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Live review: Peter Gabriel at the Hollywood Bowl

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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Comments () | Archives (23)

I also really enjoyed Mr. Gabriel's experiment with orchestral arrangements of his favorite songs by other artists. It's a brilliant idea but the execution at times felt a little down-tempo. Did every single song have to be at 50% of the original pace? I couldn't help wonder if it might have been more compelling had some of the songs been rehearsed up to full tempo.
The concert really hit it's stride towards the end when Mr Gabriel performed his own compositions. Salisbury Hill finally found the energy that matched the recording.
I hope other pop musicians follow this trend. Hopefully they'll choose to use the whole range of dynamics and rhythm that an orchestra can deliver.

Wonderful review. I was there last night, and Peter put on an awe-inspiring show. From the giant, blood red plumes of digital smoke shooting up behind the orchestra during "Flume" to the gorgeously devilish re-invention of "The Rhythm and the Heat," Peter made a big, moving, theatrical experience out of what could have been a dry, art-house experiment. I was amazed by how intently the sold-out crowd listened during the intimate first act, and I was thrilled by the vibrancy in Act 2. And I was surprised that it wasn't until 15 seconds before the end of the last song of the night that I heard a drunken, former frat boy yell "Sledgehammer!" Peter pushed the boundaries here. Job well done.

The concert was terrific. Pulling off a rock performance with only an orchestra explains some of the mastery PG exults. I was dubious at first, but conceded later this was one of the best concerts ever. I didn't find the back up singers up to snuff, which is unfortunate because there is so much talent out there to choose from. I'm going with a 9 out of 10.

Randy, Your review was accurate with regards to the artist and the project as a whole. However, my perspective was greatly affected by the percentage of the crowd that had no connection to the music. Loud woops and screams of "Yeahhh" were out of place and disturbing when connecting with haunting versions of much beloved music. This combined with the dumping of beer bottles by the Bowl's vendors while an Oboe tried it's best not to drowned out by the crashing of the glass, made for a strange experience.
My favorite quote by a drunken spectator during the show? "OMG! that's Nora Jones' dad!"
I guess it's just another night out in L.A. trying to connect with an artist over the background of the selfish party crowd. Oh well....

Nailed it, Mr. Lewis. Though I could have done without the pridictably flat and soulless accompaniment provided by daughter Melanie.

We flew in from Austin to see this event. Neither my wife or I had ever been to the Hollywood bowl so we are a total stranger to that incredible environment. Even with 24 hours to calm down this was the most remarkable of all Gabriel events we ever been too. Whether it was Loftus road for Womad in the mid 1980's, Seattle in MaryMoor park with Afro Celt in 2000 or 2001 or a big event in Hammersmith in the early 1980's. His capacity for synthesis and control of a complex arena is very rare. Artists should experiment and stretch audiences. He does it so well while staying so close to his own works and how audiences interact with them. The divide of the show into two halves was a very sensible way to cushion the new work with the audience. A very fair trade off that in hindsight was very smart. I hope the live DVD captures what a great stadium and experience this was.

Thank-you Mr Lewis, for yet another great piece, on a truly great Artist.

I guess minds can differ.
We were bored out of our gourds and left early.

Nice review, Randy, although I disagree with your assessment of the Scratch My Back material. I think there was a sameness to all of it without much variety in tempo, pitch and dynamics either on the album or live. It was very unlike Peter Gabriel and I still don't get it. I would rather have heard his songs given the same treatment on the album. He could have cut that short by at least half.

His solo material for the most part given the orchestral treatment was tremendous added tremendous depth to the music. I could also hear in some songs becasue of the orchestra what his contribution was to Genesis and how much they lost when he left.
But overall glad you enjoyed the show because it was every entertaining and proficient in all the use of its mediums.

Thank-you Mr. Lewis, for yet another great piece, on a brilliant Artist.

You are true in all regards. The concert was like falling into a soulmate marriage of music, art, words, and multimedia story-telling. It was a Zen garden in the summer, winter, fall and spring. It was a lilac bush and a puzzled elm. Peter Gabriel made you think. He made you hope. He made you believe that true art and authentic relationships are possible. He created poetry, the kind of verse you long to read again and again.

Rarely, as you pointed out, does this kind of experience occur any more--not in books, not in films, music or art. But when it does, when the heart bleeds as it did Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl, you know you experienced a life-affirming, life-changing moment. Those of us blessed to have attended the May 7 concert were transfused, transformed, and renewed by Gabriel's New Blood.

Mr. LA Times Blogger Reviewer, you totally captured the essence of the evening. You got it. Thank you for putting the impossible into words.

Very well said, Randy! Lovely and eloquent. Wonderful show...

I was there travelled 3000 miles to see him, it was magical!!!!!!!

I was bored the whole way thru, but thats what you get when every song is played with an orchestra

The evening was magical. I can understand how many listeners may have felt impatient with the tempo of the night considering Gabriel's past albums, however I was not one of them. As I listened to the orchestra I couldn't help but think that Peter Gabriel had only now finally found a sound worthy of backing his own soaring vocals (don't get me wrong though, I do love his old up-tempo stuff anchored by the drums, guitar, and bass). His newest undertaking, Scratch My Back, is a particularly moving work, I think, because of how intimate it feels, especially be when viewed as a much grander take on the exercise of creating a mix-tape for someone. I always feel like I get a special window into someone when I receive a music mix from them, since their motivation for choosing each song stems from some personal feeling or motivation. Seeing Peter perform Scratch My Back was like having someone sing a mix that they have made for you; in every word that he interpreted, taken from another artist, there was a sense of the importance of the song to him. Having heard all of the songs in their original form, by all the original artists, I felt shivers as Peter infused his voice and his vision into those pieces. I'd have to say, as a life-long Peter Gabriel fan, this show blew my mind, and left me literally in tears at the power of such a true legend at work. The performance was indicative of Gabriel's talents and his lasting imprint on music.

John Benton, I will say I agree with you about how distracting the breaking glass was in the middle of the set (how rude, Hollywood Bowl).

All the fans around me were nothing but respectful, in line with the classy, more somber mood of the music.

Thank you Randy for your review of the show! It's nice to see Peter recognized positively for reaching out on a limb to do something new and very out-of-line with his past musical endeavors.

I just attended a Peter Gabriel concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I think it was called the Peter Gabriel Goes out of his f#####ing head show.I fear the worst with Roger waters shows at the end of the year. After the somnabulistic effect I seen Gabriel's shows had on the audience ,the Kingpins of Progressive rock quest for world domination is coming. Roger will promise to play The Wall' but instead will play his opera Ca Ira instead driving us former acid heads into frothing snarling animals. Fear is indeed the mother of violence. Beware...
Morgan Lloyd Sr.

There is no perfect performance. But from the mid-section of the house, I can say it was the first concert in a long time uninterrupted by ring tones, mindless chatter and foolish audience behavior. Well done, LA. I wasn't expecting anything but came away with continued respect for an artist who's not afraid to "change it up." I enjoyed the first act- and thought of many songs by other writers that could benefit from Peter's spin. I was really inspired by the orchestral renditions of his own songs. I do agree with Mark's observation about Peter's daughter - so many other singers would have been a better choice.

I also flew in from Austin for this, and I have to say, we pride ourselves on being a music city, but in the first half of the show, I had never heard an audience of that size be so reverently quiet. That alone was as beautiful as the music. While I think the performance really commanded much of that silence, I was impressed by the city of LA for that, and a bit ashamed of the relatively boorish behavior we can have in my hometown. Granted, once people got more wine and beer in them, and they hit the second half, where people just wanted to either hear "Sledgehammer" (that's reputation is a shame, because any musician will tell you it's a wonderfully composed song) or any number of Genesis songs, which he hasn't played, at least on any regular basis, at any of his shows in the last twenty years, if not much longer.

LA, you've got a beautiful venue there, and good fans (the alcohol just makes poor concert goers of most of us).

I also greatly enjoyed the show and was thrilled to hear these new arrangements. Standouts for me were the entirety of “Mercy Street,” the exit for “Rhythm Of The Heat,” and Ane Brun’s backing vocal on “Don’t Give Up.” (Admittedly, I would have liked a little more of Peter - whose voice amazingly still seems to have almost all of its range after all these years - and a little less of his daughter on "Washing of the Water," which has always been a favorite of mine due to his delivery.)

Unfortunately, the concert was tainted for me. Echoing what others have mentioned, I had some disturbingly angry and bloodthirsty thoughts directed toward the extremely disrespectful patrons who insisted on engaging in mundane jabbering or clamoring for nonexistent electric guitars throughout. This is the most unrest that I have ever observed at a concert, and I have seen Nine Inch Nails four times. The vibe of negativity and lack of appreciation put a large damper on my enjoyment. I do not understand what these people were doing at a Peter Gabriel concert. Even if they were not familiar with the arrangements of “Scratch My Back,” it’s not as if Peter Gabriel’s music has not had an extremely mellow tinge for a very long time. You can't tell me that people went to see the So tour in 1986 with plans to rock out and bang their heads.

I doubt any of those sterling sophisticates are going to the trouble to read the comments after this review, but if they are I have a message for them. The rules of rock concert etiquette and symphony etiquette have a very simple divide. In general, if you see a complete string section on the stage, it is time for you to shut up. A symphony orchestra does not use the same amplification that a typical rock concert does. It relies on delicate instrumentation and subtlety. It actually makes use of pianissimo. (Go look up that term if you don't know it. You certainly don't know how to savor it.) If you do not enjoy the music and are not willing to shut up, please show some respect for not only those trying to listen to the music but also for the musicians by leaving. The price of a ticket might buy you the right to be unhappy, but it does not buy you the right to infringe upon the experiences of others.

I feel like I’m condescending to children, a fact all the more troubling given that the average age of concertgoer at this event must have been 40, but the behavior I observed warrants this sort of statement. This is not the first time I’ve had this sort of experience at the Hollywood Bowl. The other instance was even more egregious, and I am tired of it.

One minor correction : Ane Brun, who joined in on the "Don't give up" duet, is not Swedish - she's from Norway, although she has been living i Sweden since 2001.

I have been a huge Peter Gabriel fan for more than 20 years and this is the 3rd time I have seen him in concert. I unfortunately have to say that I found the concert to overall be quite unimpressive. I still do not understand why such a wonderful and talented musician as Peter Gabriel needed to create an album of covers and then why he needed to subject all of us to it for approximately an hour. I felt the first half was quite boring, even though the orchestra was great and the visuals were quite impressive.

The second half was somewhat better, but Peter overall seemed tired. I think it was just not as good of a show as So in 1986 and the Growing Up Live tour of 2002-2003.

Hmmm... the show I saw was very different from the one Mr. Lewis describes.
The first half was slow, lugubrious and so depressing I felt like slitting my wrists when it was over.

The second half was marginally better, but Gabriel seemed to be working very hard to get the audience even a little energized.

This concert was a total turd. I think gabriel's lost his friggin mind and you idiot's are all running around behind him with no clothes on either. A bullwhipping is in order not a D.V.D.


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