For the second European leg of the 2010 New Blood tour, Peter Gabriel’s crew decided to go with e-tickets for the soundcheck (or rehearsal) ticket package. Lucky fans that are able to pay the exorbitant cost or win radio contests get a t-shirt, special renewable shopping bag, a laminated pass and their concert tickets. The paper tickets would then be given to the fan when they arrive for the soundcheck. All the fan has to do is provide a passport or other photo ID and a confirmation code email sent from WOMADShop, the only seller of the tickets.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this – if you’re taking the trouble to fly to another continent to see Peter Gabriel, remember to pack the confirmation code email for your darn ticket. Guess what I did? Yes, I FORGOT the email. Luckily, I found out at 10 pm the night before the soundcheck. Unluckily, I did not have any Internet access and would have to beg the hotel staff to use their laptops when they arrived at 10 am the next morning so I could access my “Save” file of my email program, where a copy of the coveted email awaited.
Anyway, after a 12 hour panic attack and eventually getting a highly amused hotel worker to print the email out, I arrived at the Arena Leipzig in the pouring rain. After being to two other soundchecks this year in Berlin and New York, I thought I’d have a soggy wait, but a security guard popped out and let me into the bistro at the arena, where all of the other Gabriel fans would wait for the soundcheck to begin.
After the success of his 1986 album, “So,” Gabriel realized he had the luxury of hopping off the yearly album-promotion-live tour treadmill. As a consequence, he’s rarely toured since 1994. When he does tour, it usually is in Europe and for only a month or less at a time. Gabriel has two small sons with his second wife, Irish beauty Maebh Flynn, and is understandably reluctant to leave home.
So the soundchecks for the first European leg and for the North American leg had at least 30 people each. Fans come from all over Europe, North America and sometimes Asia to enjoy these events.
Except today. When the final tally was taken, there were only 10 native Germans and me, the German-impaired. The Germans were in sleek, stylish yet casual dark clothing while I was in a battered bright green long-sleeved shirt. Since I idiotically trusted the Weather Channel forecast for Leipzig before I packed, the green shirt was the closest thing I had to a rain jacket.
We were let into the arena at 2:30, even before the orchestra musicians arrived. We had to sit in the bleachers because the floor seats were not set up yet. We were given bottles of water (something that didn’t happen at the Berlin or New York soundchecks) and we sat back to watch the tech crew wrestle with the equipment.
The New Blood Orchestra consists of 50-plus musicians, not to mention the stage, the lights, the sound system, conductor Ben Foster and a grand piano. It’s far too expensive to cart over 50 musicians about, so local musicians are hired for many of the gigs. The musicians wandered in pairs and singly, looking like deer in the headlights.
One tall fellow in glasses and a scarf sat with us. He held a briefcase and I thought he was a writer. Before I was able to ask him where he wrote for, the WOMAD worker who gave us our tickets enthusiastically greeted him and pulled him to the stage. That briefcase turned out to be a square violin case.
This was a concert rehearsal, so someone had to act like a diva. Unfortunately, that someone turned out to be the piano. With the travel and the wet weather, it was seriously out of tune. A crew of six people gently removed the piano lid and laid it on a tarp on the ground so a tuner could get deep inside the cranky instrument. Even before the concert that evening, it was still being fiddled with.
An hour plinked by. Chairs were set up, lights tested, musicians were sitting in various parts of the arena to quietly tune and the video testing patterns flashed on the three screens surrounding the stage. The most interesting part was seeing a crew member’s T-shirt, which read (in English) “Don’t ask me for the (bleeping) sound, I’m the LIGHTMAN.”
By 3:30, Peter’s regular stage crew personnel was looking around and checking their watches. Engineer Dickie Chappell seemed to be the only person unphased, but the fixed wide smile on his face made me realize that the smile was getting less and less genuine.
Ben Foster got the orchestra going and they stumbled through classic Gabriel tunes as well as passages from Gabriel’s latest album, “Scratch My Back” (2008.) “Rhythm of the Heat” would prove to be particularly problematic, because the orchestra was made to go through it about ten times that afternoon. They were, of course, brilliant on the night.
The German fans about me were getting restless. The local Arena Leipzig crew all decided to take a break. They were yelled at by what I assume was a supervisor, but the break went on.
Peter hadn’t arrived yet.
The WOMAD worker hesitatingly walked up to us and her face was chalky. She said, “Uh, Peter Gabriel’s plane has been delayed. We don’t know if he’ll make it for any of the soundcheck.”
Peter Gabriel late for something. Whoda thunk?
By 4:00 pm, the floor chairs were set up. Dickie Chappell walked over to us and for some reason thought I was an interpreter. He said to me, “Would your group like to move closer to the stage?”
My German translation of this was to stand up and wave my arms in the direction of the stage like I was landing a small aircraft. But the other ten gathered their stuff, stood and followed Dickie and me over to the fourth row of the floor chairs.
Dickie had sprained his leg the night before the New York dates, so I asked him, “Is your leg all right?’
His eyes widened and he said, slightly shocked, “What do I like?”
“No – no – you hurt your leg in New York, is it all right now?”
He laughed and said, “Fine, thank you.”
Sorry if I scared you there, Dickie.
While the orchestra finally was sounding like an orchestra, I noticed a slight movement on the far left corner of the stage.
And there was Peter in a long black raincoat, swaying slightly and looking around with even more befuddlement than usual. He looked as if Captain Picard of the Enterprise had discovered him in an emergency and locked an emergency transporter beam on his vital signs. “Beam him directly to the stage, Mr. O’Brien!”
I nudged the girl sitting next to me and said, “Look over there.” She gasped in delight and nudged the person next to her and down the line. It was sort of a Peter-down-the-lane. Meanwhile, Peter shook hands with some of the orchestra members and received his earpiece and portable sound monitor from Dickie. By the end of the wiring up, Peter looked as if he had a slim rat tail wagging merrily behind him.
My Good Deed of the Day
Peter began singing “The Book of Love” by the Magnetic Fields. He pitched his voice quite low for most of it because he seemed to be concentrating on where things were on the stage as well as how his ear monitor was behaving rather than singing.
Since I had attended two other soundchecks, I already knew where Peter was going to stand for most of the rehearsal and so I sat right in front of that spot. But then I thought about the 10 Germans to my left. For most of them, this was their first soundcheck. How close are they ever going to get to Peter performing ever again?
So I stood up and waved my arms wildly for everyone to shift down. I sat near the end of the aisle. They had a great view and were smiling broadly. I didn’t need any translators for those expressions. I felt I’d done my good deed of the day.
Then, during the last verse, Peter picked up the microphone stand and plunked it on stage directly in front of me. That would turn out to be the stand’s final placement for the night. Well, some days you can’t lose for trying.
Shake Those Hands
Peter only did two more songs, “Intruder” and “Rhythm of the Heat.” “Intruder” was the newest Gabriel song re-interpreted for the orchestra by John Metcalfe. Conductor Ben Foster did a whistling part, but that didn’t make the evening’s performance.
During the final part of “Rhythm of the Heat,” the orchestra basically goes nuts. It is one of the times Peter leaves the stage completely in order to spotlight the orchestra. But this time when Peter left the stage, he removed his ear piece and sound monitor. That meant he was done singing for the afternoon.
I was engrossed in watching the orchestra and Ben Foster flailing away when I realised that something was moving in the row in front of my soundcheck-mates.
It was Peter. He shuffled sideways down the row in front of us. In turn, the German fans stood up, shook his hand and said hello. I remembered the total panic I’d had last night when I discovered my missing email. I’d had palpitations. Six years ago, I was homeless. And now Peter Gabriel is shaking hands and talking with the girl sitting next to me and I’m next in line.
Life is funny, isn’t it?
“Hello again,” we both greeted and shook hands. We had a brief conversation which made him laugh. I then realized that Peter and I were the only two people in the group that spoke fluent English. We actually had a private conversation. This was a significant step in our non-relationship.
Peter told the group, “I’m sorry about the delay. The flight took FOREVER.”
The girl next to me asked Peter if she may take his picture. He nodded and moved out of the rows of chairs in order to pose. I leaned down to get out of the shot. Peter then suggested that she should have her photo taken with him.
This set off a flurry of activity among the ten Germans, at least six of which had digital cameras. I moved out of the row and sat in a nearby chair watching the activity as each German took his or her turn posing for pictures with Peter.
Here’s the scene: five Germans on one side, five Germans on the other, Peter at one head of an invisible table and me perched on a chair at the other end of the table. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me, including Peter.
“Well?” he grinned, “What about you?”
“I, uh, don’t think I can.”
“Aw, what’s the matter?” he pouted, “Don’t you waaaant to?” He can be a right tease at times.
I told him the truth, “I don’t have a camera.” That was so I could afford to go to have panic attacks in Leipzig.
Peter chuckled and addressed the Germans, “I’m sure one of these fine people will be more than happy to send you a copy.”
“Okay,” I said, standing. “Right,” I announced, rubbing my hands together, “Who wants money?” They all laughed. I had meant it when I said I’d pay for the photos, but they said, “No problem!” When Peter speaks, things happen. I received the two photos at the top of the article in one week. However, after the 12 hour panic attack, getting caught in the rain and having to wear that green shirt, I looked like crap. I just wanted the photos because of Peter with his golden skin and dark shirt clinging to his chest.
Peter had posed for a few pictures with me back in 1996. So, when I settled next Peter’s right, I said, “Actually, you were kind enough in the past to pose for photos with me.”
“Yeah,” Peter said. “I remember that.” And then he grimaced.
“I’m sure you do,” I laughed. There was no way he could remember me out of all of the thousands of people he’s met since 1996. But he had grimaced. Hey – what was that about? By then we were both smiling for the cameras.
After a pause in the picture taking, Peter asked, “Well, what’s happening now?”
“We’re bracing for a blinding flash of light.”
He laughed. One day he should record that laughter.
The flashes went off and I’d forgotten how painful they were. The world went white and then shimmered back into focus. I thought about Peter having to endure these painful flashes and I asked, “So, do you do this a lot? Standing for photos and grinning like an idiot?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” he chuckled. “I rarely ever come do this during soundchecks. It’s just that Dickie told me you were all waiting patiently for so long and I just felt sorry for you.”
Yes, we Peter Gabriel fans can be a pathetic, but happy, lot at times.