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Peter Gabriel: New Blood in Berlin 2010

Ecstatic audiences at Peter Gabriel’s concerts with an orchestra
A report from the soundchecks and the shows on March 24 and 25


A full house two nights in a row at the large O2 World in Berlin – Peter Gabriel’s return to the stage met huge interest. He played only two shows in Germany on his New Blood tour 2010, both of them in Berlin near Ostbahnhof.

„Tour“ is probably too big a word, though. Peter Gabriel offered only five shows in a mere three cities. Paris, London and Berlin were treated to Gabriel’s live shows while other important places like Madrid, Rome or Vienna were left out. Gabriel’s ambition made a major tour nearly impossible: He wanted to showcase his new album Scratch My Back and some of his own songs without his band but with an orchestra of 54 heads. No drums, no guitars, only orchestra – that is what it said on posters and in advertisements. A couple of years ago Phil Collins had almost sunk his “I won’t sing” big band adventure, but this time interest and demand were higher than for Collins’ big band project.

Two shows took place in Paris before the Berlin concerts. First there was the dry run for Radio France on 20/03 and after that the official premiere at the time-honoured Palais Omnisport in Paris-Bercy. In this era of the Web 2.0 news from the performance and the set lists ran like lightning through all relevant forums, which, of course, cut the number of real surprises for the Berlin show. Many fans hoped to have an even richer concert experience by attending the soundchecks where they just might witness a surprise – after all, sometimes things happen at the soundcheck that do not make it to the live show.

Martin Klinkhardt was present at both Berlin soundchecks while Christian Gerhardts reports from the two shows. 


Wednesday 24/03/2010


Soundcheck: „Thank god it’s only a rehearsal and we’re going professional next week“ – Peter Gabriel has used this explanation quite a few times in his long live career to gloss over missed cues, broken equipment and mumbled lyrics. If you see it from that way many of us have attended Gabriel’s rehearsals. The opportunity to attend a soundcheck is much rarer, and therefore I found it very appealing when Peter Gabriel offered special tickets for his New Blood tour that combined an attractive seat with participation in the soundcheck – even though we could ‘only’ participate as much as the proverbial fly on the wall. At this point I would like to thank a good friend of mine who enabled me to have such a unique experience two nights in a row.
Berlin showed its pretty spring side. It was sunny day and, unless you stood in the wind, nice and warm already when a small group of about fourty soundcheck ticket holders assembled at the press entrance to the O2 World near Ostbahnhof; amongst them a couple of other fanclub members. Shortly after 2pm we were admitted into the foyer where our tickets and accompanying letters were carefully checked by the staff before they handed each of us a soundcheck laminate pass and a blood-red soundcheck t-shirt decorated with lots of black ears. The soundcheck laminate showed a red cross on top of blue-green thrombozytes. Most of us chose to enjoy the spring sun a bit more before we were led to the soundcheck at 3pm. 

9The staff directed us to rows 7 to 10 in the middle of block A. The orchestra were already on stage. Ben Foster was at his conductor’s stand with a laptop on his arm and instructed the musicians where and when he wanted them to play which bit in a different fashion. We had obviously arrived just in time to hear his review of the Paris show. As everybody who plays in an orchestra or sings in a choir knows, this is a long procedure and not very entertaining for an audience. Foster reminded the second violins to play the final note in bar whatsit of this and that song a bit longer, instructed the trombones to play the other passage a bit softer and so on. In between he had the sound engineer adjust his system so that the musicians could hear themselves and the other relevant instruments through their headphones. While all this was going on an elderly gentleman in dark clothes appeared stage left; had he had longer hair he could have been mistaken for Dale Newman, but the gray buzz cut and the beard clearly gave him away as Peter Gabriel himself. He gave us a friendly wave, we waved back, and then he focused his attention on the rehearsal because Ben Foster had completed discussion the details with the orchestra.
Together they rehearsed some parts from Mirrorball, and Gabriel also discussed some aspects of the visual side with someone. At one point he held something in his hand that looked like a mirrorball turned helmet. We could not hear what was supposed to happen with that, and in fact the object did not reappear for the sound check the day after.
Two young ladies had taken their places in front of the orchestra; they seemed in high spirits and obviously enjoyed their chat; then Melanie Gabriel and Ane Brun sang bits from Downside Up accompanied by the orchestra. Later they also rehearsed those parts of Signal To Noise where they took over, as it were, from the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Their vocals were, however, not put on the speakers but only on the in-ear monitors so that Ane and Melanie sang mute on the top of their lungs. Soon after that the orchestra had a break – by this point the sound check had been going on for more than one-and-a-half hours. After the break the orchestra and Peter rehearsed – in fact: played Mercy Street completely, a song that had not been part of the tour set so far… 


The concert, 24/03/10: The calm before the storm and the adrenaline rushes before the “first time” are always special moments. Our seats were in the front row, slightly to the left of Peter’s position, in a word: excellent. Small talk with other fans before the show is always so much more relaxed when you have reserved seats. The start of the show right on time showed that not only the fans but also Gabriel himself have grown older. 

1At a quarter to eight Gabriel came onstage, and suddenly the venue that had looked half-empty filled rapidly. Gabriel announced that they were going to perform the whole new album, but before that he requested our hearing for Ane Brun. At this point an LED screen stretches across the whole width of the stage, providing the backdrop for Ane’s performance. “No guitars”? Yeah right, here we have Ane playing three songs on acoustic guitar only. One of these was an idiosyncratic version of Alphaville’s classic Big In Japan the audience enjoyed very much. After only three songs there was a brief pause before Gabriel took the stage again and the LED curtain lifted. Reading German from the famous big white sheets Gabriel explained the concept of the show and how it would be structured when the orchestra suddenly broke out into a powerful Sledgehammer. Gabriel stopped them with a calm remark that “that was before, now we play Scratch My Back”, prompting much laughter and a few inappropriate interjections. While the orchestra played the first notes of “Heroes” some people would not stop calling for Red Rain or Steam. Gabriel’s face spoke volumes.
Now one cannot claim that people were deeply impressed by Gabriel’s performance of „Heroes“ on the album. The author of these lines began to fear for the strength of Peter Gabriel’s voice and worried about the live situation. The first verses did not reveal much either way, but the surprise was huge when, expecting the worst, I heard the beginning of the third verse. It was early moment of revelation. I do not remember hearing Peter Gabriel sing better and stronger – ever. This was the beginning of a wonderful, at time incredible journey.
The beginning of the concert was unobtrusive, “Heroes” and The Boy In The Bubble did not have any spectacular visuals. This changed with Mirrorball where the visual side illustrates Elbow’s lovesong very fittingly. Gabriel sings the number different and stronger than on the album. The “lift off love” bit is so strong that it towers over the orchestra – a touching moment.
Flume is rather short and does not stick in one’s memory. Listening Wind is worth while paying attention to – to both music and visuals. Gabriel has had special ideas for it. On the three screens in the background (portrait style, similar to the arrangement Genesis had on their Calling All Stations tour) three people appear. During the closing section of the song the horizontal screen moves down and up again and shows the outlines of the three people behind it – as if they received an X-ray. A very simple idea that works very well.
The performance of The Power Of The Heart is reduced even further. It is the highpoint of the album for many, and it works very well even live. Peter kept reaching into the pocket of his waistcoat during the song and his constant gaze at the teleprompters sent mixed signals – it was as if he was trying to construct the song instead of living it.

2Quite the opposite was My Body Is A Cage, another fan favourite from the album. The strong passages did not miss their mark during the show – spontaneous applause was to be expected and did occur. While you could have heard the proverbial pin drop during quiet passages, this song tore people off their seats.
The Book Of Love was what triggered the concept of Scratch My Back. The live performance of this romantic song was probably the evening’s big comic moment. Stickmen run across the four screens and illustrate the lyrics. The frequently have Gabriel’s face sitting on their shoulders, once we have stickmen ensemble consisting of Ged Lynch, David Rhodes and Tony Levin – and Gabriel pokes fun at himself in the end, when he removes the veil of his stick(wo)man bride, discovers his own face behind it and runs away screaming…
Scratch My Back begins to wind down after that, as it were, because I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, Philadelphia and Street Spirit are mainly solemn pieces. Only the obtrusive Après Moi brings some dynamics, and Gabriel tests the limits of his voice again. The last SMB song, Street Spirits, was as weak as it is on the album though the effect is of course different when you have a stage show and an audience instead of your sofa at home. It is remarkable that Gabriel performed all twelve songs of the album in the same order and without any introductions. 

3During the brief break one could hear, amongst other songs, Paul Simon’s version of Biko and Lou Reed’s cover of Solsbury Hill – but only if you happened to stand very close to the speakers.
The audience in the nearly sold-out O2 World were looking forward excitedly to the second half of the show in which Gabriel’s own songs will be played. The lights go out, the horizontal screen (lowered again) shows eagle eyes. Gabriel stands behind the screen in the left eye of the eagle and sings San Jacinto. This song has always been begging for a classical arrangement, and it is the perfect opener for the second half. The screen lifts during the song and Gabriel steps to the front again where he also sings the intense “hold the line” before the song ends as usual with Gabriel blinding the audience with a mirror.
Digging In The Dirt is one of many pieces one does not recognize straight away. Only Gabriel’s vocals betray the song, and it shows just what you can do with a song like this when you have an orchestra behind you. There are wild passages where the tuba makes an impression, and there are other sections (e.g. the chorus) that are more somber. The visuals hark back to the famous video (from 18! years ago) – they show maggots during the chorus.

4Melanie’s vocals have improved over the years, and she does not sing Downside Up all that bad. One cannot help the feeling that she could do a better job, though. Downside Up has two intriguing bits. First of all there are the visuals on the screens on which houses drift into sight upside-down and slowly assemble around a circular centre. Then there is an interesting orchestra arrangement in the OVO finale that gets the audience going.

The next song was a surprise, at least at this point in the set. Signal To Noise was played out in this concert. Gabriel decided to refine the song with an orchestra arrangement, and it being included in the New Blood set lists was a logical step. And this time it is a real live version. Without samples and playback Signal To Noise has finally moved into the olymp of Genesis(-related) classics. Even Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice was left out. Ane Brun took over his part and did it very well in her own way. The screens showed the protagonists on stage, with the images growing more and more distorted as the song progressed. The artists richly deserved standing ovations for this performance. Brilliant!


5Blood Of Eden was a kind of break. Not too spectacular and perhaps more of an opportunity to gather momentum for the next big classic, The Rhythm Of The Heat. Scepticism abounded for this song – how could Gabriel and Metcalfe manage to make a song that relies so heavily on drums work for an orchestra?

Three elements were the key: The orchestra (including a kettle drum) created a number of interesting sounds that replaced the drum kit bits in the original. Gabriel sang the song much better than 2007 and he just nailed the introductory yell on the 24th (whereas his Hamburg 2007 version sounded, according to Martin Klinkhardt, “as if the keyboards had dropped onto his feet”). The orchestra played a terrific finale when Gabriel had already left the stage – and it just tore people from their seats.
One would not necessarily have expected to hear the song after that in this context. Darkness works surprisingly well. After that Gabriel announces that the song to follow was probably well-known – and they embark on a perky version of Solsbury Hill while the audience overcame all reservations and had a ball. The orchestra even quoted bits from the Ode To Joy which brought them an extra-applause. Gabriel played with a ball-shaped camera that dangled from the ceiling, filming himself, the musicians and not least the audience. All this could be seen on the screens. After that Gabriel introduced the concert master, the singers, the conductor and John Metcalfe, too, was ‘forced’ to collect his applause before Gabriel left the stage.
He returned soon, the screens shows the plasticine shapes from the Play DVD, and the orchestra began to play again. Ben Foster had left his place to John Metcalfe. Many people knew that In Your Eyes was to follow, but you only realized it when Gabriel began to sing. Ane Brun took over the role Youssou N’Dour and a number of remarkable musicians had filled before. The audience stood and participated in the chorus in the time-honoured way. It is incredible that this song is already 24 years old.

7The same goes for the second encore, Don’t Give Up. The first notes bring cheers from the audience but when Ane Brun sang her part in the chorus they were speechless – and suddenly there is loud applause for Ane right in the middle of the song. The immediate concert experience may cause exaggerations, but this performance was definitely one of the best since Kate Bush herself had sung this song. Some would even argue that Ane outdid Kate.
Gabriel then announced an unusual way to end the concert: He wants to send the audience home with an instrumental piece, The Nest That Sailed The Sky from OVO. It is a small sensation that he has chosen this particular song to bring up the rear of the set, as it takes away all the dynamics and calms the audience down. Gabriel himself leaves the stage for this song – but reappears at the piano at the very end. He plays a couple of piano notes, then the show is over and Gabriel waves good-bye with a “Vielen Dank, alle!”. 


Thursday, 25/03/2010

Soundcheck: The soundcheck was quite similar to the one the day before. Since this was the regular show and the concert the night before had “only” been a later addition far more fans had decided to have luxury of a soundcheck ticket. Some 150 people were equipped with t-shirt and pass and led into the venue in three groups in order not to disturb the soundcheck by too much noise. This being the second show they did not do any real sound checking; basically they worked on the details again. The orchestra began with “Heroes”, then John Metcalfe wanted to try and change a few bars in My Body Is A Cage. They tried it out, liked it, and penciled the change into their sheet music. Before Gabriel arrived and began to participate in the rehearsal they played the furioso closing section of The Rhythm Of The Heat – isn’t it remarkable how a conductor manages to keep track of a whole bunch of instruments when the music gets this wild?
10Peter was welcomed with a quick applause from the audience, he bowed, and proceeded to discuss the next song he wanted to rehearse. Mercy Street sounded well, but not spot-on everywhere, and when Gabriel attempted a falsetto note on top of the music near the end of the song his voice broke off so badly that he pulled a face and quickly reached for his cup of tea. Rather unlikely that we would hear the song at that night’s show, wasn’t it? The next song Gabriel and the orchestra turned to was a big surprise. Not only did it sound as if it was ready to be performed, not only did they already have the appropriate visuals for it – but this was the very first time ever The Drop was played live. The soundcheck audience got their hopes up that The Drop just might premiere that night.
Digging In The Dirt was rehearsed next, and Melanie and Ane went through their vocals, too. Peter left the stage while the ladies worked on Downside Up. After this the string instruments went out for a break while Ben Foster and John Metcalfe worked through a number of details from Flume with the wind instruments. While this was going on Peter appeared briefly on stage again for what looked like a photo shoot [They actually filmed his brief March update for the Full Moon Club on his website; M.K.]. When the strings returned they all played Listening Wind once more. The sound check ended around half past five with a technical rehearsal for „Heroes“; as in the concert later the LED curtain remained down and Gabriel sang from behind it. Just before we were led out again Ben Foster finished the rehearsal, interestingly reminding all the musicians that „there will be a different setlist“ that night. That it would be this different, i.e. that they would play Mercy Street as well as The Drop was a pleasant surprise left to the actual show. Seeing the work that was done during the soundchecks was nothing particularly sensational – but simply being allowed to be there to see and hear all that was an exciting experience.


The concert, 25/03/10: There is not much point in rehashing the songs. There were, however, a number of special things and curiosities worth mentioning. Though the O2 World was not much fuller than the day before people took their seats much earlier on. Ane Brun's set was the same, she received more applause than the day before. There were many fans in the audience who had watched the clips from the Paris show on youtube, and Peter managed to surprise them: There was no Sledgehammer intro but the show began quietly with Gabriel standing behind the LED curtain, just like they had rehearsed it a couple of hours before. He was hard to make out because the LED screen showed the red „Heroes“ animations. The screen lifted and Gabriel moved to the front for the third verse.
He lost track of the lyrics in one or two songs, but he used the teleprompters less than the day before, or at least he was more discreet about it. His voice was as strong as the day before, and he kept drinking tea and something else from a small bottle to keep it that way. The first part was played through without special announcements, and Gabriel announced a 15 minute break after that.

8The second set brought the changes that had emerged during the soundcheck. The first of these was small but it certainly pleased many – Gabriel sang the „receive and transmit“ passage in Signal To noise loud and strong for the first time. He had left it out in Paris and for the first Berlin show which drew many critical remarks in the forums. The introductory yell for The Rhythm Of The Heat was delivered by Ane Brun instead of Peter.
Blood Of Eden was dropped, but Mercy Street was performed and Peter had no problems with his voice anymore during the song. The version was spot-on, as if the song had been written for an orchestra in the first place. Then there was a world premiere – almost eight years after the release of UP The Drop was performed live for the first time ever. It was interesting to note how the audience reacted to it: Just a few people clapped when Gabriel announced the song – but the applause afterwards was huge.
The rest of the show was basically like the day before. Peter sat down at the piano for the end of The Nest That Sailed The Sky – again almost unnoticed by the audience.



Fan meetings on both nights

An it after-show party had been organised in the (German) forum. A handful of fans met at the nearby East Side hotel to talk about the show over a nice cold drink. Many fans from abroad joined them the second night, some from Switzerland or from Italy, amongst them Mario Giammetti. He runs the Italian fanclub DUSK (with which we are have a cooperation) since the 1990s. Everybody was impressed by how good Gabriel sang and the overall verdict was very favourable.


At the end of the day...

It is not easy to place this kind of concert in Gabriel's career. Many fans did not come to the show at all because the ways to Paris, London or Berlin were too long for them, or simply because they liked neither the approach nor the album. Most people in the audience were thrilled with the show. Of course it is a kind of hazard to play such a long show with an orchestra to a rock audience, and of course many songs have some lengthy moments – that is, moments where both Gabriel's voice and the orchestra move through a quiet bit. That much was obvious even before the shows.
Interestingly, Gabriel and his New Blood Orchestra played the whole Scratch My Back album with any announcements or a „thank-you“. They did not even change the order of the songs, and it is remarkable to read in the forums that many fans have found a new approach to the album after having seen the show. 

6On previous tours Gabriel's vocals were usually not as strong as on the albums. With Scratch My Back it is exactly the other way around. Gabriel's voice is much better live than on the albums in songs like „Heroes“, Mirrorball, Après Moi, Signal To Noise and San Jacinto. Word has reached us from informed sources that Gabriel finds it hard to keep this level consistent and that it taxes his voice a lot – and that it only works in the context of just six shows. He would probably find the task impossible if this were a 20-gig tour.
The selection of songs is very good, though one can of course rate only the second half of the show. The Berlin audience were treated to the tour premiere of Mercy Street and the world live premiere of The Drop. It will probably remain Gabriel's secret, though, why Wallflower was dropped from the set after it was performed for Radio France and at the Palais Omnisports in Paris.
The mood in the audience was much different than on previous shows. Interjections were generally considered annoying, though the „Heroes“ intro was fairly „shouted apart“ with requests for Big Time or Red Rain. When Gabriel announced that they would be playing Scratch My Back first and then older material a fan yelled out for Supper's Ready. Gabriel just smiled and replied „no, not this one“. Usually it was absolutely quiet during the songs. Sometimes there was spontaneous applause during a song, for example in My Body Is A Cage and Don't Give Up.
Part of the attraction of these concerts lay in the circumstance that this show concept is (probably) a one-off. As a rock fan one now knows how loud an orchestra can play even without a rock drumkit and electric guitars. Gabriel has taken a big risk with these shows, and the risk has payed off. Everybody who knew what was coming and who really got into the concept went home with a smile on their face. It is obvious that all others either had a problem with the show – or were agreeably surprised. Peter Gabriel fits no simple description. And he is aware that not everybody will follow him when he tries out new ideas. If nothing else, he has proved that in a very impressive fashion.

by Christian Gerhardts and Martin Klinkhardt (soundchecks)
photos by Peter Schütz (show) and Christian Gerhardts (soundcheck)


links:
photo gallery (25/03/2010)


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