Judge Jim Thomas tried to shock Deiter's monkey on Sprockets. It did not end well.
Shock your Monkey.
The summer of 1986 was tumultuous on many levels. The Iran-Contra affair was coming to light, casting a sudden pall on the Reagan administration, and Peter Gabriel's So exploded onto the musical scene. Since leaving Genesis in 1975, Gabriel had released a series of albums, experimenting with both music and production. With this album, Gabriel strode back into the mainstream, bringing his eclectic style along for the ride. The album was a smash, with top ten hits such as "Sledgehammer", "Don't Give Up", and "Big Time". Back in the spotlight, Gabriel wrote a couple of songs for Tim Burton's Batman, headlined the Grammy Awards, and that was about it for Gabriel and the mainstream.
Twenty-five years later, Gabriel mounted a worldwide retrospective tour, with a show that led up to the performance of So, in its entirety. That tour finishes up in October of this year, but the two London dates—Oct 21 and 22, 2013—were filmed by Hamish Hamilton, perhaps the most accomplished director of concert videos. The footage was combined into Back to Front: Peter Gabriel Live. And while there's no avoiding the fact that, by its very nature, a retrospective look at groundbreaking music lacks the original's edge, Gabriel works hard to make the material fresh, frequently dialing back techno-pop elements in favor of a more bluesy approach.
The concert is, as Gabriel puts it, structured as a meal. Opening the show is an appetizer—a brief acoustical set, performed with the house lights still up. The savory course turns down the house lights, brings in the electrics, and samples Gabriel's career before and after So. The dessert course is the complete performance of the aforementioned album, and it is at this point that you witness the power of the fully armed and operational battle station—I mean, they seriously cut loose with the stagecraft. Gabriel tends to push the boundaries between music performance and performance art, and you get a good feel for that here.
A couple of things really stick out…
Because of the way the sound is mixed, the audience is almost incidental. We see them rocking out from time to time, but between songs, when Gabriel is talking, there is utter silence from the peanut gallery. That approach has a certain merit, as it lets you savor the nuances of the music, but at the same time, the raw energy of the audience, that surging emotional momentum that drives the greatest performances, is missing. It may well have been there at the live performances—the lead in to "Sledgehammer" certainly suggests that it was—but it's not effectively captured here. Offsetting that to a large degree are the musicians themselves—between the high def cameras and the intense closeups, lets you do is appreciate just how much the performers—Gabriel included—are enjoying themselves.
Between the end of the concert and the encore, Gabriel asks the crowd to give the crew an ovation; in addition, shots of the crew introducing themselves accompany the credits. A thoughtful and classy move by Gabriel, particularly given the elaborate stage show. Massive plasma displays, spotlights on rotating boom arms, this show is all over the place. They even cannibalized the motion capture camera from an xBox Kinect and use it to generate computer images of the performers. The end result is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
Technically…we got ourselves another stunning Eagle Rock disc. The video gets a little grainy in spots (mainly in dark, shadowy shots, but everything else is clean and crisp, with strong saturation. You get two lossless audio tracks. While the DTS-HD 5.1 track provides a better surround experience, the LCPM 2.0 Stereo track has notably more punch in the lower registers. The only extra is a six minute interview with Gabriel and director Hamish Hamilton, that offers some good background into how the look of the concert was formulated (The subtitles listed on the package apply to this interview, not the concert itself).
Fans should be aware there are alternate purchasing options. While this review covers the bare bones concert release, there is also a limited edition that includes this disc, a second Blu-ray that edits multiple interviews in with the concert, and a two-CD set of the concert. While Back to Front: Peter Gabriel Live (Blu-ray) is a solid release, most Gabriel fans will be more interested in the larger package.
While the lack of a consistent audience presence undermines the film
somewhat, Back to Front: Peter Gabriel Live is a dazzling display from a
musician who has spent the bulk of his career on the cutting edge.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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