Peter Gabriel’s never been one to rest on his laurels. Not content with attaining prog rock immortality as the front man of Genesis back in the 60s and 70s, he’s spent the past few decades experimenting with all manner of musical styles, involved himself with political activism and even found time to pioneer new ways of distributing music over the internet. And there's evidently plenty of energy left in him yet, judging by last night’s performance at the Mermaid Theatre in Blackfriars.
Gabriel was in town to record a session for Radio 2 in Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra, running through a series of tracks culled from his back catalogue. There were some overlaps with his latest album, New Blood, which is an orchestral precis of the less obvious portions of his solo career, but in addition to the New Blood material we were treated to a varied set that took in hits, live favourites and even a cover.
Jo Whiley introduced proceedings, urging the crowd to go wild and enjoy themselves, in spite of the Mermaid’s rather grand surroundings. Not that the audience needed much encouragement, mind you: fans posting on Gabriel’s website spoke of queuing from 4pm for this one-off performance and the anticipation in the room was palpable, with all eyes anxiously scanning the red-lit stage for signs of the visionary singer.
The place erupted when Gabriel hit the stage, and he returned the crowd’s love, thanking everyone present for being a part of a unique event. Clad unpretentiously in a flannel shirt and fleece, he opened the set with a swelling rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes, which showcased the lush, rich sound of the orchestra to perfection.
Helped in no small way by the spot-on acoustics of the venue, the new orchestral versions of Gabriel’s songs sounded brilliantly arranged, conducted and played, and even a track like Rhythm of the Heat, which climaxes with lots of tribal drumming on the studio version, worked in its new arrangement, with the strings players tapping out the track’s beat on their instruments. Power chords were replaced by slashing violins and synthesiser effects made way for inventive orchestration, with the interplay between the strings and glockenspiel on Red Rain being particularly effective.
Despite the concert being recorded for radio, there was a relaxed, celebratory air to proceedings, with Gabriel introducing many of his songs with anecdotes about his life experiences, and winking knowingly at the audience when a fan favourite was imminent, as he did before belting out a storming rendition of Secret World. Even a violinist’s fluff at the start of Red Rain was acknowledged with a laugh and a nod by the performer.
There was a strong sense of family to the show as well, which was enhanced by the intimate nature of the venue. Gabriel dedicated Father, Son to his Dad, an already emotional song that sounded twice as heart-rending with an orchestral backing, and then revealed that one of the backing singers, sporting a baby bump, was his daughter, who would be performing alongside him for the last time at this concert.
By the time he’d worked his way through fan favourites like Downside Up, Signal to Noise and Mercy Street, there was just time for Gabriel to lead the audience through a fist-pumping rendition of Biko before the place erupted again at the sound of the opening chords to Solsbury Hill. Gabriel’s Ministry of Silly Walks-esque marching around the stage during the song drew rounds of applause and catcalls and by the tune's end, everyone was on their feet. He could’ve called it a night there and then, but returned to the stage for a three-song encore that capped off a special evening nicely.
Alas, his 80s hits like Sledgehammer and Big Time were missing from the setlist, but last night’s show was a stirring, captivating performance from a musician who even at the age of 61 is still at the top of his game. The concert’s going to be broadcast tonight from 8pm, and if you’re at all interested in Gabriel’s work, you’d be well advised to tune in.
Signal to Noise
Rhythm of the Heat
In Your Eyes
Don’t Give Up
Listen to Peter Gabriel in concert tonight at 8pm on BBC Radio 2