Last Night: Peter Gabriel At Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

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

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Craig Hlavaty
Contact: Craig Hlavaty