“An Armchair Review” - Peter Gabriel’s recent concerts in Paris and London reviewed by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Ted Sayers.
An unusual one this review, bit like the gigs themselves! I know that like myself, quite a few Gabriel fans were not exactly enamoured of our hero’s latest project and like me, decided not to attend the shows at the cow pat that is the O2 Arena. So, that left TWR with two choices; either wait for a review from someone who DID attend the gigs, or review them myself when the inevitable live recordings surfaced from the comfort of my armchair here at TWR HQ. In the end, I opted for the latter, so here goes…
I have very fond memories of the Palais Omnisports De Bercy in Paris having seen Genesis, Gabriel and Collins there over the years. Tonight’s performance got off to a suitably inauspicious start by a cock-up of Sledgehammer. I get the impression that this was deliberate though, perhaps to inject a leavening of humour into what was going to be a very intense night. Peter than announced that they would be first playing the entire Scratch My Back album first and the show proper opened with Bowie’s Heroes, which sounds incredibly dramatic stripped down to voice and strong section - Peter’s voice still manages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Paul Simon’s The Boy In The Bubble, brings the atmosphere right down, I have to admit that this song is without doubt one of the most depressing I have ever heard, and this sparse treatment of it makes it even more so, I’m afraid. There was little light relief next either with Mirrorball although, the atmosphere was slightly less downbeat here, the performance to my ears has something of the feel of a demo and Gabriel sounds surprisingly tentative at times and the sound was quite thin although this was to be expected I suppose, given the enormity of the POPB building.
Unusually, there was no between songs patter during this half of the show, and Flume and arrived hard on the heels of its predecessor. Sadly, the performance here didn’t grab me although the song that followed it; The Power Of Your Heart, already a firm favourite from the studio recording, made an equally good impression here. My Body Is A Cage is another enigmatic song, well suited to Peter’s vocal delivery which, here is suitably anguished and dramatic. The rest of the first half of the show, passes off quite unremarkably really, and the available video footage from this gig shows Peter looking incredibly nervous and at times very uncomfortable being quite so exposed - no masks to hide behind this time!
The second half of the show opens with San Jacinto, always a favourite both on record and in concert but, I have to say, this stripped down version doesn’t really work for me - it lacks the oomph that the band bring to it. Peter’s vocal sounds distinctly weak here which is a shame because this is one of his most powerful songs. Downside Up works altogether better, in fact, the orchestra add a new dimension to the track making it extremely enjoyable.
Other highlights include an altogether too rare performance of Wallflower, without doubt one of Peter’s finest compositions. A sparse intro on piano and voice marvellously creates the claustrophobic atmosphere that the song describes and this is the highlight of the show for me thus far. Signal To Noise too, works far better in this stripped down setting than I had expected, and the drama on this one is almost tangible. The Rhythm Of The Heat too, was quite s surprise and another of those songs which could so easily have fallen flat in this type of performance. No such worries here though - this is classic Gabriel, enigmatic, dramatic and above all thought provoking!
The show ends on a suitably downbeat note with Low Light but the audience have obviously lapped up every minute of it, if the applause is anything to go by.
Barely a week later and the show arrives at the O2 Arena in London for a pair of shows, of which the second one forms the second half of this review.
Fundamentally, the first half of the show is exactly the same as it had been in Paris, and so I will move right on to the second half, where things changed round a bit for tonight’s performance. Once again, San Jacinto opens the proceedings and this is a much more assured performance than it had been in Paris, no mumbling or fluffing the lyrics tonight!
A funky intro heralds Digging In The Dirt which really works well and the underlying drama of the song, emerges intact through the new interpretation. Sadly, Wallflower had been dropped by the time the show reached London and Downside Up and Blood Of Eden compensate in fine versions. Signal to Noise remains as impeccable as ever - a thoroughly engrossing performance here.
The Rhythm Of The Heat too, still manages to send shivers up the spine even in this stripped down version. In fact, to a certain extent, the very sparseness of the orchestration and performance bring an even sharper feeling of paranoia to the track. Darkness opens with something akin to the Psycho soundtrack, and I thoroughly expected Peter to emerge from behind a shower curtain at some point during this one! Dark, dense and dramatic - far better than either the studio or the previous live incarnations to my ears!
Solsbury Hill remains the sole representative of Peter’s early work in the live set and it is still a joy to hear it even after all these years. The orchestra certainly sound as if they swallowed the chance to play this one with a collective shout of glee - even incorporating the “Ode To Joy” theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for good measure! In Your Eyes too, (sadly without Youssou N’Dour tonight) brings the mood right up and the celebration continues with a suitably impassioned rendering of The Nest That Sailed Away from the Ovo project that had its home in this very venue!
Peter has always been an experimenter and this project shows that he is still prepared to push the envelope. Like many experiments, not all of this one work as well in the live context as others, but when it works it works very well indeed. Credit to the New Blood Orchestra too, they have certainly worked hard on this and if Peter can only bring this show to the “provinces” then who knows, maybe I might catch it myself. In the meantime, bravo for continuing to be the “Eternal Experimenter”.
Set List (Paris): Sledgehammer (cock-up)/Heroes/The Boy In The Bubble/Mirror Ball/Flume/Listening Wind/The Power Of The Heart/My Body Is A Cage/The Book Of Love/I Think It’s Going To Rain Today/Apres Moi/Philadelphia/Street Spirit/San Jacinto/Downside Up/Digging In The Dirt (Fuck up)/Digging In The Dirt/ Wallflower/Signal To Noise/Washing Of The Water/Blood Of Eden/The Rhythm Of The Heat/Darkness/Solsbury Hill/In Your Eyes/Don’t Give Up/Low Light.
Set List (London): Heroes/The Boy In The Bubble/Mirrorball/Flume/Listening Wind/The Power Of The Heart/My Body Is A Cage/The Book Of Love/I Think It’s Going To Rain Today/Apres Moi/Philadelphia/Street Spirit/San Jacinto/Digging In The Dirt/Downside Up/Signal To Noise/Blood Of Eden/The Rhythm Of The Heat/ Darkness/Solsbury Hill/In Your Eyes/Don’t Give Up/The Nest That Sailed Away.