A covers album is a hard sell for any artist, but for art rocker Peter Gabriel? Harder, if anything. The real juice from the “Scratch My Back” project (in which Gabriel trades covers with other artists) is the “New Blood” show. The North American leg of his world tour, which launched April 28 in Montreal, rolled into Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, where Gabriel performed the entire record with a 54-piece orchestra. As on the album, a bombastic interpretation of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” is better than his version of, say, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Overall, the pensive tone Gabriel offers on the record is replaced with some welcome ferocity.
The best performances in the set aren’t necessarily the most intuitive ones. Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt has a warm bass voice, but when Gabriel wailed Merritt’s “The Book of Love” in his trademark rasping tenor, the song took on a whole new dimension. Gabriel also punched into Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” an affecting song even without the afrobeat trappings that ran through Simon’s album “Graceland.”
Renaissance-man arranger John Metcalfe has written gratifyingly complex orchestrations for Gabriel’s own songs as well. Standout compositions included a multipart ambient arrangement for David Bowie’s “Heroes,” but the high point was the performer’s standard, “Solsbury Hill,” which topped off the second set with a soaring interpolation of Beethoven’s 9th. Conductor Ben Foster is manifestly worth whatever Gabriel’s team is paying him.
Tech aspects were incredible, especially sound. With a smaller band, the act could have simply blasted its way out of Radio City, but Gabriel’s tech team lived up to its reputation, keeping violin levels from interfering with flute levels, etc. Oddly, the only casualty of all this careful parsing out of frequencies was Gabriel himself, who occasionally drowns in the orchestra. He seems to prefer it that way — during the encore’s instrumental send-off (“The Nest That Sailed the Sky”), the musical multihyphenate was content simply to play the piano.
Orchestra was composed of musicians who play for various local entities, including the New York Philharmonic, and will be reassembled with -area performers for the show at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday.