wed 24/07/2024

Peter Gabriel, Hammersmith Apollo | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Gabriel, Hammersmith Apollo

Peter Gabriel, Hammersmith Apollo

Veteran performer comes close to fulfilling prog rock's greatest ambition

Peter Gabriel: From prog to pop and back again

If you just knew him from the pop and world-music part of his career you might struggle to believe that Peter Gabriel was once considered to be synonymous with everything that was white and stiff in music. His Genesis work, all public-school poetry and am-dram costumes, not only practically invented prog rock, but also spawned its most infamous practitioner, Marillion. By “Sledgehammer” and “Steam”, however, Gabriel had fully switched sides of his brain. That was, however, until last year when he revisited prog by replacing his touring band with an orchestra. Not everyone was impressed.

The gripe was that rather than access the heart of the songs, it was just all a little dull. Judging from the PR bumph, it seems that Gabriel heard what critics had said, reworking the arrangements and visuals. An album of these arrangements of his songs, New Blood, will be available later in the year (last night’s concert was also being filmed).

Personally I have always loved Gabriel being white and stiff. In fact there’s part of me that’s never going to be happy unless he turns up dressed as a flower and sings “Supper’s Ready”. There’s also part of me that considers “Sledgehammer” to be one of the most perfect pop songs ever written. I still had concerns this concert wouldn’t work. I needn’t. Last night he produced an extraordinary night of music that came within a whisker of something more..

Gabriel the pop star didn’t show up. Anyone, for instance, expecting a funky grandpa in a Lady Gaga suit (see recent performance of “Sledgehammer” below) may have wanted a refund after 10 minutes. What we got instead was Gabriel the prog rocker having a crack at symphonic music. It worked for two reasons. Firstly, the set drew significantly on the more avant-garde corners of his repertoire. And secondly, John Metcalfe’s arrangements mainly avoided the film-music and Beatles-esque clichés that can make orchestral pop a dirty word.


Watch a clip of Peter Gabriel performing "Sledgehammer"

The audience knew what they had come for.  There were occasional cries for “Harold the Barrel”, a Genesis favourite, but none for the pop classic “Steam”. We got neither. First up was the sinister “Intruder”, all pizzicato strings and Philip Glass-isms. A similar note was struck by “Wallflower”. Gabriel, wearing a kind of Muumuu looked stately, and was largely static. Behind him were his New Blood Orchestra, headphones strapped on as if they were in a studio. To his left were backing singers Ane Brun and daughter Melanie (anyone hankering after Genesis only had to look at her to see the spitting image of Gabriel circa 1974 wearing his wife’s dress on stage). Above and behind the stage were a spectacular series of projections – lasers, films, animations and slogans.

Gabriel’s plaintive baritone was perfect for "The Book of Love"The sound was good but not perfect. The lead voice was mixed noticeably low at points. But the performances were consistently excellent. Gabriel may not have the most conventional voice but he has always been able to give exactly what he gives on record on stage, just with a little added emotion. The only really turgid moment came at the beginning of the covers section with “Boy in the Bubble”. But Regina Spektor’s "Après moi", with its classical Russian underpinnings, was very happy with an orchestra, and Gabriel’s plaintive baritone was perfect for "The Book of Love". The dynamics over the first half could have been a little more varied but "Biko", timely with the current Middle East uprisings, and recast as a bolero, was a fine end.

“Blood of Eden” and “Red Rain” may have milked a little too much sentiment, but after two hours of intense emotion who could begrudge that?

The second half was a little lighter. Highlights were "San Jacinto", more delicate than the original, and "Digging in the Dirt", whose chamber-orchestra approach made the strings rock. “Rhythm of the Heat” showed how to orchestrate African music without descending into The Lion King. Gabriel was beginning to loosen up now too, moving in his trademark skips around the stage. “Blood of Eden” and “Red Rain” may have milked a little too much sentiment, but after two hours of intense emotion who could begrudge that? I doubt there was a dry eye in the house for the de facto closer “Don’t Give Up”, where Ane Brun owned the Kate Bush part.

It’s hard to know how well this is all going to translate to the CD, or worse how all that enormous sound is going to compress into an MP3. But last night Peter Gabriel came to within a millimetre of pulling off prog’s greatest ambition: two and a half hours of flawless rock symphony.

There’s part of me that’s never going to be happy unless he turns up dressed as a flower and sings “Supper’s Ready”

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Unlucky phrase that of calling Marillion an infamous PG's prog rock spawn... really shows a poor criteria. I did not read further after that. Marillion is not a band that imitated Genesis. Fish had a terrific singing style which was, fairly enough, compared to PG's, which was terrific as well... but they were really quite different. Listen to the music and you'll agree. Then Hogarth took Fish's role for Marillion and did it brilliantly... again, listen to the music. We can speculate many reasons behind Marillion having been misvalued by prog rock fans (the 80's, a first record with Hogarth that was a bit too pop, Genesis turning pop, resistance to change, pretending to be cool by sticking to "classic" prog rock, etc.)... Yet, for those open to listen to what Marillion has created for the last 30 years, there is a lot of great music, pretty prog rock, to be found. Needless to say, indeed, all opinions are to be respected. Cheers!

I agree the sound was only good, it was perfect at the O2 last year, I wish he had that filmed in 3D. Anyway it was still bloody marvellous...!

So you post an article about an orchestral backed concert, and put up a video clip of a song that barely has any noticeable orchestral backing?

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