Peter Gabriel, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Nick Hasted
Thursday 31 March 2011 00:00

Peter Gabriel's typically ambitious and playful notion of swapping cover versions with admired peers resulted in Scratch My Back, his 2010 album of stately interpretations of Radiohead, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire and others. Tonight's show with the New Blood Orchestra applies the same reflective approach to Gabriel's own songbook. They show consistent conscience, expressed in a voice of gravelly, intellectual English soul.

Current events keep attaching themselves to these old songs, because struggles against violent injustice don't stop. "Wallflower" mourns flesh and bone's helplessness against sickness or superior, oppressive powers, Gabriel whispering the simple limits of salvation: "We do what we can do". Paul Simon's breezy "The Boy in the Bubble" becomes in his hands, he wryly admits, "another song from a miserable white guy." But as he picks out its words for inspection, Simon's 1986 description of bombs attached to babies' prams in a wondrous world carved up by "a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires" seems prescient. Gabriel introduces "Biko" by comparing the ANC martyr to "many young men now", standing up though it kills them.

The New Blood Orchestra add sometimes blowsy romantic power. Choppy brass crescendos around Gabriel's howl in "Après Moi", suspended strings catch the mood of transitory helplessness in the in-flight nightmare "The Drop". Gabriel's own stagecraft starts almost imperceptibly, leaning on a mic-stand like it's a bar-stool. But in a second half drawing on his most popular work, "Solsbury Hill" sees him skip across the stage, the waistcoated squire of conscious West Country prog. And then there's "Don't Give Up", minus Kate Bush, but brimming with the stunned pride of a laid-off worker. It's the highlight of the small reservoir of 1980s English resistance songs, sadly apt again. Gabriel doesn't give up either. His cerebral, committed adult pop still has a place.

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