Back to Front: (Peter Gabriel) Live in London, Blu-ray (2014)
When former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel began his solo career in 1977, it evolved slowly but surely. His trilogy of self-titled projects (issued in 1977, 1978 and 1980) and his 1982 Security record (with a memorable video for “Shock the Monkey”) helped Gabriel’s ascendancy, but he reached the heights of pop stardom with 1986’s So LP. That effort was his most ecstatic, catchiest and by far biggest-selling outing up to that date, with world-wide, chart-topping hits such as “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time” and “Red Rain.” Over the decades, it has remained many fans’ favorite.
Flash forward a quarter century, or a bit more: Gabriel decided to revisit the So material for a new tour, incorporating the entire album, from start to finish, into the fabric of a longer stage show. One of those concerts—Oct. 21-22, 2013 at England’s O2 arena theater—is showcased on Back to Front: Live in London, a 2-hour, 16-minute presentation available as DVD or Blu-ray; and as a 4-disc special edition with two CDs, a DVD and a Blu-ray disc and a large hardback book. This review refers to the single Blu-ray version.
Back to Front is a stunning auditory and visual treat which surpasses Gabriel’s’ Secret World film, which many consider a high-water mark in concerts for the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. There are two sound options, either typical PCM Stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio: both are excellent. Director Hamish Hamilton and his multi-camera crew used the latest Ultra High Definition 4K technology to capture Gabriel and his band: the depth and color is nearly hyper-realistic and the close-ups in particular are magnificent. The filming and editing are cued to each song; from the exuberant, spectator-immersive “Solsbury Hill” (which jumps from a feeling of being right on stage, to what it was like to be in the arena with other fans), to a relaxed, calmly paced “In Your Eyes.” The only caveat: sensitive viewers should be aware there are some forceful strobe-light effects which crop up at times.
Anyone who has studied Gabriel’s lyrics knows he’s a vivid storyteller. His narrative and dramatic sense permeates Back to Front, from stylized lighting to elaborate stage props. He also splits the show into three parts which echo his creative progression, from the writing process, to a completed work, to exhibiting the production with a full band to an audience. Gabriel utilizes the same musicians who backed him during his So era: drummer Manu Katché (who also worked with Sting and is an ECM label artist), bassist Tony Levin (a long time member of King Crimson), guitarist David Rhodes (a busy session man), and keyboardist David Sancious (previously part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band). Gabriel sets up his three-act flow when he and Levin, bathed in the white house-lighting, offer an unfinished song, “Daddy Long Legs,” with acoustic piano and subtle bass. Then the rest of Gabriel’s group enters, and gradually moves from acoustic to electric, which includes a restrained translation of “Shock the Monkey.” Gabriel formally shifts to “Act Two” when he plows into “Digging in the Dirt.” The house lights dim, a heady, heavy groove kicks in, and darker, cooler stage lights click on. A highlight during this second section is a gripping reading of “No Self Control,” when insect-like lights mounted on gigantic cranes start revolving and hovering around and on top of Gabriel, like monstrous, mechanical mantises.
When Gabriel proclaims “Part three,” the applause is thunderous as the nine-song So portion commences with “Red Rain.” Intensely striking video/film effects are employed, including theatrical blue and red lighting; and motion-capture imagery which exploits a hacked X-Box camera which provides archaic, video-game graphics. The result hearkens back to the mid-‘80s while staying in the present. Visual show designer Rob Sinclair and Gabriel explain more about this aspect in a six-minute bonus interview. Other superlative moments include a high-energy run through “Sledgehammer” and discreet pieces such as “Mercy Street” and an Eastern-tinged rendering of the arty “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds).” It would have been perfect if Laurie Anderson (who sang on the original) could have been included. But you can’t have it all. However, Gabriel does bring out a special guest, vocalist Daby Touré (who has in the past toured with Gabriel), for the last So tune, an extended “In Your Eyes.” The finale is palpably engrossing and some viewers may find themselves either singing along on the chorus or raising their arms in unison with the very satisfied throng. It is difficult to outdo such a crowd-pleaser entree, and yet the encore is a delicious dessert for eyes and ears. First up is the obscure 2000 cut, “The Tower that Ate People,” from the Red Planet soundtrack. When an enormous spire soars up from the floor and swallows Gabriel like a prehistoric Triffid plant, it’s like something from a Tim Burton nightmare. Gabriel transports the proceedings back to earth with “Biko,” his portrayal of anti-apartheid martyr Stephen Biko, killed in police custody in the late 1970s. Gabriel’s plea for tolerance and activism is an uplifting and thought-provoking instance which reminds the masses music can be more than mere entertainment.
Here are a few other notes about this Blu-ray: The menu allows viewers to watch specific tunes via a “Song Selection” but you can’t build a jukebox for a song mix. There are six subtitle language choices (English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese), but only for the six-minute Sinclair/Gabriel bonus interview. It would have been nice to add lyrics: an extra item which seems to have disappeared from most DVD and Blu-ray music sets. [Right; and also from movies—both theatrical and on disc, where translations or subtitles of the lyrics of songs (which they’ve never had) could so improve understanding of the film…Ed.] The 16-page insert booklet has brief liner notes (not by Gabriel); several glossy color concert photographs; and two pages devoted to crew credits.