Does anyone besides me miss the old Peter Gabriel?
You know, the guy who used to dress like a giant flower, or wear a rectangular shaped box on his head, all the while reciting nonsensical stories to introduce his songs with Genesis in concert? Or how about the guy who, as a solo artist, made those wonderfully arty, but nonetheless goofy videos for songs like “Sledgehammer”?
That Peter Gabriel is all but gone on New Blood – Live in London, a new concert DVD that also serves as a companion piece to his latest album New Blood. Instead, Gabriel has opted to join the likes of Sting and David Byrne in that exclusive “artistes club” of aging, white rock musicians continuing their careers during their twilight years, by running as far away from their rock and roll pasts as possible.
Like both Sting and Byrne, Gabriel has long displayed a flair for the more “artistic” side of rock and roll. But for most fans, songs like “Roxanne,” “Burning Down The House” and “Shock The Monkey” remain far more memorable than any experiments in world beat, classical, or in this case, a re-imagining of past work recorded with a 46 piece symphony orchestra.
In fairness to Gabriel, it works better here than on previously ill-fated attempts at merging rock with classical by artists ranging from Deep Purple to Spinal Tap. It’s an interesting enough idea in theory. But in most cases, it’s usually a failed one in actual execution. Although there are those few and far between exceptions here, New Blood – Live in London mostly continues the long tradition of that rule.
The problem here, is that by removing rock elements as basic as guitar, bass and drums, some of Gabriel’s best songs lose a lot of their original firepower. On this DVD, Gabriel wisely steers clear of his more funk based, hit material like “Sledgehammer,” in favor of a setlist heavier on deep album cuts like “Intruder” and “San Jacinto.”
But in these newly sanitized by strings arrangements, you can’t help but notice the lack for those little things that made the originals such standout tracks. The absence of the big drums of “Intruder” and the rising keyboard swells of “San Jacinto” in particular are both sorely missed here.
Immaculate as the performances themselves are, they suffer from the same thing that burdens most of these types of experiments. The simple, yet effective hook of the original song is all but buried in a sea of strings and woodwinds. Even on a song like “Biko,” which you’d think would benefit from the bigger arrangement (particularly on vocals), much is lost to the bloated symphonic sound.
Gabriel himself, who in the past has shown himself to be an animated and engaging performer, is also uncharacteristically stiff and serious here. It’s enough to make one yearn for the leather-jacketed Rael stage character from his Lamb Lies Down On Broadway days.
Still, New Blood – Live in London does have its moments. The DVD is a stunner in terms of both sound and visuals. Some of the visual effects also have the same endearingly goofy quality of Gabriel’s early eighties music videos. The “Red Rain” which falls across the screen during the song with the same name, achieves a borderline 3D effect, and serves as welcome relief from all the otherwise dead seriousness of this concert. Similar visuals dotted throughout the performance provide an equally effective compliment to the music.
As expected with something like this, the audio mix likewise more than lives up to the challenge of capturing something as intricately layered as the sound of a full orchestra. Technically speaking, the performance is also top notch (save for its lacking any apparent element of soul).
Gabriel fans will also appreciate the setlist, which mostly eschews the hits in favor of drawing on comparatively more obscure chestnuts from Gabriel’s catalog. The new arrangements are also interesting enough on a first listen. They just don’t resonate deeply enough to warrant those repeat listens.
I dunno’ Pete, maybe an unplugged concert, next time…or at least something that rocks a bit more.