Peter Gabriel – New Blood: Live in London DVD (2011)

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I was fine, mostly, with Peter Gabriel dumping the guitars and drums for his interpretations of other people’s work on Scratch My Back. There was considerably less excitement, though, for these looming orchestral interpretations of his own solo works, many of which were initially defined by their rhythmic invention.

Tracks like “Intruder,” “Solsbury Hill,” “Red Rain,” “Digging in the Dirt,” “Signal to Noise,” even “In Your Eyes,” on Gabriel’s soon-to-be-released New Blood: Live in London DVD were so closely associated with the serpentine grooves and frisky cadences of their original forms, it felt like a middle-aged cop out to accept them in this decelerated string-arranged form — like giving in. So, forgive me if I skipped right to those moments that seemed like a more natural fit for The Concept, as Gabriel explored delicately wrought ballads like “Wallflower,” “Biko,” “Mercy Street,” “Blood of Eden” and, in particular, “San Jacinto” — a shattering meditation on the experience of Native Americans as their culture was ultimately subsumed.

It would be here, I suspected, that the promise of this chamber-music adaptation would be most fully realized. And, to a degree, that’s true: “Blood of Eden,” from one of Gabriel’s most inwardly gazing recordings, is well served by this more ruminative, piano-driven setting. If anything, “Biko,” paced now like the beat of a broken heart, becomes a more considered indictment of the murder of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. “Wallflower” changes little, since it was originally a just-as-starkly played rebuttal to the way Latin American political prisoners were being treated in the 1980s. But “San Jacinto” is given an almost translucent new backing arrangement, transforming it into a vocal feature for Gabriel — and, happily, he’s still up to the emotional challenge. When the tune makes its dramatic third-quarter turn (“I hold the line!”), Gabriel cries with knifing power.

Not all of it works, of course. “Mercy Street,” missing the propulsive undercurrent of the original, loses something valuable in the telling. But you begin to see what drew Gabriel to this musical setting in the first place.

Of course, eventually, I had to go back to see how those other tunes fared, and here is where the New Blood: Live in London DVD defines its broader shape as an important moment of reconsideration for Gabriel — rather than the typical cash grab that most self-cover projects eventually reveal themselves to be.

I could have scarcely imagined the impact of Gabriel’s thrumming string section, billowing up behind him like cumulus, as he performed “Red Rain.” Meanwhile, “Intruder,” which always felt like the unused music for a particularly bloody scene in a slasher flick, has somehow taken on an even darker portent. “Digging in the Dirt” rumbles along with a brassy, avant-garde musculature, while “Signal to Noise” is simply unraveled — exposing deeper fears about an ever-changing world that lay just beneath the initial track’s tougher defense mechanism. “In Your Eyes” is also borne anew in this context, sounding more like a love song in the traditional sense of the word, but also more timeless: like a deeply expressed sentiment from any age. Even “Solsbury Hill,” which initially comes off a reedy shadow of its former self, eventually succeeds — though, admittedly, that’s a credit to the way the crowd’s enthusiastic claps and sing-along vocals at London’s HMV Hammersmith Apollo serve to reanimate the tune.

I didn’t come in expecting much, and — as intriguing as the Bad Blood: Live in London DVD is — I didn’t hear anything that sounded more definitive than what had come before. Still, I left with a deeper appreciation for what Gabriel is trying to do with his music these days. He growing older, whether we’re ready for that or not. And he’s doing it very, very gracefully.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Peter Gabriel’s CD companion piece to this film, simply called ‘New Blood,’ proved far more pleasing than his previous effort, last year’s ‘Scratch My Back’.]

Peter Gabriel’s two-and-a-half hour New Blood: Live in London DVD, set for release on Oct. 25 by Eagle Vision on DVD and Blu-Ray, comes complete with lasers, animation and Ane Brun performing the Kate Bush part on “Don’t Give Up.” There’s also a triple-pack 3D release, and a deluxe limited edition that comes as an 11-and-a-half inch hardback photobook containing the live DVD and Blu-ray, the New Blood CD and an exclusive CD of live tracks from these shows, which were held March 23-24, 2011 at the HMW Hammersmith Apollo in London. John Metcalfe was musical director and orchestrator.

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