them with stunning light show and an impressive array of live cinematography, and serving them up as "serious music" for adult fans who are as likely to be turned on by the idea as not.
Sure, there were many in the nearly full Molson Amphitheatre Wednesday night shouting out the names of favourites Gabriel had no intention of performing — "Shock the Monkey" was top of the list — but the enormous applause that rolled over the open-air stage after every piece he did offer, suggested the consensus was in his favour.
An expansion of last year’s Scratch My Back album, which was produced by Canadian-born progrock veteran Bob Ezrin as a selection of songs by other artists reworked by Gabriel and arranger John Metcalfe in an all-orchestral format, the New Blood show included several familiar songs in almost unrecognizable shapes — David Bowie’s "Heroes", Arcade Fire’s "My Body Is A Cage", Paul Simon’s "The Boy In The Bubble", among them.
As fascinating as those experiments were — and "The Boy In The Bubble", stripped, as Gabriel joked, "of all its African vitality till it’s just another miserable white man’s song", was certainly one of the most successful — the highlights of Wednesday night’s darkly forbidding show, lashed by wind, fog and rain, were Gabriel’s own.
The protest song "Biko", which closed the first hour-long set, was masterfully rearranged into a compelling 46-piece symphonic juggernaut, swaggering forward relentlessly on a huge, rhythmic bass line in the low strings, and soaring in the high end with flutes and oboes echoing an African chant.
At its conclusion, the entire audience was on its feet, punching the air, bellowing the chorus, challenging a savage wind that whipped in from the lake, and reinforcing the power of this apartheid-era masterpiece.
In the second half Gabriel, in fine voice and clearly in command of the elaborate proceedings, upped the ante, adding danger and menace to his delivery of "Darkness", "Intruder", "San Jacinto" and "Rhythm of the Heat", no small feat considering he barely moved from centre stage all night — except to sip from a tea cup in the wings — and looked for all the world like a character in a Chekhov tragedy, with his white goatee, glistening eyes and black tunic.
© The Star, by Greg Quill
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