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Of course, 1987 Gabriel looks a lot different than the 2013 edition, with less girth, more hair (on the top of his head, at least) and a voice that, being 25 years younger, was as husky as it ever was, but hadn't lost some of the upper range that is often the inevitable consequence of aging. While there are some things that link the performance to its timein particular the clothingthe performance itself has weathered exceptionally well...better, even, than his subsequent live videos. To some extent it's the very leanness of this bandfuture tours would feature larger groupsthat allows, even within the clearly rigid constructs of Gabriel's arrangements, for it to be a little looser, a little freer and a lot more exciting.
Gabriel's live arrangements for this group are significantly improved over those played by the group heard on Plays Live (Geffen, 1983)which was in support of his fourth studio album, also called Security (Geffen, 1982) and, while also featuring Levin and Rhodes, was fleshed out by drummer Jerry Marotta and keyboardist Larry Fast. As good as Marotta has always been, Katché lights a fire under this band, especially on the back-to-back set of four tunes from 1980's Peter Gabriel 3 (also called "Melt," on Charisma/Mercury), and particularly with the thundering, gated drums of "Intruder," the up-tempo funk of "Games Without Frontiers" and equally pulse-laden "No Self Control." It's these rhythmically revamped arrangements that are some of Live in Athens' most exciting, if for no other reason than they're so different from the more avant-tinged studio versions, and one more sign of the success that So co-producer Daniel Lanois had in convincing Gabriel to allow cymbals back into his music and much more serious grooves as well.
What differentiates Live in Athens from the DVD included in the Immersion Box is the opening 40-minute set by Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour (who sings with Gabriel on the studio version of So's "In Your Eyes") and his group, Le Super Etoile de Dakar. The opportunity to experience the entire show as it was presentedwith a very much considered opening act, who would return to the stage for two of Gabriel's three encores, the longer version of "In Your Eyes" and anthemic "Biko"is something rare in concert video recordings; normally only the headline act is presented. While it's almost a certainty that the majority of Gabriel fans will watch N'Dour's show once or twice while returning to the Gabriel segment far more often, the value of having the entire two-and-a-half-hour concert cannot be understated.
Gabriel's stage presence had always been commanding; even from his early days in Genesis, he was conscious of theatrics and costuming. But by the time of So and Live in Athens 1987, much of the low-tech costuming of early Genesis was gone and in its place, a far more professional performer whose every move was choreographed, as were those of his band mates. That they looked, for the most part, so natural is what has long given Gabriel his edge as a performer. He employed a super-clean stage where every square inch nevertheless had a purpose that ultimately revealed itselfwhether it was a series of lights on moving arms that seemed to attack him during "No Self Control," or a platform that allowed him to literally fall into the crowd during "Lay Your Hands on Me," body surfing and having the kind of direct contact with his audience that would be largely unheard of today (though by the time he made it back to the stage, his white coat was gone, torn to shreds).
That part of "Lay Your Hands on Me" may well, in fact, be Live in Athens' most powerful moment, if only because of the trust that it implies between Gabriel and his audience. But the entire Gabriel portion of the show Is attention-grabbing, from the very opening "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)," where Gabriel brings the entire band to the front line with guitars and Keytars to be introduced, most unusually, at the show's start, through the sequencer-driven tour de force "San Jacinto," more propulsive and catchy "Shock the Monkey" and oblique contrasts of "The Family and the Fishing Net." That only four tunes from So are in the set list only demonstrates Gabriel's counter-approach to live performance. With So breaking him through to a larger audience, he still ensured that plenty of material from his earlier recordsand not just the more user-friendly songswere included.
Everyone in the band looks and plays great, and there's plenty of camera work devoted to giving them some air time, but it's ultimately Gabriel's show and he naturally dominates without ever seeming disconnected from his group. When N'Dour and Le Super Etoile de Dakar join Gabriel's group for "In Your Eyes" and "Biko," the warmth shared amongst everyone onstage is palpable.