Peter Gabriel Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion June 16, 2011
Rock writers right now - hell, everyone with a musical soul - are living in the most interesting of times. No, it's not because we can pull any album we want down out of the sky at any time of day. It's because we get to watch the best living artists of the past century age grow with, and into, their art.
We get to see artists at the end of their allotted physical life span assess their time here on earth on record and in concert. It reminds us our own mortality, and the mortality of these people we have lionized collectively. The best we can do is hope to pass the time with grace and gratitude that it is even there for us to use.
This weekend is Father's Day, and fathers, and to a greater extent the passing of time figured into Peter Gabriel's set Thursday night at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. With the stage-filling New Blood Orchestra, made up of his own team and a few freelance musicians from Houston, Gabriel was able to make nearly three hours of haunting and emotionally captivating work.
Without the use of drums or guitar, using only classical instruments and one of the best voices that pop music has ever heard, last night's show was a shattering, soul-affirming journey.
If given the choice, we will always gladly take an orchestra over a rock band dishing out rote "greatest hits" for a hooting and whistling crowd. There is something infinitely more human and endearing to us about a brood of people all working in concert with each other than the usual rock and roll trappings. There is a time and place for each, and luckily Gabriel's still-growing catalog is perfect for an orchestra.
It had to be this way for Gabriel, "Sledgehammer" be damned.
If the idea of a Gabriel show with no guitars or drums bothers you, then you haven't been paying attention to his career from Genesis on. He's never done anything per the unwritten rules of rock, and he's not going to at age 61. He doesn't owe that to you. Yeah, he's paying for an '80s pop period that lame folks don't want to shake, but Gabriel has a lot more to offer than 40 nights of "Ya remember this ditty from 1986?"
What he's doing now is two sets a night, both with the New Bloods, the first of which includes some of his more dire works like "Darkness" and "Washing of the Water," along with stripped-to-the-marrow covers of modern artists who have plundered plenty from his own career, most of which you can find on last year's covers disc, Scratch My Back. The post-intermission set sees reworkings of some of his classics and grimmer passages you may have forgotten.
Opening with David Bowie's "Heroes," the mood was set to subdued and visceral, with the Bowie classic a slow burn. The lighting effects around Gabriel and the orchestra meshed into the music like a third member of the traveling show. "Boy In The Bubble," the lead-off hitter on Paul Simon's Graceland, is a jaunty African tune in Simon's hands, but Gabriel treated it like a claustrophobic and bloody dirge. It's now positively 21st century, and all about the fear of ourselves.
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo The way we look to us all The way we look to a distant constellation That's dying in a corner of the sky
Gabriel's take on Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" soundtracked the setting Texas sun past the 8 p.m hour. Obviously the Arcades and Gabriel aren't that much different in scope, but with the elder artist's aged croak behind the mike, it's an end-term aural last rites, hitting religious heights even. Hey Win Butler, Pete just drank your soy milkshake. He drank it up.
"Father, Son" from 2000's OVO, is Gabriel's ode to his father, who is now 99 years old, and traces the road the two men have taken together, and made us "have something in my eye," at least twice. It was perfectly timed for the coming holiday, and deeply affecting. There's mortality thumbing it's nose at us again with bony fingers.
Gabriel can still get animated onstage, and you see sparks of his old stage persona, the gestures, the pantomime, the facial expressions. His voice has aged into a fine vintage. "Biko" was stirring, with the crowd bathed in red lights, and the face of the late South African martyr and Apartheid activist displayed on each of the six big screens around the stage.
We come back from intermission with "San Jacinto" and "Digging In the Dirt," the latter being one of the few pop-rock songs that would make a showing from Gabriel's hard adult-contemporary days. He related 2002's "Signal To Noise" to the freedom that technology is giving us, from Arab revolutions to uniting friends and ideas.
The orchestra was at turns this big glowing thing onstage, whipping out insane textures onto the audience, and Gabriel gave it room, sometimes dropping from view to showcase them. We know that orchestras are made multiple parts that work like a machine in ways we can't fathom. Needless to say we're not good at describing them, we just know that when we hear them live, great ones, that they can have a psychical effect on your body, which we very much felt.
The tag team of "Red Rain" and "Solsbury Hill" closed out the second set before the encore, and both felt like a church baptism, but without the nagging guilt, and "Solsbury" made for a happily hokey revelation.
The duo of orchestra, Gabriel, and his two female backing singers, Ane Brun and Gabriel's own daughter Melanie, returned for "In Your Eyes" which had the crowd waving their hands aloft like thousands of Lloyd Doblers, with cell phones in place of boomboxes. Brun subbed in for Kate Bush nicely on "Don't Give Up," leading to rumblings of "She's no Kate Bush" but we think that the Nordic blonde more than held the slack.
Personal Bias: If you can age with your art, and not let your art age you, then we will follow you. If you can evolve with it, and not rest on your past laurels and expect a paycheck, then we will follow you for life. Gene Simmons, you definitely don't count, but cool merch anyway.
The Crowd: Lotsa tucked-in shirts, wine stains, and khakis. We were an oddity.
Overseen In the Crowd: A tiff in the row in front of us just before the night's closer, "The Nest That Sailed The Sky," began, over someone clapping too loud or something. Yes, a fight at a Peter Gabriel concert. Too much white wine, we presume.
Random Notebook Dump: Yes, we are sick of using new and different superlatives too. Amazingly sick.
Wonderin' About: Why is this man not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo act?? Going in with Genesis was not enough, and his solo work has stood the test of time and continues to influence.
"Heroes" (David Bowie) Après Moi (Regina Spektor) The Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon) My Body Is a Cage (Arcade Fire) Father, Son Darkness Washing of the Water Biko
San Jacinto Digging in the Dirt Signal To Noise Downside Up Mercy Street The Rhythm of the Heat Blood of Eden Intruder Red Rain Solsbury Hill
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In Your Eyes Don't Give Up The Nest That Sailed the Sky