Peter Gabriel has always been a difficult musician to pin down and label. The 61 year old Englishman has had quite the illustrious career, notably founding Genesis (for which he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for in 2010) in 1967, and then branching off into a very successful solo career in 1977 which would eventually result in some of the most definitive 80’s songs such as “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes.” More recently, Gabriel has expanded his sound even further, releasing Scratch My Back in 2010, which was made up entirely of covers from artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Regina Spektor, and Neil Young backed by a full orchestra rather than guitars, drums and other elements more commonly found in his repertoire. Gabriel’s latest release, New Blood, brings back the full orchestra and re-interprets material that was written throughout his career.
This new sound was on full display last night at the Ed Sullivan Theatre for the latest installment of the Live on Letterman series. A 46-member orchestra completely filled the storied-stage as the audience took to their seats. Part of what makes the Live on Letterman series so great is the intimacy of the setting; no seat is far from the stage and the acoustics are phenomenal; CBS does a great job in transferring these qualities to the homes of fans around the world via webcast.
Peter Gabriel walked down the aisle promptly at 9 pm as the orchestra began playing “Red Rain.” The sound in the Ed Sullivan Theatre was perfectly suited for the full orchestral sound which complemented Gabriel’s carrying voice very well. The string section in particular was in full effect for the opening track and the use of less typical percussion instruments added completely new elements to the song.
Aside from when Gabriel first entered and after each track, the audience was mostly seated which gave the entire performance an even more casual vibe. Gabriel would talk between every song, often about the origins of the songs, but also tying them into political context and injustices which he has put a lot of effort into raising awareness of. Many of the songs seem to have been reworked with heavier Arabic or African overtones in these instances to strengthen the connections.
Although one may expect a set that is being streamed around the globe and partially televised to include some of his most recognizable hits, we were spared for the most part in favor of material from New Blood. Gabriel did however acknowledge this later on as he introduced a song that we may be more familiar with in “Solsbury Hill.” The crowd quickly rose to their feet for this hit, which was played with a much lighter tone than many of the other songs of the evening. Gabriel also seemed most animated during this song, engaging with the audience much more and inviting them to participate in the chorus’s “boom, boom, boom;” which only added to the thunderous effect tympanis.
It was definitely a treat to see such an acclaimed artist perform in this kind of environment. The orchestra added an entirely new dimension to Gabriel’s catalog of work, not only by rearranging tracks, but by adding layers and layers of instrumentation. While it may not have been the same way that we’re used to experiencing his music, this performance provided much insight as to how he has solidified himself as a music icon.
Words from Jesse Zryb
Photos courtesy of CBS Radio