Micky and I went to see Peter Gabriel with the New Blood Orchestra last night at Summerfest. It was undoubtedly one of the best and most unusual concerts I have ever been to. Back when I was a low-grade orchestral musician, I used to dread the concerts with celebrity musicians. It was always a bit like being pimped out for the sake of publicity and money. The orchestrations were generally kind of vapid, with the strings and brass being treated like synth pads and stabs and the electric instruments invariably overpowering the orchestra.
This was very different. The New Blood Orchestra is a fairly traditional 50-piece romantic orchestra, made up of about 50% UK players and 50% local musicians. While Gabriel is known for a pretty "healthy" ego, he is also known for making sure the musicians he works with receive the credit they are due. During the concert, he repeatedly acknowledged the concert master, just as is common in the classical world. He at one point introduced all of his travelling musicians by name, and the Milwaukee musicians as a group. One of the Milwaukee players, the bassoonist, was featured prominently on "Biko" and several other pieces. Not since "Tears of a clown" has a bassoonist gotten such choice rock props.
The orchestrations were nothing short of amazing. His arranger, John Metcalfe, appeared to be playing second Viola last night, but we'll forgive him for that. ;-) I was absolutely blown away by the complexity and power of the arrangements, which seemed to take into account both an intimate knowledge of Gabriel's discography and the abilities and limitations of an orchestra. At times, the arrangments seemed to make nods towards Reich, Glass and Stravinsky. Apparently, they had been working up new arrangements during the tour. "Secret World," which is off the "Us" album, was only being performed for the third time and was, in my opinion, the best piece of the night.
Gabriel and his New Blood team have succeeded in finding a way to combine the power and sonic versatility of an orchestra with the energy and passion of Gabriel's songwriting. He managed to do it while respecting the integrity of the orchestral tradition. I am very much looking forward to the release of the studio album based on the tour this fall.