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Peter Gabriel's music gets new life with orchestra

Peter Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra at Comcast Center, Mansfield, MA Peter Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra at Comcast Center, Mansfield, MA

When Peter Gabriel hits the stage at the Comcast Center on Friday, fans can expect a very different twist on songs from the British rock legend’s nearly 35-year solo career, which has produced hits like "Solsbury Hill," "Sledgehammer," and "In Your Eyes."

Gabriel, 61, is performing with a 46-piece orchestra composed of his own touring troupe supplemented by local musicians in each city. The tour had its genesis in a few orchestral dates Gabriel did to promote his 2010 covers album "Scratch My Back," in which he radically reworked songs by Paul Simon, Neil Young, Radiohead, and others. (The proposed companion piece called "I’ll Scratch Yours," with the covered artists returning the favor on Gabriel songs, has yet to materialize, although several tracks have trickled out.)

When Gabriel embarked on a brief tour for "Scratch," he says he realized they were short of songs, so they started fiddling with some of his own material with orchestral arranger John Metcalfe and really enjoyed it. Thus, the "New Blood" tour was born. We caught up with Gabriel recently by phone from London.

I’m curious about the arrangements because the advance word on the tour was "no guitars, no drums." But don’t orchestras have drums in them?

Well they do. And we do use them. The way I try to justify it is, it’s not a drum kit.

Ah, yes, because it seems like some of the songs you’re doing — "The Rhythm of the Heat" and "Red Rain" — require at least percussive elements.

There are indeed percussive elements. But in some cases, for example "Rhythm of the Heat," where there was a big drum section at the end on the record, in this orchestral version I asked John to transpose some of the rhythmic patterns of the drums onto the orchestral instruments. There is a bit of percussion as well, but [other instruments] are doing 95 percent of the percussion job.

So it sounds like you really are breaking the songs down, not just adding some sweetening strings or an oboe solo.

Exactly. And that was really important from the outset, to not keep a band and add an orchestra, but really say, "This is a separate medium. Let’s throw away the old and work on the new palette."

How did you pick the songs? Are there some that you feel you have to do because they were hits?

Well, there’s no "Sledgehammer" for example. So I didn’t feel compelled. I think [the hits that are in the setlist] are there because they seemed they would work well in that orchestral environment.

Diehard fans often enjoy this kind of rejiggering, but the more casual fan sometimes doesn’t. What has the response been?

Some people will hate it. (Laughs). And what we’ve found is there’s quite a few people that aren’t the least interested in me but really like this record or this bunch of material.

That’s interesting, what do you think about that?

I think it’s fine, whatever works is great. I just think I’m so lucky to be doing this after so many years and to be able to take risks and still have people turning up.

Your conductor Ben Foster has said the combination of touring and local musicians makes every night feel like a first night. Does that give you an extra charge about being on your toes?

There’s a real opportunity for things to [expletive] up in a nice way, yes. (Laughs) But we do have our core players. We have about 18 people in the orchestra traveling with us that will know the music backwards.

Some of the "I’ll Scratch Yours" songs came out in piecemeal fashion. Is there a plan to a do a proper full album release?

I would very much like it to be. We had six out of 12, and some we’re still trying to get. There are one or two other people who weren’t doing the exchange that have done or want to do my stuff, so I think we’re going to fill it up like that. We have some fantastic things from Paul Simon and David Byrne and Stephin Merritt.

Did you get much feedback from the original artists about your version of their songs on "Scratch"?

Mostly they were really enthusiastic except Thom Yorke (of Radiohead). At first he said he hadn’t heard it but the rest of the band had and they didn’t much like it so . . . so that was . . . thank you Thom. (Laughs). And then it was weird because he was going to do a version of [my song] "Wallflower" which he said he used to listen to a lot when he was a kid. But then I think they got busy, and he got pissed off being asked about it so [he] abandoned that one.

That’s too bad since it seems like Radiohead would be a band that would cite you as an influence. But musicians, hey, you’re a temperamental lot.

I know. Difficult bastards at the best of times. It takes one to know one. (Laughs)

Because of its placement in "Say Anything," for many people "In Your Eyes" is inextricably linked to the image of John Cusack hoisting that boombox. How is that for you?

I think, like many artists, when anyone else is doing your promotion for you, you thank the Lord. (Laughs). It’s not a bad thing at all. We have occasionally spoken, Cusack and I, since we’re sort of indelibly married in that image. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s been almost a decade since you released an album of new material. Anything in the pipeline?

When I was younger, I was doing 90 percent music and 10 percent everything else, and now I think music is about a third of what I do between technology and [charity] stuff. With a young family again, I’m pretty determined not to work weekend or vacation time. So, I’m spending less time in a year, and I’m a slow worker. But there’s a lot of material cooking up, so I need to get back to that. But I’ve always taken the attitude, when it’s ready, it will come out and [to] have an interesting life in the meantime.

Peter Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra
Friday, June 24 2011
at Comcast Center, Mansfield, MA

© The Boston Globe, by Sarah Rodman

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