An artist of the stature of Peter Gabriel is often caught between a rock and a hard place. Even his post Genesis solo repetoire extends back to the 70s with so many massively popular songs it is inevitable that when you try something new your stalwart fans may initially be a bit puzzled. Equally, just rolling out the back catalogue you run the risk being criticised for not offering something new! His latest venture combines the two in an inspired way and manages to deflect either opinion.
His latest 'Scratch my Back' project takes other artists songs (who will, in return, record their version of a PG song) arranged for a full 54 piece orchestra (no drums and guitars!) delivered in a format that is far more akin to a classical music recital than your usual stadium rock approach. The first half comprised ALL the tracks from the CD album in the same track running order whilst the post interval 2nd half saw the orchestra playing arrangements of PG's own songs.
The songs, or pieces, were all supported by simple yet stunning 'arty' graphics which included some video elements (on an array of LEDs rather than projection screens) the focus was clearly the music, with conductor Ben Foster at the helm, supporting vocals from Peter's daughter Melanie with a charismatic Norwegian lass, Ane Brun and a brilliant pianist Tom Cawley. The opening was David Bowies 'Heroes' which started with one of the LED screens obscuring the orchestra displaying very sparse graphics totally synchronised to the music which eventually raised to reveal the orchestra and PG himself stepping onto the front part of the stage.
As mentioned, the set list followed the running order of the Scratch my Back album, check out the player on my blog here. Highlights were the whole drama of the opening with 'Heroes', the starkness of 'Boy in the Bubble', 'The Power of the Heart' and 'Book of Love' which had a witty and self deprecating sequence on the displays killing off any thoughts of sentimentality! PG found his stride in 'The Power of the Heart' with a passionate and committed vocal performance that drew the most applause in part one. Gabriel fans are very respectful so although the response could not be called rapturous, it was polite even if sometimes puzzled.
For me personally I found it immensely stimulating and inspiring yet very much with the classical music concert similarity to the fore. Often attending classical recitals you are not as familiar with the material, so it is an adventure which may not always be delightful and can sometimes be quite arduous. The lack of familiarity, at times, didn't make for easy listening, not a bad thing in my book, regardless John Metcalfe's arrangements and orchestration throughout were brilliant! I would say the 'high brow' factor placed it somewhere twixt Classic FM and Radio 3 with PG's grace and gifts building an accessibility bridge to the essentially Radio 2 audience.
The genius was saving the familiar material, albeit with the previously unheard orchestral versions, as the whole of the second half. Again the arrangements were stunning and gave new textures to the Gabriel catalogue, with the extensive suite of texture and dynamics an orchestra can deliver new facets of PG's songs appeared. This time it was the audience who found their stride, clapping along, cheering, mimicking PG's gestures and even standing in appreciation!
'Solsbury Hill' was the clear 'clapometer' favourite and along with 'In your Eyes' plus the pre-encore set closer 'Don't Give Up' being my own personal 2nd half highlights. Selecting 'Don't Give Up' felt significant, whether by design or default I don't know. The whole of the 'Scratch My Back' CD is very much a Lament for the world (more on Steve Stockman's Blog here), where we have screwed up environmentally, ecologically, tribal / civic wars, corruption, terroism, ethnic cleansing, shock and awe etc. Therefore including 'Don't Give Up' so brilliantly gave hope and encouragement for the future.
To be nitpicky I cannot say it was all perfect. The orchestra was not tight, it did not groove and or have the feel that PG's band excels at, the sound was a bit harsh and sometimes some cues were missed. Equally these points are much more noticable in an orchestral format so overall it did not tarnish or diminish my enjoyment. I am so glad I was able to go and experience this firsthand, a very special and memorable eve. If you get the chance, there are not many dates left and only in North America, don't miss it!