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Peter Gabriel: Back to Front - Live in London (Deluxe Limited Blu-Ray)

John Kelman By

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Peter Gabriel
Back to Front: Live in London (Deluxe Limited Blu-Ray)
Real World/Eagle Vision
2014

Peter Gabriel has, for most of his career, been an artist who has never looked back. Still, the past few years have seen him reevaluating his large repertoire, between orchestral interpretations documented on New Blood: Live in London (Real World/Eagle Entertainment, 2012) and the Back to Front tour that has, since that time, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the release of So (Charisma, 1986)—the album that turned him from cult hero to (now) pop culture elder statesman. So turned out to be the best-selling record of the singer/songwriter's career, going three times platinum in the UK, five times platinum in the US, with hit songs like "Sledgehammer," whose groundbreaking video with Ardman Animations won the ex-Genesis front man MTV's 1987 Top Music Video Award and Best British Video at the 1987 Brit Awards.

Back to Front: Live in London documents Gabriel's globe-trotting tour that reunited the group that was documented in both the So: 25th Anniversary Immersion Box (Real World, 2012) and, later, Live in Athens 1987: The Full Concert (Real World/Eagle Eye Media, 2013): longstanding guitarist David Rhodes and bassist Tony Levin; drummer Manu Katche, who last toured with Gabriel for the tour in support of So's follow-up, Us (Real World, 1992), and the recently reissued as Secret World Live (Real World/Eagle Entertainment, 2012); and keyboardist/guitarist David Sancious. For the Back to Front tour, Gabriel fleshed out the band with two of the best singers that have graced his stage: Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olson, who also adds cello to one of two new songs, "Show Yourself."

Back to Front: Live in London comes in four versions: single-disc DVD and Blu-Ray releases; and Deluxe Limited DVD and Blu-Ray editions which include, in addition to the full concert of the single-disc versions (and a bonus interview feature on the tour's stunning visuals), a second video disc of the same format with the theatrical release (as well as two bonus videos: a "DNA Mashup" of "In Your Eyes" and "FanCam recording of "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)," omitted from the theatrical program), plus two CDs containing the full concert.

While the full concert is the one to watch again and again, it's worthwhile watching the theatrical version, which includes some interview footage with everyone in the band. The decision to cut the theatrical version down, not just chopping five tunes from the complete set list, but most importantly three songs from the second set (a performance of So from start to finish, plus two encores), is certainly questionable, especially since "That Voice Again" and "Big Time" have rarely been performed live before—certainly never found on any previously released live album or video—leaving the darkly curious "We Do What We're Told (Miligram's 37)" as the only song from So that exists in the theatrical version as a song from the album that's never been heard (or, at least, previously documented) before in concert. "Red Rain," "Sledgehammer," "Mercy Street," "Don't Give Up" and, in particular, an extended version of "In Your Eyes" that, here, features guest African vocalist Daby Toure, are all songs that have been in regular rotation on tours subsequent to 1987, straight through to his most recent Growing Up tour in support of Up (Real World, 2002).

While some of the interview footage is a tad self-congratulatory, it is heartfelt and reveals the wonderful camaraderie that still clearly exists amongst what many believe to be the best touring band Gabriel ever had 25 years after the fact. The performance footage reveals that a quarter century may have passed, with everyone looking a little older (with the exception of the ever-bald-headed and mustachioed Levin, who just never appears to age), but the intrinsic chemistry remains. Gabriel, perhaps, shows more signs of aging than most: now a gray haired, largely bald-headed man of 64 who, in an interview around the time of the Growing Up tour, talked about the challenges of doing stage shows as he used to with, as he self-effacingly referred to, his "expanding girth." True, he may be a bigger man than the scrawny youth who wore makeup, flower heads and other accoutrement with Genesis back in the early-to-mid-'70s, but as he moves around the stage on a killer version of "No Self Control," from Peter Gabriel 3 (Charisma, 1983, commonly known as Melt), which reprises the arrangement as well as updated versions of the boom-driven lights that attacked him at the song's climax of the 1987 tour, it's clear that he's still as graceful as ever.

Still, like another rock icon, Robert Plant, Gabriel not only accepts that there are certain moves that would not befit a man of his age and girth, he also acknowledges that his voice has changed: even huskier than it's always been, he doesn't have quite the range or sustainability to hold a long note that he used to, most noticeably not even trying to hold the long note he does on "That Voice Again," at the end of the bridge:

"what I carry in my heart
brings us so close or so far apart
only love can make love."

But the natural impact of age aside, Gabriel's voice sounds as strong as it ever has —perhaps, even, stronger. Live shows from the Growing Up tour revealed a singer who was having trouble both reaching some of the high notes and sustaining his power for a full concert; since New Blood: Live in London, however, he's managed to overcome these problems and is back to a strength he's not held since the Secret World Live tour.

One thing that Gabriel's touring bands have lost since the departure of Katché, is the phenomenal telepathic sense of groove that this group possessed. Gabriel continued to recruit strong players, but none that matched Katché's pure inventiveness, imagination and flat-out panache. Levin and Rhodes have always held things down, but with Katché back in the fold tracks like "No Self Control," "Sledgehammer," "Big Time" and "Digging in the Dirt" are simply more visceral and booty-shaking than they've been since 1987. Add Sancious, whose as strong a guitarist (witness his acoustic playing on "Shock the Monkey," one of four songs from the first set that are largely acoustic) as he is a keyboardist, brings a gospel vibe to "Don't Give Up" that it's lacked ever since. That's not to suggest Gabriel has had weak keyboardists, far from it; but none of them have had the intrinsic church that's part of Sancious' background and, when combined with Levin, Rhodes and Katché, makes this group so perfect, whether it's firing on all cylinders on songs like Us' "Digging in the Dirt" or pulling things back for a version of "Mercy Street" that stands amongst Gabriel's best.

Rhodes—an anti-guitarist who rarely solos and when he does, more often than not milks a simple phrase for all it's worth (as on "Secret World" ), but his choices are never less than absolutely perfect and, for this music, are invariably far better than any sort of conventional guitar histrionics. Combining his body language with Levin's, the two also become terrific front-line partners with Gabriel on songs like "Sledgehammer," "Solsbury Hill" (an early popular song from his first solo album, Peter Gabriel (Charisma, 1977, commonly called Car) and "In Your Eyes." That much of what appears to be choreographed is, according to Gabriel, not comes as one of the theatrical film's biggest surprises.

Visually, Gabriel has always put on bleeding edge performances and Back to Front is no different. From the spare stage design—near- monochromatic blacks and grays made all the more dramatic by some of his most vivid lighting ever, and projection screens that displayed everything from the titular fire of "Red Rain" to band member close-ups and footage of performances from earlier tours. And while he can't completely move the way he used to, Gabriel represents the epitome of Dirty Harry's "A man's got to know his limitations," rarely doing anything that looks, well, funky for a man his age—other, perhaps, than his helicopter spinning during "In Your Eyes," but it's a move that's been a part of the song for so long that it would feel somehow wrong without it. Rob Sinclair's staging is also impressive on a grand scale, including a huge tower that comes down and does, indeed, eat Gabriel on the first of two encores, "The Tower That Ate People," from his collaborative millennium project Ovo (Real World, 2000).

Abrahamson—who solos with Toure on "In Your Eyes" and delivers the best female counterpart to Gabriel on "Don't Give Up" since he first recorded it with Kate Bush—is superb, as is Olson, whose cello adds another dimension to "Show Yourself," one of two new songs in the first half of a two-and-a-half hour show divided into three parts: four acoustic songs, including a version of " Shock the Monkey," from Peter Gabriel (Charisma, 1982, also known as Security), that was his first Top 20 hit in the US and here manages to work without all the electronics and Fairlight synthesizer work; a second, electric segment that doesn't just draw on commonly played songs like "Digging in the Dirt," "Secret World" and "Solsbury Hill," but revisits less-played songs like Melt's "Family Snapshot" and Security's "The Family and the Fishing Net"; and a second half that, in addition to the full performance of So and "The Tower That Ate People," concludes with a second encore that reflects Gabriel's longstanding humanitarian stance and activism, his introduction to "Biko" one that reaches the audience in a most personal way, speaking over its huge pedal tone intro:

"It's a strange thing now that we have, within our pockets, a small device that, for the very first time, can connect us almost, very soon, to everyone else on the planet. We're only just beginning to get a sense of how that may change pretty much everything in the world as we know it. And for those young people around the world that are fighting oppression and injustice, and have always felt hemmed in by national borders, national boundaries, suddenly there are leaks everywhere; they feel connected. If they're in the Arab world they feel part of a movement, part of a global movement. We hope that that'll change and transform politics, people power, and that those people who actually have the courage to risk their own lives for their people don't have to die like this young man did in South Africa in 1977."

It's a particularly moving moment in a performance that's evocative—and, indeed, provocative—throughout, ending, as it always has when Gabriel closes with "Biko," as the band gradually exits the stage, one by one, after Gabriel departs, his final words to the packed house: "As always, what happens now is up to you." Ultimately only Katché is left onstage, his primal drum pattern rising over the final drone as all the lighting booms move from around the stage to focus solely on him, as he plays his final pattern until the stage suddenly goes silent...and dark.
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