Peter Gabriel’s most recent concert tour found the multiplatinum artist marking the 25th anniversary of his bestselling album, So, by performing it in its entirety—alongside other hits and fan-favorite “misses.” But leave it to the former Genesis front man to put an unusual twist on what would amount to a rote nostalgia show for most acts of his stature.
Now available on Eagle Rock Blu-Ray / DVD, Peter Gabriel: Back to Front—Live in London captures Gabriel and his band as they turn back time in a sprawling concert that unearths material from his eponymous first three albums—aka Car (1977), Scratch (1978), and Melt (1980), along with 1982’s Security and 1992’s Us before recreating his groundbreaking 1986 effort start to finish.
Or front to back, as it were.
Directed by Hamish Hamilton and produced in conjunction with Gabriel’s own Real World label, the two-hour film sources footage taken from multiple cameras over the course of two nights at London’s O2 Arena in October 2013. Meticulously edited into one seamless, bravura performance for home viewers (the movie enjoyed a one-night theatrical release last Spring), Back to Front boasts the same mind-blowing visuals and high-fidelity sound Gabriel enthusiasts have come to expect from the venerable vocalist.
The show proper is divided into three parts, like a gourmet dinner (acoustic, electric, and So), and each of which is expounded upon by Gabriel and production designer Robert Sinclair in the bonus documentary “The Visual Approach.”
The stripped-down first segment finds Gabriel either playing alone, or with minimal accompaniment—and with house lights fully illuminated. The second part finds Gabriel plugging in with “the cavalry” for a medley of hits as the overheads dim and a brilliant light show commences. The third act bounces Peter and his band through So’s nine memorable cuts—and a brilliant two-song encore.
The first song, “Daddy Long Legs,” is so new it has nonsense syllables instead of set verses. Taking his seat at a sleek black Bosendorfer piano, Gabriel cautions the audience that they’ll hear him “searching for lyrics.” But instead of sounding drunk (as his wife warned), Peter sounds as poetic and earnest as ever, his gravelly voice recounting an uneasy father-son relationship while his fingers meander over the keys, hunting—and finding—a delicate medley.
Gabriel introduces his band (the same core group that backed him on So) before plunging into earnest Us opener “Come Talk to Me,” rendered here on acoustic guitars and accordion instead of lush synthesizers. Peter quits his piano to dance across the stage for “Shock the Monkey,” still nailing the falsetto high notes (“on my knees”) despite his age. The lights are unexpectedly doused midway through “Family Snapshot,” augmenting the kid-with-a-gun musical drama and drawing Gabriel’s audience into the fray. A bank of video screens flickers to life behind the musicians, each monitor projecting images of Peter and the band (black and white at first, then color). Five symmetrically-positioned camera booms creak to life on the nightmarish “Digging in The Dirt,” their cranes stretching and arching like the necks of ancient brachiosaurs as Peter stabs and thrusts with his handheld microphone:
“This time you’ve gone too far!” he hisses anew. “I told ya! I told ya!”
Guitarist David Rhodes and bassist Tony Levin dance with Gabriel, ring-around-rosey style, inside concentric black rings on during “Secret World,” their movements charted by overhead cameras. Taken from the 3CD deluxe version of So, “The Family and The Fishing Net” is punctuated with flashing strobes, and sees Peter doing the first of several tangos with one of his robotic booms—whose camera transmits haunting, pixelated close-ups to the big screens. Rhodes coaxes ethereal sounds from his Les Paul guitar with an e-bow as Levin plays electronic cello, and David Sancious pipes in some flute-like tones with his Korg Kronos keyboard.
Background singers Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson are more than pretty faces with angelic voices: Jennie (the brunette) shares a duet with Peter later in the set, while Linnea (blonde) adds cello sounds of her own whenever Levin—the “king of the bottom end”—is preoccupied with bass, Chapman Stick, or bass synth.
Drummer Manu Katche explores tribal rhythms and exotic textures on the menacing “No Self Control.” The London audience takes up Gabriel’s “boom, boom, boom” refrain on the upbeat “Solsbury Hill.” Seated back at his piano, Peter prefaces spooky slow-burner “Show Yourself” by discussing the Mexican short film from whence it came:
“It’s all about sex, drugs, and God,” he says, probably only half in jest.
A torrent of crimson spills down the vertical LCD screens on “Red Rain.” The first of nine offerings from So finds Levin thumping his bass with his patented “funky fingers,” a pair of sticklike appendages affixed to his right index and middle digits for extra percussive oomph when hitting the strings. Rhodes cooks up a staccato guitar groove for “Sledgehammer” as Gabriel goes dancing again, playfully acting out the song’s double-entendres with a pelvic thrust here and a fist-pump there. Abrahamson subs for Kate Bush on the down-and-out ballad “Don’t Give Up,” offsetting the shame felt by Gabriel’s unemployed narrator with her pride and hope. The tune coalesces, gospel-like, into a protracted jam, with Peter leading another soulful chant. Katche toys with polyrhythms on “That Voice Again” as Levin’s spindly fingers tap-dance over the neck of his C-Stick.
The restrained, heart-wrenching “Mercy Street” commences as an a cappella. Once the band kicks in, Gabriel is free to writhe on the stage floor, curling into a fetal ball as the camera booms lean in for closer inspection, like curious jungle animals. “Big Time” brings Peter (and the O2 spectators) back to their feet for another guitar-driven dance number. Conversely, “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” features a brooding mechanical pulse—and a choir of creepy crewmembers in fencing masks to parrot Peter’s stoic, obedient refrain.
“This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)” delights in the airy keys and African grooves that decorated the original track (co-written with Laurie Anderson). Mauritanian vocalist Daby Toure joins Gabriel and Abrahamson on the triumphant “In Your Eyes,” singing and dancing as the screens flash a rainbow spectrum. For his encore, Gabriel reinterprets “The Tower That Ate People” (from his 1999 OVO soundtrack to the Millennium Dome opening) by belting over a heavy metal beat while a colossal cloth-hewn helix drapes from the rafters. Seen from above, the fabric concoction resembles a galactic wormhole.
The concert ends (as do most Gabriel shows) with “Biko,” Peter’s salute to the slain South African anti-apartheid activist. Before singing, Gabriel reflects on the “global movement” for peace in our time—thirty years removed from Biko’s death—and wonders whether sea changes in technology and communication might cause “leaks” that eventually unite people once divided by borders.
Back to Front—Live in London is a sterling concert experience that shows two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gabriel at his very best. Despite his sixty-plus years, the man who once dressed like gladiators and flowers onstage is still a remarkable entertainer-with-a-message who imbues his music with all the right dramatic flourishes. Surrounding himself with top-notch musicians certainly helps: The performances here are so engaging that one can easily overlook the fact that everyone is dressed in monotone black, and that at least three of the principal musicians are older, bald white guys. It’s not exactly a “look” that inspires folks to pay top dollar for their rock show, but Gabriel’s always been an envelope-pushing nonconformist in that regard.
“There’s a persona I adopt when I’m up there,” Peter explains in his introductory voiceover. “In some ways [the performance] is a mask, but for releasing instead of hiding.”
The film also serves notice that 1986’s So is even better than we remember: A rare crossover rock album with no weak songs in the running order. Back to Front is a fine point of entry for the album’s reconsideration, and will stand as a suitable home video companion to Peter Gabriel: Live in Athens (issued last year by Eagle Rock).