Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.
One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.
In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.
As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.
Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.
However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.
For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".
While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.
In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired.
Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?
From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)
(Originally posted July 2014)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.