BOUNDARY PUSHING FRINGE PERFORMER / OLD-FASHIONED ENORMODOME SHOWMAN… A NEW FILM OF A CONCERT AT LONDON’S O2 LAST YEAR (BACK TO FRONT, RELEASED ON BLU RAY AND DVD THIS WEEK) CONFIRMS PETER GABRIEL AS THE MASTER OF MARRYING THOSE UNLIKELY OPPOSITES.
BAFTA winning director Hamish Hamilton’s film features a full recital of SO (originally released in 1986, and still Gabriel’s most commercially successful album) alongside interesting highlights from a four-decade body of solo work, plus a pair of new songs receiving a first official outing.
The film was shot in newest sci-fi HD so frequently stunning visuals are vividly presented, even if that means there’s occasionally no hiding place for a 63-year-old. A shorter cut was released to cinemas in March, framing ‘an intimate portrait’ assembled from interviews with Gabriel and 2013 band (each of whom toured SO in 1986/87 and was recalled for the anniversary dates) within the concert. It’s debatable whether it was entirely successful. Several songs were excised from the set and interview segments were brief, often reduced to soundbites. That cut is an extra feature on the deluxe DVD / blu-ray but the unexpurgated concert is the main feature on all four editions.
Opener DADDY LONG LEGS (one of the two new songs) is jammed out live on stage with house lights up, Gabriel and bassist Tony Levin feeling their way through developing material in what has become, essentially, the world’s largest rehearsal room. Gabriel’s method in the early stages of writing is to shape words out of his only vaguely distinguishable vocal tics – like teasing a slippery slab of wet clay – so in this rudimentary form there are no actual lyrics to speak of. It’s a bold way to begin an arena gig – particularly for an artist who, over the last two decades, has found production technology finally matches the stretch of his imagination and visual ambition.
Neurotic SHOCK THE MONKEY and rumbling COME TALK TO ME are also stripped to what is the closest Gabriel is likely to come to performing ‘unplugged’. But the first heart-in-the-mouth moment is a simple matter of old-fashioned showbusiness; the dramatic sudden switch between house lights and full-on stage glare during assassin psyche-drama FAMILY SNAPSHOT. Throughout the eery run down MERCY STREET, mantis-like lighting rigs surround embryonic Gabriel, prostrate in the middle of the stage. They’re curious, gentle and kind to the singer. In NO SELF CONTROL they’d been antagonistic and almost violent. Accomplice THE TOWER THAT ATE PEOPLE swallows him whole.
MERCY STREET and the other songs from SO are much better live in 2013 than they were in 1987 – not entirely due to advances in music technology. Reaching a quarter of a century in age they’ve each had some time to breathe and the space to mature.
Ever-powerful RED RAIN has much more air around its dynamic play-off between taut funk and expansive crash; BIG TIME has a larger bulge at its bottom end; reworked THAT VOICE AGAIN is steered away from radio jangle towards plaintive; backing vocalist Jennie Abrahamson’s spotlight moment during DON’T GIVE UP is perfectly judged, respectfully reading Kate Bush’s lines but subtly making them her own; and IN YOUR EYES is opened up to receive all due arena honours – including a joyous guest turn from Daby Touré, voice reaching to the back of the O2 and almost rippling out across the Thames.
Perennial crowd-pleasing singles SLEDGEHAMMER and SOLSBURY HILL are often self-deprecating, which shows it hasn’t all been po-faced musing, chin-stroking and saving the world down in Wiltshire. The new song SHOW YOURSELF was written for director Guillermo Arriaga’s forthcoming WORDS WITH GODS, and is a hymn-like plea from a man in the later stages of life. The concert ends with politically charged BIKO – a reminder that there is work yet to be done.
If not with quite the same resonance as 1994’s SECRET WORLD or 2003’s GROWING UP concert films, BACK TO FRONT is handsome and hugely enjoyable. Gabriel is impossible not to warm to; as ever, dad dancing either side of the line between show off and visionary.
Order BACK TO FRONT here.