Peter Gabriel: Back To Front

Sledgehammer-subtle document of Gabriel’s 2013 London show.

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If live performances are meant to begin with a bang, Peter Gabriel’s Back To Front O2 set starts out with a fizzle: no fanfare, a quiet introduction, and three songs performed with the houselights on. Instead of building momentum or tension, it all feels a bit like watching a soundcheck, until halfway through Family Snapshot, when the houselights snap off, the onstage beams whip into gear, and you gotta feel sorry for anyone freighting a tray of expensive lager to their seats.

Filming an artist as inventive as Gabriel surely requires some similarly innovative camerawork, and we certainly get that. The lens shakes and judders as flight cases, lights, mic stands, other cameras and the backs of audience members’ heads continually creep into the frame. Lingering shots of swinging cranes suggest it’s all as much a celebration of the technology as it is the performance.

The blurb on the DVD cover promises “more in-the-room precision than ever before”, and the early part of this film suggests that this means ignoring the scale and splendour of the live production in favour of pore-counting close-ups. Putting the viewer in the middle of the action doesn’t really work if you’re six inches from Gabriel’s face (in this close, you may as well be in the bathroom as onstage), and it’s almost a surprise that the director didn’t insist on attaching a GoPro to the singer’s head.

The one exception early on is No Self Control’s attack-of-the-lighting-rig sequence, which is scarily claustrophobic. (Not for nothing is Gabriel’s lighting man interviewed amid the DVD’s few extras.) Even when the camera retreats a little — like on the ever-euphoric Sollsbury Hill, which finds Gabriel, Tony Levin and David Rhodes skipping gleefully around in a circle — the results don’t match the version from 2003’s Growing Up tour DVD, which remains the single most joyous few minutes of live footage I’ve ever watched.

Things get better when So begins, as the lights switch from bleak monochrome to vivid colour, and all that clever hardware begins to support the show rather than appearing to conduct it. It’s the slow numbers that stand out. Don’t Give Up gives Swedish singer Jennie Abrahamson the opportunity to stand in Kate Bush’s shoes, and the interplay between her and Gabriel is genuinely moving.

Mercy Street is unorthodox and stunning, as the singer lays on his back for the duration of the song, lights and cameras in close, gently probing and nuzzling. In Your Eyes is as beautiful as ever, and even after all these years the rousing Biko is a still a powerful, heartfelt finale.

Via Eagle Rock