On April 29th, 2010 I went to Montreal to see Peter Gabriel. He was touring in support of an album of all cover songs set to orchestral music called Scratch My Back. I’ve long been a fan of Peter Gabriel’s solo career and the few times I had seen him live before this (twice?) were nothing short of astounding.
The show opened with a brief set by one of the backup singers Peter Gabriel was using for this tour, a Norwegian singer-songwriter named Ane Brun. I found her set pleasant and appropriately demure for the show she was opening, though not at all eventful or overly memorable.
Peter Gabriel was using the same instrumentation he had used for his album, in this case it was the Montreal Symphonic Orchestra (or, more accurately, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal) with nary a standard rock instrument in sight.
For the first set he played the new album, lush recreations of songs by Paul Simon, Radiohead, The Talking Heads, Neil Young, local heroes Arcade Fire and several others. The tunes were more hit than miss and I particularly loved his version of Bon Iver’s Flume. They completely nailed it; Gabriel and his orchestral arranger succeeded in elevating an already great, if obscure song to a level I’m sure even the original composer could not have imagined. Also of note was Paul Simon’s Boy In the Bubble, which by itself was great enough to have been worth the price of admission, no matter how critical I might start getting.
The second set and encore had Gabriel singing his own material with the orchestra backing him, much of it obscure (to me at least) with a fair smattering of classic Gabriel thrown in (the encore included Don’t Give Up and In Your Eyes). And though I was happy to have seen it all I found the arrangements really disappointing. I’m convinced that some guitar player or piano player with a good ear, adequate reading skills and little or no orchestrating experience convinced Gabriel that he or she would be up to the task and they failed miserably. The arrangements were across-the-board literal transcriptions of Peter Gabriel’s songs passed around to different orchestra sections. There were no sweeping violin lines or clever ‘cello rearrangements, no brilliant bass bits beneath hidden viola strokes of genius hidden in the harmony. Nope, someone just listened to Gabriel’s albums, learned the guitar parts and handed them to three-quarters of the string section, handed the bass parts verbatim to the bass section and distributed the keyboards and incidental parts amongst the rest of the orchestra.
It was pretty disappointing, if only because it could have been so very brilliant if the job had been put to the hands of someone more experienced. It was easily the least of his concerts that I’ve seen when it could have been the greatest. But like I always say: you won’t know if you don’t go, and this show in no way diminishes my desire to see Peter Gabriel again.
That is, so long as he’s playing with his standard rock outfit.