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Review: Peter Gabriel plays cover boy at Berkeley show

Peter Gabriel, Berkeley, CA Peter Gabriel, Berkeley, CA uncle_shoggoth

Peter Gabriel has finally run out of new ideas.

What other reasonable conclusion is there to be made given all his recent activities? His current album consists of all cover songs. He's doing shows with a symphony orchestra. And he'll soon release a 25th-anniversary special-edition version of one of his most cherished records ("So").

Those are all gimmicks used by over-the-hill artists on the hunt for one more payday. It's not what we expect from Gabriel, a man rightfully championed for his ability to stretch the boundaries of pop music.

I guess even a rock 'n' roll visionary needs to step back and rest on his laurels occasionally. And Gabriel is doing it in way that many of his fans should find quite enjoyable -- with a symphonic tour in support of 2010's all-covers work, "Scratch My Back."

The one thing that we learned on opening night of this North American tour -- Friday at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre -- was that Gabriel has great taste in music. The first half of the two-set show, which drew a near-capacity crowd, strongly showcased the "Scratch My Back" material. All of the songs were worthy of reinterpretation and were well-suited for Gabriel's still remarkably strong and agile voice.

Backed by the hybrid "New Blood Orchestra," consisting of traveling musicians from the U.K. and hired hands from each tour stop, the 61-year-old British vocalist opened the nearly three-hour concert with a superb version of David Bowie's "Heroes." It whispered its presence to start, in such an understated manner that some might not even realized the song had begun, and then proceeded to soar through Gabriel's escalating passion and a flurry of manically sawed violins.

He then reached back into his own archives for two unexpected rarities -- the convincingly menacing "Intruder" (from his third eponymous solo album) and "Wallflower" (from his fourth eponymous release, aka "Security").

Gabriel then returned to the cover material, introducing Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" as a song that originally carried much "African joie de vivre." He then warned that quality was missing from his rendition, "leaving it another miserable white man's song." And his deflated "Bubble" lived down to Gabriel's words.

He wouldn't do much better with his awkward take on Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage," but he rebounded wonderfully with a joyous run through the Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love." Then he wowed the crowd with a warmly inviting and intoxicating rendition of Lou Reed's "The Power of the Heart."

After a short set break, Gabriel and his dozens of classically trained musicians opened the nightcap by offering up a moderately entertaining "San Jacinto" (also from 1982's "Security"). Thankfully, he followed with a rather rocking "Digging in the Dirt," from 1992's "Us," which seemed to shake some crowd members out of a slumber.

Crowd response was uneven throughout the night. Fans seemed disinterested, or even perplexed, at some of the arrangements. In other moments, fiery instrumental segments lifted them out of the seats into standing ovations.

Gabriel did play some fan favorites toward the end of the show, but they didn't always provide the expected payoff (such as a rather poorly arranged version of "Red Rain"). The troupe managed much better with the classic "Solsbury Hill," conjuring up an arrangement jaunty enough to persuade Gabriel to literally skip about the stage. The encore featured two "So" favorites, "In Your Eyes" and "Don't Give Up." It was hard to overlook the absence of Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour on the former, but not so tough to get along without Kate Bush on the latter. (Bush's vocal parts were adequately filled by a backing vocalist, but nobody can fill N'Dour's shoes.)

In all, it was a pretty good concert. Yet "pretty good" isn't good enough when it comes to Peter Gabriel. But I guess it will have to be until he manages to finally come up with some new ideas.

© Oakland Tribune, by Jim Harrington

Last modified onFriday, 16 September 2016 16:18


Peter Gabriel, Red Rain, Full Orchestra, June 2011, Berkeley, CA LostInEthernet

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