Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 17, 2014)
When we last visited Peter Gabriel on home video, we did so via a concert program from a tour that revolved around 1986’s So. With Gabriel’s newest Blu-ray, we find a concert program… from a tour that revolved around 1986’s So.
In the 12 years since he released his last “rock album” in 2002, Gabriel has found plenty of ways to distract himself from the creation of new material, and he used the 25th anniversary of So as another excuse. Gabriel reassembled the same band that toured behind So in 1987 and went on the road to play the album in its entirety.
That made the 2012-14 Back to Front Tour different from the 1986-87 So Tour, as he didn’t perform the whole record in its heyday. The nine So songs offer the centerpiece of Back to Front, but we get 12 other tunes as well.
Front launches with an acoustic set for the first four songs. Gabriel opens with the previously unreleased “Daddy Long Legs” before he plays “unplugged” versions of “Come Talk to Me” (from 1992’s Us), “Shock the Monkey” (1982’s Security) and “Family Snapshot” (1980’s Peter Gabriel). After that, we get full band renditions of “Digging in the Dirt” (Us), “Secret World” (Us), “The Family and the Fishing Net” (Security), “No Self Control” (Peter Gabriel 1980), “Solsbury Hill” (1977’s Peter Gabriel) and “Show Yourself” (new).
This leads us to the So portion of the show, as that album’s nine tracks finish the main set. For the encore, Gabriel plays “The Tower That Ate People” (2000’s OVO) and “Biko” (Peter Gabriel 1980).
The Back to Front tour opened in North American in September 2012 and continues to play; as I write in July 2014, the final show looks to finish in about five months. The performances found on this Blu-ray come from two nights at London’s O2 Arena in December 2013.
I saw the tour at the conclusion of its 16-date North American run in October 2012 and thought the show seemed… okay. At his best, Gabriel can provide amazing live performances, but something about the Back to Front concert just didn’t quite connect with me.
Maybe I just wasn’t wild about the fact it so strongly looked backwards. Throughout his career, Gabriel moved ahead and tried to innovate, so his decision to continually regurgitate aspects of his past continues to disappoint me. C’mon Pete – it’s time for something new!
If I detach my desire for Gabriel to forge ahead, though, I can better approach Front and appreciate it on its own merits. Gabriel doesn’t provide the dynamic live presence he did in his younger days; even when compared to shows from 2003, he appears less active.
Getting old sucks, so I can’t blame Gabriel for that, and he remains a strong presence despite his lower level of activity. The man knows how to headline a stage and this experience/prowess shows well. Pete may look like a long-tenured philosophy professor at a liberal arts college – and at some point, he and Billy Joel became the same person physically - but he still maintains a good presence as a live performer.
And Gabriel sounds solid, too, though I can’t help but question how much of the vocals actually come from the O2 concert. When I reviewed the 1987 Athens Blu-ray, it seemed clear that Gabriel had re-recorded a lot of his singing, and that appears likely here as well.
Having seen him live not that long before this show’s recording, I can say that Gabriel’s voice remains good, and that 2012 concert experience allows me to hold out some hope that he didn’t go too nuts in terms of “fixing” the recordings. Nonetheless, I’d still bet that much of Gabriel’s singing got redone, and that might hold true for the rest of the musicians as well.
Whatever the case, the songs sound good and get nice performances here. Gabriel fans won’t find a lot of invigorating reinterpretations; even the “unplugged” tracks don’t reinvent wheels. Nonetheless, the tracks represent the material in a satisfying manner, and it’s especially good to hear some of the So tracks live for the first time.
For the most part, Front goes with a simple and fairly effective visual presentation. Director Hamish Hamilton depicts events concisely and without too much quick cutting or gimmicks. Some exceptions occur, as songs like “The Family and the Fishing New” go for unusual tactics such as artificial TV interference. I could live without that, but since most of the show comes across in a straightforward manner, I won’t complain too much.
I could live without the number of audience shots, though. Front eschews these for most of its first portion but they become more prominent as the concert progresses, especially during crowd pleasers like “Solsbury Hill” and “Sledgehammer”. They add nothing to the presentation and become an annoyance.
Despite that, I view Back to Front as an enjoyable trot through notable aspects of Peter Gabriel’s career. It doesn’t find the performer at the top of his game but it shows that he can still put on a fine concert in his sixties.