Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: 'Peter Gabriel: New Blood Live in London'

On March 23rd and 24th of 2011, Peter Gabriel appeared at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo in London and performed a selection of covers and his own classics with the New Blood Orchestra. This is the kind of thing that would be nothing more than a pretentious folly if mounted by most artists (case in point: “I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic, as you know.”—David St. Hubbins). But Gabriel—a guy once known to take the stage in a giant fox helmet— tends to welcome pretentious folly with disarming frankness, so the orchestral setting captured on the New Blood Live in London DVD suits him. John Metcalfe’s arrangements are consistently atmospheric, although the concert is front-loaded with dirgy tempos that can be monotonous. At times, this tendency can be fascinating. Gabriel and his orchestra transform Paul Simon’s effervescent “The Boy in the Bubble” into a stark nocturne and it works. But arrangements of songs by Regina Spektor and The Magnetic Fields are as perfunctory as Gabriel’s performances. When given inspired backing, his old penchant for dynamic drama resurfaces, as it does with refreshing regularity in the second half of the show.

Beginning with an intense, “Bolero”-like arrangement of “Biko”, New Blood gets considerably stronger and more varied. Again, these tracks don’t always work. Metcalfe’s attempt to bring a funky vibe to “Digging in the Dirt” fails to ignite; Gabriel and his co-singers seem restrained by the arrangement. But a version of “Downside Up” gets that more rhythmic feel right. The strings do an uncanny job of mimicking the acoustic guitars that introduce the studio version of “Solsbury Hill”, but a strategically placed kettle drum roll and some emphatic brass could have helped the number to achieve the climactic transcendence of the original. It’s all simmer and no boil. Otherwise, there’s little to gripe about in the second-half of New Blood. “San Jacinto” receives a shimmering arrangement. Emphasis on percussion and pizzicato strings helps “Mercy Street” to stand out from the pack. Metcalfe’s tasteful restraint suits “In Your Eyes” quite beautifully.

Even when he sounds less than fully engaged in the material, Gabriel is in strong voice throughout. His calculated use of his instrument’s rasp lends a raw undercurrent to the sometimes overly polite orchestrations. The film itself would have benefitted from richer photography. Flat video fails to convey the moodiness of the music and the shadowy, sometimes psychedelic stage lighting. A fox helmet or two wouldn’t have hurt either.


Get Peter Gabriel: New Blood Live in London on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon.com. The disc is also available as a DVD/Blu-ray combo in 3D here.
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