Concert Reviews

Peter Gabriel at Red Rocks, 6/13/11


The scope of Peter Gabriel's set Monday night seemed entirely appropriate for the size and majesty of Red Rocks. Gabriel showed up in Morrison with a full orchestra and an elaborate set of visual effects, forgoing his usual art-rock approach for a sound rooted in the concert hall. The resulting collaboration with the New Blood Orchestra offered an ambitious reimagining of key songs from Gabriel's catalogue, as well as a diverse selection of covers, interpretations pulled from the recent Scratch My Back project. The retooled takes on Gabriel classics and songs by everyone from the Magnetic Fields to Paul Simon offered hits and misses, but there was no denying the imagination, ambition and pure theatricality behind the show.

For the grand scope and scale of the concert, Gabriel kicked things off in an understated way. He emerged in front of a horizontal screen decked completely in black, sporting a shaved head and a white goatee. The sun had yet to set, and no opening band had taken the stage. Gabriel started simply, declaring, "And finally we play at Red Rocks." He spoke of his collaboration with the New Blood Orchestra, of "throwing away" his normal rock band to work with arranger John Metcalfe and conductor Ben Foster. Before launching into his performance with the ensemble, however, he introduced backup singer Ane Brun, a Norwegian singer-songwriter.

Brun appeared on stage only to sing two songs, ballads that benefited from her haunting fingerpicked guitar styles and her winding vocal style. With an approach to melody that echoed European folk traditions and boasted some Celtic-style twists, Brun helped set a tone in the audience that would last the entire night, an attention that seemed more fit for a concert hall than a rock arena. The reaction had much to do with the evening's orchestration. As soon as the horizontal screen at the forefront of the stage lifted to the sounds of David Bowie's "Heroes" reimagined as an epic orchestral ode, it was the clear the audience wasn't in for a typical stadium rock show.

After a similarly expanded version of his own song "Wallflower," Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra immediately rolled out several cover tunes as dark clouds converged overhead and the rain began to fall, the ensemble offered multi-layered and dense versions of Regina Spektor's "Apres Moi," Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble," Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage," and the Magnetic Fields' "Book of Love." A series of colorful images on the raised horizontal screen and a triptych of vertical canvases behind the orchestra added visual context to the music.

The rain started to fall in earnest, and lyrics like "Be afraid of the cold" and "After me comes the flood" were punctuated by peals of thunder and the dance of lighting bolts on the distant horizon. The weather only seemed to add force to the large-scale feel of the orchestration; dense piano lines, furious string flights and bold statements from the brass section added a different dimension to some of the cover tunes and seemed to sap some of the effect from a few others.

Still, the crowd seemed engaged from the very first stark piano line. Maybe it was a combination of the brief spate of rain or the format of the show, but the crowd of mostly older, middle-aged patrons displayed the attention and silence of a concert-hall crowd. Apart from the few occasional cries and whoops, the front of the amphitheatre remained rapt as the orchestra played.

The latter half of the first set and the entirety of the second set shifted from covers to Gabriel originals, many of which took a different sound and contour under the new structure. "Biko" benefited from the added force and effect of the driving beat from the timpani; "Digging in the Dirt" took on another level of eeriness with the suggestive strings and the insidious horns. "Intruder" and "Blood of Eden" gained new dimensions as well. The performance of "Solsbury Hill," seeped in the strings and bright piano work of the orchestra, was a high point of the second half.

Several songs from 1986's So album received similar treatment, with varying results. Songs like "Don't Give Up," "Mercy Street" and "Red Rain" seemed designed for the orchestral additions, taking on a new level of force and effect. The encore performance of "In Your Eyes," performed in a more staccato style and lacking the driving drum backup of the original, left a yearning for a performance with Gabriel's rock outfit.

There were a few such moments during the live Blood Red Orchestra collaboration. Gabriel's standard powerful chorus of backup singers were replaced with only two voices; hard-hitting classics like "Sledgehammer," "Big Time" and "Steam" were left off the list. Combined with the tepid response from the audience, the lack of the rock dynamic was noticeable at key points.

Still, the performance underlined a different dimension of Gabriel and his music. The fact that so many of Gabriel's own compositions worked with a full orchestra displayed the true depth of his skill as a composer, and he showed complete vocal ease in making the shift to the new aural setting. While some moments left a thirst for another kind of Gabriel show, his skill and prowess as a performer was constant. And Red Rocks was the perfect forum for the experiment.

Click through for Critic's Notebook and Setlist

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A.H. Goldstein

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