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The moment of truth: Gabriel's orchestra tour premieres in Paris

New Blood: Peter Gabriel plays Scratch My Back live for the first time with a full orchestra on a radio show to an audience of 600

Radio France's broadcasting centre is located directly on the Seine river near the Eiffel tower. It is a very modern building with layout that resembles the Greek letter omega. Situated directly behind the luxurious lobby with lots of glass is studio 104, a modern studio with seats for some 600 people on two levels. The upper tier is very steep so that everybody in the audience can see the stage very well. It was probably the past that prompted Peter Gabriel to kick off his New Blood tour in this place: In 2002 he began his (Still) Growing Up world tour with a couple of special „warm up“ concerts, one of which was a radio concert in this very same studio. 

This time around tickets were given out through a lottery on Gabriel's website or directly from Radio France.

At 7:50 Peter came on stage to introduce a brief solo performance by a Norwegian guest vocalist. Ane Brun accompanied herself on the acoustic guitar and sang two songs, one of them a rather idiosyncratic version of Alphaville's Big In Japan. 

At 8:05 the musicians fo the Radio France symphonic orchestra took their seat. It had leaked out beforehand that Gabriel would not play this gig with his own orchestra though he is going to play the first proper show in Paris in two days' time with his own ensemble.

foto1Technical issues with the microphone made it difficult for the Radio France presenter to introduce the show, but then the conductor and Peter Gabriel took the stage. Gabriel stood where the singers usually stand during operatic concerts. i.e. in the middle of the left half of the stage. He announced that they would play the new album as a whole in one go. So the show began with „Heroes“ in the same peculiar arrangement as on the album. From the third song onwards Gabriel was supported by his daughter Melanie and Ane Brun as co-singers; they stood on the right-hand side of the stage. The breaks between the songs were very brief, apparently intentionally so. None of the songs were formally introduced. The orchestra played very focused and a bit wooden. Particularly the songs that focused on rhythm seemed quite difficult for them. Listening Wind, for example, was a bit less impressive than it could have been, but they caught on at The Power Of The Heart and from then on the 50 musicians visible enjoyed the show. The first half of the concert was much more entertaining than the album; one almost had the impression as if the songs had been shortened a bit. After 45 minutes of Scratch My Back and an encouraging applause Gabriel announced that there would be a brief interval after which they would play some older pieces. This was where the show got real exciting, especially since there had been lots of speculation about Gabriel's choice of own songs.

After 20 minutes the concert continued with quiet piano notes that turned out to be San Jacinto. An obvious choice for a symphonic orchestra, and the arrangement was very good, but not really surprising. The next song was an enigma – only the vocals revealed it was Digging In The Dirt in a very exciting and surprisingly fitting arrangement full of (dis)harmonies.

Wallflower was a song many had reckoned with, and Gabriel even introduced it. He then had some unexpected problems when he tried to move into the middle sections two bars early. He broke off, shook his head, sang another „hold on“ and added that this was just another expression for „fuck-up“ - he had the laughs on his side. One could almost feel a bit sorry for the concert pianist, certainly one of the best, because he only had to play what Gabriel would play on the piano himself during other shows. He seemed quite underchallenged for most of the time.

Downside Up was the next song; it confirmed that Melanie Gabriel has no potential for solo vocals. Signal To Noise was far more impressive. Lots of dissonances created a threatening atmosphere. The orchestra were in full cry. Peter Gabriel left the stage during the final crescendo for a break while Melanie sang Washing Of The Water alone. Alas, her singing left much to be desired; it would have been kind of okay in a rock context but on stage with all these highly professional serious musicians her performance seemed out of place. Gabriel returned for Blood Of Eden. The song was less impressive because the orchestra took over the synthesizer parts from the studio version – synth parts that imitated an orchestra anyway.

Foto2The Rhythm Of The Heat was spectacular; hardly anybody had this song on their list because it relies heavily on the drums. It was astonishing to see and hear that violas, cellos and double basses played the rhythms spot-on. They hit the strings with all they had and the kettle drum provided an impressive foundation. The first double bass in particular was very active, though Tony Levin's bass line seemed to be quite tricky. When the song approached its climax it was clear to see that the musicians had lots of fun with this unusual performance. Lots of dynamics could also be enjoyed during Darkness – another unexpected choice that worked remarkably well, too. Solsbury Hill turned into a relaxed happening amonst enthusiastic standing ovations. It was increcible to see how easy they interpreted this classic. Gabriel jumped from one side of the stage to the other. The orchestra also snuck the tune from Beethoven's Ode To Joy into the euphoric closing section. It fit very well and surprised everybody.

The orchestra remained seated which indicated that there would be some encores. Ane Brun took over Youssou's part during In Your Eyes and did a great interpretation of it.

Ane Brun also added her special, slightly shaky voice to the final song, Don't Give Up. The finale of the show was an instrumental from OVO, probably The Nest That Sailed The Sky – it was difficult to identify because of the changes in the arrangement. Gabriel had left the stage before this. The orchestra nevertheless followed a good old Gabriel tradition of ending a show: the arrangement grew smaller and smaller, the brass group first turned off the lights on their music stands, and by and by the violins, too, turned off their lights. For some seconds the conductor was the only one who was illuminated in complete silence. It took a while until the well-deserved applause began. Long standing ovations and a relaxed Peter Gabriel ended an unusual radio show and left open the question how much this concert has in common with the other shows on the tour.

This was a fantastic evening's entertainment. The concert was, as usual with Peter Gabriel, very interesting and very entertaining, despite the lack of a stage show and the sparse light effects. I found it particularly exciting to watch the musicians intently at their job and to feel how the strong tension at the beginning gave way to a relaxed but always focused ease. The audience was brimming with enthusiasm in the second half, and everybody's relief at finding that the new arrangements worked so well was almost palpable. At the end one had the distinct feeling of having witnessed a very special moment.

The sound in the studio was extremely good. Except for a few minor issues you can never avoid in a live situation the audience was offered a perfect mixture with breathtaking dynamics.

Unfortunately the security were quite alert during the show. At least one taper got caught, another had to hide his equipment under the seat – one should not expect too much of any bootleg recordings, should any surface. It remains to be hoped that the radio programmes created from this unique concert will not be edited and cut too much. 


The Boy In The Bubble
Listening Wind
The Power Of The Heart
My Body Is A Cage
The Book Of Love
I Think It's Going To Rain Today
Après Moi
Street Spirit (Fade Out)

- 15 Minuten Pause -

San Jacinto
Digging In The Dirt
Downside Up
Rhythm Of The Heat
Blood Of Eden
Signal To Noise
Washing Of The Water (Melanie solo)
Solsbury Hill
In Your Eyes
Don't Give Up
The Nest That Sailed The Sky

by Tom Morgenstern (also photos)
translated by Martin Klinkhardt