At the dawn of MTV, Peter Gabriel was one of the very few artists with sufficient talent to effectively straddle the previously disparate worlds of music and video. With his well-honed sense of the visual intact before MTV launched (with “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles), Gabriel leveraged his innovative time leading Genesis to move his solo career forward in marvelous fashion.
The creative videos he fashioned then remain compelling now, which can’t be said for many of the other artists filling the MTV airwaves back in the day.
After naming each of his first four solo albums “Peter Gabriel” he launched his fifth to an unsuspecting, devoted and expanding fanbase. So was released 25 years ago, and has just been given the semi-obligatory reissue treatment with bonus features across 3 discs. He also recently toured the album with the original band, playing the album “Back to Front;” hence the name of the tour.
In the ensuing decades after the original release of So Gabriel has not rested on his laurels. His work on the Amnesty International “Conspiracy of Hope” tours stood tall among equally compelling contributions from the likes of U2, Springsteen and Jackson Browne.
Recent video collections from Eagle Vision capture two concerts several decades apart.
The November 1993 show in Modena, Italy memorialized his superb Secret World tour. New Blood Live in London is a magnificent recording of his orchestral concert from March 2011.
The Secret World tour occurred at the apogee of Gabriel’s commercial success, as he had followed So with the nearly as powerful Us. (There was actually an amazing soundtrack in between, Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ). I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Modena show, and I recall being awed at the mastery of the musicians, the songcraft and the staging. With a British phone booth as the motif for the opening number “Talk To Me” through a clutch of stellar songs, the concert was sterling. With a setlist that included “Solsbury Hill,” “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes,” “Don’t Give Up” and “Across the River” one can forgive the below-the-belt imagery of “Kiss That Frog.” The engine house of the band was manned by Manu Katche (drums) and Tony Levin (bass, vocals). The DVD reissue presents the remastered 16mm film in lush, sharp visuals. Robert LePage’s stage direction is another example of his brave approach. The well-chosen bonus features include “Red Rain” (oddly missing from the original release), some interviews and backstage footage. Also included is a teaser for the other DVD release, a track from New Blood Live in London.
The trepidation I had in seeing the orchestral tour at the Hollywood Bowl in the spring of 2010 quickly subsided once the show got underway. Seeing the same basic show now on DVD at the more intimate Hammersmith Apollo reaffirmed that Gabriel still pushes the edge of the envelope, decades after his departure from Genesis at the band’s artistic height.
The early section of the evening draws from his Scratch My Back album of orchestral cover songs. He introduces Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” as having all the “happy African blood stripped out, with the result being another miserable white man’s song.” Gabriel intriguingly placed his usual show closer “Biko” right in the middle, and it brought the show to a stirring new level. Eschewing the myriad props effectively used on prior tours, Gabriel relied on classy lighting and video treatments to add some stimulation for the eyes. A hanging video camera provides some swooping, woozy visuals during “Solsbury Hill.” For that song at the Hollywood Bowl, Gabriel jogged around the orchestra. London’s venue is not as expansive.
Once becoming accustomed to the far more subtle dynamics of the orchestra on video, the rock band versions of “The Rhythm of the Heat” and “Red Rain” are given new breathing room. Conductor Ben Foster confidently leads the orchestra through very complex passages throughout the two hour concert.
The triad that closes the show is stirring: “In Your Eyes,” “Don’t Give Up” and the haunting yet comforting instrumental “The Nest That Sailed The Sky.” The accompanying visuals bring to mind the best of Brian Eno.
Although thicker of waist and thinner of hair, Gabriel shows no sign of scratching the artistic itch that has intrigued legions of fans for many years.