When the O2 Arena was infamous as the Millennium Dome, Peter Gabriel’s music for its central show was one of its redeeming features, but the experience still left him feeling bruised. So he was brave, this weekend, to bring a new concept to the same venue. Scratch My Back, his most recent CD, is a set of cover versions, all performed with an orchestra. “No guitars, no drums,” runs its severe rubric.
The first half of the concert ran through the CD, in order, note for note and fault for fault. Some songs, notably Bowie’s “Heroes” and Paul Simon’s “The Boy In The Bubble”, are enervated by being stripped of pomp and swagger, although the former had a colourful passage of Reichian pulsing strings. Elbow’s “Mirrorball” has contorted melodies through which Gabriel would have sailed in his days with Genesis, but the kitschy orchestration muffled the key line: “We kissed like we invented it.” “The Book Of Love”, which in any case walks a fine line between the sincere and the sardonic, was trampled to death by headache-inducing cartoons.
But a couple survived. “My Body is a Cage”, originally by The Arcade Fire, had its relentless oppression screwed home with tiny taps of the triangle, while the backdrop flared with pictures of a throbbing atomic nucleus orbited by barbed wire. And “Listening Wind”, a newly topical Talking Heads song about insurgency and terrorism, grew spiky staccato string polyrhythms.