Saturday, May 26, 2012


A two-CD live set from Gabriel's most recent project, which sees him take the usual guitar, drums, keys and bass out of his band, and instead work with a symphony.  Here he delves into his back catalogue for dynamic new versions, plus has a run at some of the cuts from his Scratch My Back project, which saw him cover different songwriters (he's still waiting for finished tracks of his cuts from the same folks, to finish that cycle).  Gabriel has toured a lot more of late than he's released studio albums, and each one usually features a live DVD, so we've seen an awful lot of his old hits.  Luckily, he knows how to change the stage show around, usually involving elaborate sets and costumes.  This time though, the music speaks for itself.

Now I'm as much of a fan of the basic rock lineup as anyone, but I don't quite buy into the need to always make rock music that way.  That form gathered a mythology thanks to the embrace of The Beatles and Stones, through to garage bands, punks, and latter-day punks, and the critics that hailed them.  Any use of strings and such was, for a long time, considered too fancy.  Thankfully, tons of indie artists these days bring in any kind of instrument, and it's a lot easier to record them now as well, and cheaper.  Having said that, you still have to have deep pockets to take a real orchestra on stage, but Gabriel of course does, so why not?  It's certainly a winning result here.

The Gabriel-Orchestra project started with studio versions on the 2011 album New Blood, and it was a good effort, but I'll argue it works much better live.  There's nothing quite as exciting as a full orchestra playing live, and hearing Gabriel adapt his singing to work in the concert setting is thrilling.  The arrangements stick closely to the originals melodies, but that's okay, we (okay, me) already love the songs, and the big difference is hearing a string section replace what a synth was doing before, and dynamic reeds and percussion take the place of bass and drums.  There are some dramatic differences, such as the tremendous new arrangement of The Rhythm Of The Heat, and its often the oldest Gabriel material that receives the new tricks.  Of course, those early songs of his tending toward the dramatic, a holdover from his Genesis days.  But there's still a freshness with the warhorses from the So album, such as Red Rain and Mercy Street, which we get to hear with new ears.  There's also subtlety when needed; his version of Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble, as first heard on Scratch My Back, has a bare accompaniment, slowed down so we can focus on the lyrics, something Simon never did.  And Gabriel's take on Lou Reed's The Power Of The Heart shows it to be a remarkable song, truly one of the most accomplished love songs I've ever heard, in this version.

Quibbles:  only one really, and that's the other vocalists.  His daughter Melanie and Ane Brun are featured prominently, and I find both of them weak and distracting.  In other settings they are no doubt fine singers, but they don't seem to have the oomph for orchestra work.  But at well over two hours, I found I never tired of the treatments.  Now, who else could afford to do this, where it would add some new blood to old tunes?  Bowie perhaps, if he ever comes out of retirement.  U2?  Hmm...  It's getting me thinking.

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