CAMDEN, NJ—The renowned father of World Beat, singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel appeared at this 25,000-seat venue which serves the greater Philadelphia area on his New Blood Tour, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra. Apparently Gabriel, who in decades past founded the prog-rock band Genesis, has abandoned rock music for the moment employing arranger John Metcalf to transform his songs into the modern classical style resembling the orchestral works of Leonard Bernstein and other 20th Century composers. Always a social activist for progressive causes, Gabriel has intensified his discussion of political issues, using the stage as a pulpit from which to preach his vision of third-world justice and liberation philosophy.
Norwegian songstress, and vocally delicate, blonde beauty Ane Brun opened with two of her own folk-rock songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.
A dazzling, brilliant, ever-changing and spectacularly lit video screen served as a curtain which slowly lifted away during Gabriel’s heavy, melancholy version of Bowie’s “Heroes,” with images of third world strife shown on a pair of twenty-foot high screens that straddled the stage.
Aside from his morose rendition of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” and “Diggin’ In the Dirt,” I wasn’t familiar with many other songs in the first half of the show. Perhaps I didn’t recognize them in the symphonic style in which they were played, featuring relentless, often-discordant, full string section accompaniment and with no semblance of a rock beat. Guitars were absent, and the only drums seemed to be the timpani. Between songs, Gabriel, who remained heavy-hearted for most of the show, praised the triumph of legalization of same sex marriage in New York.
A coincidental fireworks display over the Delaware drew the attention of many during the half-hour break. Gabriel lamented that he had hoped to sing his mantra-like encomium to South African martyr Steve Biko accompanied by the sounds of the nearby explosions, but that didn’t work out. Most spectators returned to their seats during “San Jacinto,” which was the first number after the intermission. The ultra-close-up face of a wild animal, perhaps a wolf, blended with his own countenance on the video display, and we knew that it had something to do with animal rights or ecology.
The first really upbeat song of the night was “Secret World,” and it came as a welcome relief from all the somber topics and sounds. Gabriel soon continued with his liturgy of liberal causes invoking the names of poets and psychoanalysts, often in the context of encounters with noble, indigenous cultures. He showed a touching, grainy black and white video of himself with his now 99-year-old father during a heart-breaking rendition of “Father Son.”
Ever topical, he introduced a ponderous version of “Signal To Noise” with a jocular commentary about the pervasiveness of cell phones in this day and age. But then the gloomy “Mercy Street,” with its mysterious aquatic-themed video, continued to bring people down to a contemplative state. Joy returned to the audience during the inappropriately exuberant “Red Rain,” which was played while the video showed scary, primitively-drawn cartoons of red droplets coming from clouds, from eyes in the sky. He ended the second set skipping his thick frame across the stage to the thundering of “Solsbury Hill.”
An encore set included the relatively cheerful “In Your Eyes” followed by a doleful “Don’t Give Up,” which he explained was dedicated to the suffering of the Great Depression, which he added was to be blamed on “the magnificent work of the banks.” Ane Brun, who served as one of the backup vocalists during the whole concert, took on the role sung by Kate Bush in the original.
Drawing to a close, he struck an optimistic chord by bringing up what he perceives to be the realistic possibility of endless clean energy through fusion, something he was promised was due to go online with a year.
His final number, “The Nest That Sailed The Skies,” was purely instrumental, showing a video of a child curled in fetal position in a straw bird’s nest, spinning gently as an obvious metaphor for the Earth that Gabriel so badly wants us to revere and preserve.