I wasn’t well-traveled at fifteen. I’m still not.
But music’s always broadened my horizons.
Such was the case in 1986, when high-profile artists like Sting, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel started seasoning their songs with rhythms and melodies borrowed from Africa, Brazil, and India. These were musicians renowned for their pop-rock acumen, so we took their hands and trusted them when they ventured overseas in search of exotic new sounds.
A little didgeridoo, anyone? How about a penny whistle solo? Some surdu and congas with your percussion, perhaps? A little Ladysmith Black Mambazo on your background vocals, maybe?
Too awkward to ever feel elite, albums like Dream of the Blue Turtles, Graceland, So, and …Nothing Like the Sun somehow made me feel smarter—and certainly opened my ears (and mind) to the musical possibilities that lay outside the Western hemisphere.
To be fair, guys like Gabriel were pioneers when it came to tweaking their literate rock with foreign instrumentation and unorthodox arrangements. Being a lyrical genius and master performer buys you some wiggle room when you go trying to make your guitars sound not like guitars, and telling your drummers to not bother unpacking their cymbals.
Now available on Eagle Rock, Peter Gabriel: Live in Athens 1987 captures the former Genesis front man at his commercial and creative peak at the end of the So tour. Shot over three nights at the open air Lycabettus theatre in the Greek capital in October of that year, the concert film showcases both Gabriel’s emotive material and onstage charisma: With one great tune after another, the singer / keyboardist repeatedly seduces, engages, and forges personal connections with a massive audience that doesn’t even speak his language.
Some of the footage was previously issued eons ago on VHS as POV (Point of View). But director Michael Chapman’s unabridged 35 mm Athens footage has never seen wide release until now. The disc even includes the 40-minute opening set by Youssou N’Dour and Le Super Etoile de Dakar.
Youssou Who, you ask?
John Cusack will tell you who. N’Dour is the Senegalese superstar who lent his bright vocals to Gabriel’s mega-hit “In Your Eyes” (which Cusack’s lovelorn character blared on a boom box in the 1989 movie Say Anything).
That song and other So classics feature in the crisp, remastered concert, beginning with quirky opener “This Is the Picture”—which finds Gabriel line-dancing front and center with band members Tony Levin (bass, Chapman stick), Manu Katche (drums), David Sancious (keys), and David Rhodes (guitar). The gentlemen then assume their respective positions, with Peter dividing his time singing at a fixed bank of keyboards and whirling freely across the full expanse of the stage (and off, by night’s end).
The music—which draws from Gabriel’s first four eponymous albums (better known as Car, Scratch, Melt, and Security) as much as So—lends itself to the songsmith’s signature brand of theatre. This is a man who rose to fame by wearing fox costumes and fruit helmets, after all, and even by ’87 he wasn’t at all averse to employing body language, dance, and physicality to heighten the drama and help convey his messages.
Equipped with a headset microphone, the dapper-dressed Peter rows an imaginary boat on “San Jacinto,” drags his knuckles like a simian during “Shock the Monkey,” and feigns a moonlight break-in on the creepy “Intruder.” He collapses during the climax of “No Self Control” and doesn’t stand again for another six minutes: The plaintive, aching “Mercy Street” finds Gabriel curled onstage in a fetal position, his writhing infant character consoled only by a pair of moving mechanical arms fitted with red and white mood lights.
So let it not be said that Gabriel didn’t neglected his cardio between 1986-1987. The vocalist once known as “Rael” and “Slipperman” even executes a 360-spin for the “pirouette” line on “Solsbury Hill.”
Levin, the bald-headed, mustachioed emperor of the bottom end, thumps a chrome-colored fretless bass with his patented “funk fingers” affixed to his index and middle phalanges. Elsewhere, he plies both hands to the fret board of the alien-looking Chapman stick—as if typing out grooves on its many strings. Rhodes—whose trench coat matches Levin’s—coaxes cool chords and luscious leads from a compact Steinberger trans-tremolo guitar. Trapped behind his kit, Manu Katche is unable to join his mates in spinning and high-stepping over the stage’s eye-catching hexagonal risers, so the drummer devotes himself fully to meter, measure, and punctuation. Sancious graces the mix with a Yamaha KX-88, occasionally contributing background vocals along with the rest of the crew.
Gabriel gets a little sinister on “Family and the Fishing Net,” channels gospel on “Don’t Give Up,” embraces the buoyant funk woven by Levin and Katche on “Sledgehammer,” and transforms “Here Comes the Flood” into a vocal tour de force. He leaves it to the crowd to fill in the gaps on “Games Without Frontiers,” and the Greeks oblige with a deafening chorus. During “Lay Your Hands on Me,” Peter allows fans down front do just that, falling backwards into their waiting arms and body-surfing his way back to the stage (with some help from his handlers). Peter welcomes N’Dour back for an electrifying “In Your Eyes” encore, which has both men dancing together in red, gold, and green tunics. The uplifting “Biko” rounds out the three-hour show while paying poignant tribute to the anti-apartheid activist.
Chapman’s restored concert film (produced in part by Martin Scorsese) is remarkably vibrant for its age. The meticulous editing of brilliant shots and intriguing angles recorded by several cameras gives viewers an omnipresence that nearly surpasses being there in Athens to witness the spectacle first-hand. The accompanying re-mastered audio (available in 5.1 surround) is frosting on the proverbial cake: Live in Athens is a consummately entertaining multimedia archive of a pop culture icon at the height of his influence.
A second bonus DVD is crammed with all of Peter’s eye-popping music videos—and would alone be worth the price of admission. It’s all here, from “Solsbury Hill” and “Biko” to “Steam” and “Big Time,” from “The Barry Williams Show” to “Digging in the Dirt.” These are the edgy clips and stop-motion masterpieces that practically redefined the art of music video in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This Play disc also contains a live version of “Games Without Frontiers” from 2004, film snippets from Gabriel’s Nest That Sailed the Sky, and trailers for his other DVD concerts—Family Portrait, Secret World Live, and Growing Up Live.