Judge Russell Engebretson wants to be your sledgehammer.
"You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire. Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher."—"Biko"
"Still Growing Up Live," disc one of the 2004 "Still Growing Up" tour, is a solid, entertaining performance—especially when taking into account Peter Gabriel's age of 55. He has retained a fair portion of his vocal power, although his voice is slightly raspier here, and he sometimes fails to reach the highest notes. Vocals aside, the immaculate arrangements and tightly precise choreography—coupled to the grand wash of synthesized music—more often than not works. Gabriel can still deliver the sonic goods.
The track list follows:
The members of the band are Ged Lynch on drums; Tony Levin, bass and vocals; David Rhodes, guitar and vocals; Richard Evans, guitar, mandolin, whistle, and vocals; Rachel Z, keyboard and vocals; Melanie Gabriel, vocals; and Peter Gabriel, keyboards and vocals.
The 13 songs presented on the DVD are culled from a European tour where the band performed in smaller venues, sans the elaborate sets of the 2002 "Growing Up Live" world tour. Director Hamish Hamilton spliced together individual songs from different performances, so a single video might be compiled from several locations. The editing is seamless, but I still found it distracting, because the stages change (an arena, a stage with an extended walkway, and a circular stage, to name a few). Adding to the viewer's disorientation, some shows take place at night and others during the day. Hamilton also employs a split screen technique that further fractures continuity. This approach makes the DVD more akin to a highly layered studio effort, rather than the raw capture of a live show. While I'm in complaining mode, I might as well ask what's up with the shaved heads and matching black outfits. It would have been a great look for "Devo" in the late '70s, but in this context seems a touch pompous. I was waiting for the band members to whip out their wraparound shades to complete the Matrix style statement. (I noticed the stagehands had to abandon their traditional black clothing and wear red—so as not to be confused with the band members, I suppose). Well, that was a wee bit of bitchy fun—now on to the music.
About two-thirds of the set is composed of vintage, crowd-pleasing tunes (with a smattering of newer songs). The soulful, electronic funk cut "Sledgehammer" is performed in one setting and cleaves closely to the original music video; "Solsbury Hill," the jaunty FM hit from his first album, is also similar to the original arrangement, and it's performed with a goofy zest that helps to counterbalance the more somber tunes in the set; "The Tower That Ate People" is a churning, alternative hard rock number that sounds like an outtake from "Achtung Baby." It works fairly well, but Gabriel's voice is electronically distorted until it is almost buried beneath the sonic barrage of bass and drums. The rendition of "Digging in the Dirt" is able but not spectacular.
The show stumbles during the cold war era "Games Without Frontiers," as Gabriel and daughter Melanie tool around the stage on their Segway Human Trasporters (a cool but useless piece of technological hardware—sort of a gyroscopic electric scooter). The lyrics parody warmongering national leaders who use their citizens like game board pieces. I guess there is a connection between the toy scooters and the lyrics about games-playing politicians, but Gabriel relishes cutting-edge technology to such a degree it's more likely an excuse to incorporate his latest plaything into the show. Even the fast and furious video editing can't hide the clunky and inappropriate nature of this silly stage-prop.
Although I found the concert slightly uneven, there are plenty of highlights, with two standout songs in particular that recall Peter Gabriel in his prime. "Come Talk To Me" is riveting: The tune begins at a slow burn as Gabriel lyrically pleads with his daughter, "Won't you please come talk to me, just like it used to be…" Drummer Ged Lynch launches into a brief, blazing drum solo, and the band jumps into overdrive with a pulsating Afro-Cuban rhythm. Gabriel's lyrics, slowly undulating against the urgent clave beat, work to wonderful effect.
For the encore, the band performs "Biko," perhaps Gabriel's finest song. He wrote it as a tribute to Steven Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who died in a Pretoria prison cell in 1977 a few days after being mercilessly beaten and slammed headfirst into a wall by the police. With its slow, powerful drumbeat and measured, dirge-like guitar notes, "Biko" achieves an unlikely fusion of tragedy and triumph. The song ends with the drummer alone on the stage pounding out the final measures as the crowd chants a wordless South African mantra. The song is as fresh and stunning here as it was on Peter Gabriel's self-titled third album—with the added excitement of a live audience.
The first disc contains two songs as bonus material. The bonus song "In Your Eyes" may have looked like a good idea on the drafting board (a perky, upbeat arrangement with a distinctly South African rhythm), but it fails miserably on stage. The song's melancholy power is drained away, leaving only a gaily-colored husk of its album version. The other bonus song is "No Self Control," from Gabriel's 1988 This Way Up tour P.O.V. film, in a first-time DVD release. Watching the younger Peter Gabriel on this video is a revelation. His voice dips and soars as he slides and skitters across the stage; his quirky dance steps bring to mind David Byrne during his "Talking Head" days. Contrary to the song title, Gabriel and his band are completely in control.
"Still Growing Up Unwrapped" is the second disc, and it is essentially a repeat of the concert disc (minus three songs) re-edited by Anna Gabriel. There are interview snippets from Peter Gabriel and the band members, usually placed before or after the songs. There are a few interesting comments from Gabriel, but nothing that can't be found elsewhere if one really wants to dig deeper into Gabriel's mindset or personal life. There are many close-ups of Gabriel's face awash in colored lights, sometimes crawling with projected images; the arty style doesn't accomplish much beyond producing mild eyestrain and annoyance. The viewer would have been better served by a straightforward documentary style interview, which could have been distilled down to about 30 minutes.
The five bonus songs on the "Unwrapped" disc include three numbers from the "Up" album played in the Big Room studio prior to the Growing Up Live tour of 2002. The other two songs are "Downside Out" and "Father, Son" from a BBC program ("Later…With Jools Holland," May 2002).
The concert material is presented in anamorphic widescreen; the colors are vivid and nicely saturated, with no glaringly obvious artifacts. The images are very crisp and detailed in close-ups, but turn mushy soft in some of the long shots that take in the whole stage from the vantage point of the nosebleed seats. The softness was most noticeable on a large projector screen, not so much on a regular 32-inch television. Overall, it's a fine visual presentation—particularly for a rock concert video. As usual, Dolby 5.1 sounds good, but DTS 5.1 has the edge. This concert excels in the bass department, with copious amounts of sub-woofer frequencies; the DTS audio delivers more clearly defined bass and a more natural sounding midrange.
I am not a disinterested reviewer when it comes to Gabriel's music; I've purchased, analyzed, and enjoyed his solo albums (I must admit I was never a fan of the art rock band "Genesis" even when Gabriel was the lead vocalist) since his first release. So my perspective is firmly rooted in the fanboy camp. This concert will appeal to most like-minded devotees, but I sadly must report that Gabriel is about a decade past his musical zenith; for those in denial, a quick comparison between the "No Self Control" video and almost anything else on this DVD is all it will take to convince even the most skeptical viewer. But that does not invalidate the enjoyment fans can derive from this concert, because Peter Gabriel is a better songwriter and performer—even in late middle age—than an arena full of present-day musical celebrities.
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