The posters hanging outside of New York’s Radio City Music Hall last night let fans know exactly what kind of concert Peter Gabriel had prepared: “Fifty-four piece orchestra. No drums. No guitar.” But until the music started, nobody knew exactly how much imagination and rearranging he had packed into this tiny 10-date world tour. The nearly three-hour show featured a complete performance of Gabriel’s new covers album Scratch My Back, as well as dramatic orchestral reinterpretations of tracks from his solo career. By the end of the epic show everybody in the sold-out theater seemed thoroughly blown away — except for the lone guy repeatedly screaming in vain for “Sledgehammer.”
Concerns about the state of Gabriel’s voice quickly vanished as the concert got underway. The bone-thin kid who sang “The Musical Box” so sweetly in 1972 has been replaced by a husky-throated gentlemen who looks like a slightly bloated Ben Kingsley. After the first minute of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” however, it was clear that this new voice was somehow more powerful and emotive. Like Leonard Cohen and Elton John, Gabriel has found a way to transform an aging voice into an entirely new instrument. It’s a shame he tours so infrequently and records even less often.
Scratch My Back is mixed bag of covers from some of rock’s greatest songwriters, from Paul Simon to Radiohead to Bon Iver. Depending on the arrangement, the orchestra can make a song like Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” soar to new heights, or reduce it to a depressing torch ballad like Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble.” Graceland is incredibly optimistic and joyful, but Gabriel’s slow, somber rendition made it seem like the lasers in the jungle were going to burn the place down and the baby was on the verge of rejecting his new baboon heart. He also somehow managed to make Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” even sadder. These arrangements weren’t bad — they were just occasionally bummers.
Gabriel’s own material fared far better. A euphoric “San Jacinto” opened the second half of the show with striking Native American imagery on the screens and the orchestra expertly recreating the synthesizer parts of the original. Gabriel skipped obvious hits like “Shock the Monkey” and “Games Without Frontiers” in favor of material more suited to an orchestra, such as a pulsating “Rhythm of the Heat” and a beautiful “Mercy Street.” “Signal to Noise” — a highlight from 2002s unfairly ignored UP — was the highlight of the entire evening. Originally recorded with a small string section, it was vastly enhanced by the large orchestra, slowly building to an incredible climax with Gabriel practically screaming the refrain, “Receive and transmit!”
An obligatory “In Your Eyes” never really took off, but “Solsbury Hill” adapted surprisingly well to the new arrangement. Gabriel marched around the stage like a delighted child while singing the 1977 hit about his decision to quit Genesis and brought the audience to their feet for the first time of the night. Leaving the band he formed just as they were starting to find success was a brave move, as was his decision to take a decade off from his solo career after finally finding mainstream success in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
At Cleveland’s Gund Arena in 2002, Gabriel played a show for 1,000 at an arena that seats at least 20,000. He still put on a visually spectacular show, not seeming to care one bit that the tour was a financial disaster. The show last night at Radio City was equally impressive. Every song was accompanied by clever animation on the screens and a dramatic rearrangement by the symphony. Genesis fans howled with frustration when Gabriel refused to take one day off from rehearsals to show up for the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, but it shouldn’t have been a shock. Gabriel has always avoided nostalgia in favor of what’s coming next.