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Live review: Peter Gabriel at the Hollywood Bowl

May 8, 2010 | 10:59 am

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It’s all too easy in the age of “American Idol” to forget just how profoundly powerful music can be in the hands of an absolute master like Peter Gabriel.

The veteran British artist — one of the select few in the pop music world to whom the term “artist” is wholly appropriate — brought his orchestral tour to the Hollywood Bowl on Friday and demonstrated once again his completely inspired command of the medium of live performance. 158456.CA.0507.petergabriel.9.AJS

Theatrics in pop concert tours all too often translate into gratuitous technology that merely occupies the eye while the hits play out. Gabriel’s holistically conceived show weds the expansive musical vocabulary provided by the ensemble dubbed the New Blood Orchestra with images on multiple video screens designed with the same informed creative spark that made him one of the original geniuses of the MTV age.

His nearly three-hour performance was divided into halves: the first devoted to a front-to-back performance in sequence of his “Scratch My Back” album, the second to orchestral reworkings of a dozen songs spanning his 33-year solo career.

Gabriel employs various media not to dazzle for the sake of dazzling, but with the working knowledge of how music, words and images deployed in harmony can open the door to new awareness by simultaneously engaging the senses, the emotions and the spirit.

The “Scratch My Back” album, on which he has offered distinctive takes on favorite songs created by David Bowie, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, the Magnetic Fields, Randy Newman, Arcade Fire and others, has divided fans and critics. Some have found his approach rewardingly fresh, others have groused that the full-bodied orchestral treatments nonetheless lack the rhythmic bite that’s been the hallmark of so much of his own work.
In concert, however, it seemed obvious that Gabriel had the live aspect in mind all along.

As on the album, Gabriel opened with Bowie’s “Heroes,” which set the theme of leaving behind the ordinary and entering a different, higher realm, at least for one evening. Where Bowie’s version built with an electro-rock pulse, Gabriel and the orchestra brought a regal sonic swell that embodied Bowie’s idea that “I can be king/And you can be queen…just for one day.”

An expansive video screen that spanned about two-thirds of the Bowl’s stage, enough to obscure the orchestra behind it, displayed a sequence of horizontal lines moving up as the screen itself raised. Soon a batch of vertical white lines joined, moving gracefully in tempo with the music, only Gabriel’s voice indicating his presence on stage until the screen was high enough to reveal the humans — all wearing black -- behind it.

Reed's “The Power of the Heart” nodded to “Ol’ Man River” as he sang “You and me we sweat and strain” in that wonderfully gritty, soulful voice of his. The accompanying imagery on an additional triptych video screen on the wall behind the orchestra was at its core supremely simple: two columns of swirling white dots resembling active molecules, each with a red dot, presumably the nuclei, at the center. As the song progressed, the nuclei moved from their respective outer screens toward one another in the center screen, an extraordinarily moving image in conjunction with Gabriel’s song about the difficulty of two hearts finding, and staying, together. It’s going to make for one killer concert DVD.

The show’s second half brought equally inspired treatments of such cornerstone Gabriel songs as “San Jacinto,” “The Rhythm of the Heat,” “Don’t Give Up” (with his opening act, Swedish singer Ane Brun, handling the Kate Bush lines from the original recording), “In Your Eyes” and “Solsbury Hill.” The latter, his farewell to prog-rock band Genesis when he launched his solo career, extended that flight into the unknown into an exhilarating musical space that ultimately found its way to  the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

New Blood Orchestra conductor Ben Foster and arranger John Metcalfe were equal partners in Gabriel’s exploration of how to translate rock’s power to the world of the orchestra. It’s a decades-old tradition that stretches from John Lennon’s “Imagine” album and Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” in the early-‘70s to those fabulous symphonic adaptations of the Sex Pistols’ songbook in  “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle’s” through L.A.’s own Sparks with their innovative “Li’l Beethoven” and “Hello Young Lovers” albums of recent years.

It’s a worthy experiment, for as Gabriel demonstrated so ably, there are places in the soul that electric guitar, bass and drums, for all their visceral excitement, still can’t reach.

--Randy Lewis

Photos: The New Blood Orchestra conducted by Ben Foster at the Hollywood Bowl, top, and Peter Gabriel. Credit: J. Alan Schaben / Los Angeles Times:
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