Barely halfway through Peter Gabriel’s Back to Front – Live in London and this thought popped into my head. Not since the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense has a concert document achieved such a perfect mix of artistic and creative excitement.
Credit goes to Gabriel and Rob Sinclair for the staging, choreography and arrangements. The multiple cameras, angles and edits by director Hamish Hamilton offer a presentation that’s intimate yet dazzling.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that when Gabriel celebrated the 25th anniversary of his commercial breakthrough, So, he constructed a performance that was much more than a stroll down memory lane. On Back to Front he gives the audience what they want but does so in a manner that’s under his terms, making it much more uplifting and satisfying.
The setup initially finds him addressing London’s O2 Arena audience with the house lights up. During this he explains that the show will be split up into something akin to a good meal – Starter (aka Appetizer) which is acoustic, Savory Course (aka Entrée, which is electronic and darker) and Dessert (“So” in its entirety). He opens with “Daddy Long Legs,” a song that’s admittedly not finished but representative of the night’s musical journey. Bandmembers including Tony Levin, David Rhodes, Manu Katche and David Sancious from the original 1986-87 tour eventually join him. Midway through the fourth number, “Family Snapshot,” the venue goes dark and the spectacular light show finally appears.
“Digging in the Dirt,” which begins the second section, along with “Secret World” “No Self Control,” which features the mobile camera booms with lights from the first So tour, and “Solsbury Hill” present a roller coast of emotional and musical power. Stopping here would be enough but dessert is served when the stage is bathed in crimson for “Red Rain.” And “So” it begins.
Played from beginning to end, one can better appreciate the pop-relieving moments of “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” due to the dour subject matter on the album’s other tracks — “Mercy Street,” “We Do What We’re Told” and “Don’t Give Up.” All are beautifully performed with the same innovative approach as the night’s previous songs.
After the album’s completion Gabriel ends the night with “Biko,” his tribute to the South African activist. His last line of the night reminds the crowd that there are much important matters than a rock ‘n’ roll show in this world, “As always, what happens now is up to you.”
The successful re-imagining of his works demonstrates that well-produced art can be thrilling on an intellectual level as well as appealing to more than a cult audience. With Back to Front Gabriel went Beyond What’s Expected.