From his heady masked days in Genesis through many thoughtful solo albums, Peter Gabriel always has been a man of ideas. So it's worrying to see him succumb during the last year to first one and now two of the hoariest geezer-rock gimmicks: the covers album (last year's "Scratch My Back," featuring songs by Paul Simon, Neil Young and more) and the orchestral tour (the current, deceptively titled New Blood Tour).
Stepping onto the stage Monday night at Chicago's United Center, while the house lights were still up, Gabriel tried to explain. His covers album, we knew, was supposed to be half of a larger project; the second part, "I'll Scratch Yours," will feature those same artists covering Gabriel's songs in return -- if it ever happens. Gabriel admitted Monday that working with other songwriters is "like herding cats" and that the whole thing had only "sort of worked." In the meantime, however, he said he began working up some of his interpretations for an orchestra. Then some of his own songs. Pretty soon he had enough for a concert. (More than enough: Monday's show was three hours.)
The challenge in such an exercise is to reinvent the songs, not merely arrange them for a larger group of musicians. While Gabriel -- 61, balding, plump, looking like a cross between the Buddha and Billy Joel -- didn't break much of a sweat Monday night, physically or creatively, he and his fiery New Blood Orchestra managed to breathe new life into more than 20 of his compositions, some of which were genuinely renewed and exalted by the experience.
His own songs fared better in this setting than many of the covers, though he opened the show with a wonderfully ambient reading of David Bowie's "Heroes." Regina Spektor's "Apres Moi" lurched about the stage, yanked to and fro by a string section that first sawed the song into pieces then obliterated what was left in a furious fugue. It's an awkward choice for Gabriel, as is Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage," which used the violins to stab at big power chords in minor keys in an attempt to make something grandiose out of thin source material.
Gabriel introduced Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" by admitting that he'd "taken his joyous, African-filled song and drained all the Africa out of it to leave yet another miserable white man song." Indeed, he did turn Simon's upbeat ditty into a dirge, but this treatment was a true reinvention, focusing and enhancing the mournful, not-all-progress-is-worth-celebrating tone of the lyrics.
After an intermission, Gabriel found his groove, opening the second set with "San Jacinto," one of the night's most dramatic orchestral adaptations featuring a tinkling piano countermelody that transferred to the woodwinds like breezes over the natural landscapes the song describes. "Digging in the Dirt" actually found some funk in the orchestra's bottom end, complete with Gabriel clapping and whipping his microphone cord. (Such a forward-thinking audiophile ... and his microphones had cords. That cracked me up.)
"Mercy Street" trembled with triangles, "The Rhythm of the Heat" pulsed with percussion (and capped its urgent arrangement with a wild, screaming finish) and "Solsbury Hill" found not only the orchestra quoting "Ode to Joy" but Gabriel actually skipping across the stage, his first real movement away from his mike stand all evening.
As notable as what was played is what was not. No "Games Without Frontiers," no "Sledgehammer" or "Big Time" -- though the beloved "So" album (getting a deluxe 25th anniversary reissue shortly) was well-represented, including "Red Rain," surprisingly one of the clunkiest arrangements, hamfisted like a florid TV theme, and "In Your Eyes," which received lovely, halting strings throughout the verses.
In the middle of another of Gabriel's introductory anecdotes, some yahoo in the crowd shouted for "Shock the Monkey." "I'm trying to give that up," Gabriel quipped. "It makes you go blind."
The orchestra deserved its three ovations throughout the night, conducted by Ben Foster (and arranged by John Metclafe, who conducted one song, "In Your Eyes"). In the end, it was a mildly creative, very adult evening that could have (should have?) taken place at Symphony Center.
Peter Gabriel's set list Monday night:
"Heroes" (David Bowie)
"Apres Moi" (Regina Spektor)
"The Boy in the Bubble" (Paul Simon)
"My Body Is a Cage" (Arcade Fire)
"Washing of the Water"
"Digging in the Dirt"
"Signal to Noise"
"The Rhythm of the Heat"
"Blood of Eden"
"In Your Eyes"
"Don't Give Up"
"The Nest That Sailed the Sky"