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Peter Gabriel – Secret World Live (DVD Review)

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Yeah, I know this is a little late coming, but here goes anyhow.

Secret World Live was recorded from two nights shows that were performed on 16 and 17 November 1993 at Palasport Nuovo, in Modena, Italy. Gabriel must have a thing for Italy because he filmed 2003’s Growing Up Live there as well. There is one thing I know for sure, Italians love prog-rock, and they love Peter Gabriel. These shows were part of Gabriel‘s tour in support of his recently released Us album, and the set list relies heavily on its songs. This DVD was finally released almost ten years after the release of the original VHS version, so fans had much to be excited about with the thought of a digitally re-mixed and re-mastered DVD to replace their worn out VHS tapes. Well, don’t get your panties in a bunch, because all didn’t work out as hoped.

The visually dazzling stage production, and emotionally charged musical performances certainly live up to the hype and praise that has been bestowed on this tour, but the overall production of this DVD is a big disappointment. Although I haven’t seen the VHS version, something obviously went horribly wrong during the video transfer to DVD. The picture is a grainy, blocky, over-compressed mess. To top it off, the proudly advertised "anamorphic widescreen" transfer is apparently just the original 4:3, full-frame picture with black bars slapped on the top and bottom to give it a cinematic appearance. To be fair, I will get to some of the good things about this DVD, before I continue on with the audio problems.

The show kicks off impressively with the camera panning over the darkened crowd in the direction of a darkened stage which reveals Gabriel singing "Come Talk to Me" from within a barely-lit, British-style telephone booth. After a couple of verses in this manner, the rest of the band kicks in as they are being raised up onto the stage from an area underneath. The giant video screen also starts to simultaneously rotate completely around vertically – a feet you will see several more times during the show. "Come Talk to Me" is one of the stronger songs from the Us album, and Manu Katche’s brilliant drumming makes this performance a dazzling show opener.

The stage actually consists of two main stages, one being a square main stage that is centered by the giant revolving video screen, and a round stage that extends out towards the center of the arena, and is connected to the main stage by a large catwalk. Each song performance includes some type of visual effect, interactive set piece, dance routine, or theme. One of the props was a tree that was featured prominently during "Shaking The Tree" and "Blood Of Eden". I laughed my ass off during Gabriel’s interview when he compared seeing the rather small tree for the first time, after expecting something huge, to when Spinal Tap was presented with their Stonehenge prop. The tree wasn’t THAT bad, however, and it added nicely to the ambience of the performances.

A few of the songs come too close to Broadway productions for my taste. This is still supposed to be a rock concert, and too often Gabriel lets the production overwhelm the music. Nearly every song requires some kind of set change, and choreography. Along with the tree and phone booth scenes, you also get helmet cams ("Digging In The Dirt’), a raft ("San Jacinto’), steam vents ("Steam"), and the band disappearing into a giant suitcase before a huge dome covers the entire stage at the end of "Secret World". I love a good stage show as much as the next guy, but the production should enhance the music, not the other way around. They do get it right most of the time, but if I was deciding on whether to by the Us album based on some of these performances, I may have passed.

The problems with the audio on this DVD is attributed to a few different factors. In their attempt to re-mix and re-master the original audio tracks, the producer simply got carried away. The result is some ultra-slick, over-produced audio tracks that have lots of painfully obvious overdubs. The resulting sound is not terrible, especially the DTS track, but it does not come close to capturing the true live atmosphere that was experienced by those at the show. It just doesn’t sound very live, and never quite connects with the performance. This is one DVD where the DTS track is drastically different and superior to the Dolby 5.1 track, as it is far more dynamic and involves the surrounds to a much greater extent. The bass response was also slightly more pronounced on the DTS track, but both were still lacking, which is a crime when you’ve got Tony Levin plucking the strings.

The reason that all of the super-choreographed groups and "singers", such as Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys, who jump around the stage all night surrounded by their dance troupes, all make me want to jab a red-hot soldering iron into my eyes and eardrums, is because they are always out of breath and can rarely give a good live vocal performance without the saving grace of a recorded vocal track. The overdubs and lip-synching were fairly obvious in a few places on this DVD (check out "Solsbury Hill"), which can be a real bummer when you are trying to get immersed into the live experience. I don’t automatically dislike the use of recorded vocal tracks, they can be effective in recreating harmony or background vocals when they are impractical to reproduce live, but not just because you want to be able to prance around the stage without having to worry about hitting all of your lead vocals.

Even with all of the problems I have mentioned, this is still a very enjoyable DVD. "Digging In The Dirt" sounded excellent, but the rapid-fire helmet cam changes made me dizzy. "Sledgehammer" easily bested its sterile studio counterpart, and "Don’t Give Up" was especially haunting with some exceptional vocals from both Gabriel and Paula Cole. The final encore of "In Your Eyes" featured a wonderful extended intro, and the electric violin and extra vocalists gave it more of a world-music ambiance.

There were some great bonus features included on this DVD, including a three-minute, time-lapse recording of the Berlin show set-up and tear-down, a making of Secret World Live featurette, and a preview of the Growing Up Live tour. A tour photo montage is also included, which is accompanied by an interesting "Steam (quiet version)" that sounds like it could have been recorded by Radiohead.

If I were a bigger Peter Gabriel fan, I think that I would have been a little pissed at him for almost completely ignoring his earlier work. It is bad enough that he completely shuns his Genesis classics, but he only plays one song, "Solsbury Hill", from his first three solo albums. No "D.I.Y.", “Games Without Frontiers”, "Biko", "Shock The Monkey"? Come on Peter. The set list was almost all Us and So material. Not sure why the awesome "Red Rain" is on the album version, but not on this DVD either. I personally enjoyed his Growing Up Live DVD much more. The production quality was far superior, and the performances and stage show were more focused and entertaining. I’d highly recommend both though.

Set List
Come Talk to Me
Across the River
Slow Marimbas
Shaking the Tree
Blood of Eden
San Jacinto
Kiss That Frog
Washing of the Water
Solsbury Hill
Digging in the Dirt
Secret World
Don’t Give Up
In Your Eyes

Performance 8/10
Production 6/10

Read all of my DVD concert reviews at Roy’s Reviews

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About Paul Roy

  • Very nice review; and don’t worry about it being “late” (I just read a Blogcritics review of a film first released in 1961).

    I enjoy this DVD much more than [i]Growing Up Live[/i] because it was a much more cohesive show (although that one’s great, too). As for the heaviness of the [i]Us[/i] and [i]So[/i] material, that was mainly the decision to promote those albums at the time. His shows during that period definitely included more of the older songs such as “Shock The Monkey” and “Games Without Frontiers” (which were both released on his earlier concert video, [i]POV[/i]. “Biko” was a less frequently-played song on that tour and “D.I.Y.” wasn’t played at all (I think the last time it was performed live was in 1983). I’m not sure why “Red Rain” was left off, though, but I think the songs included do flow perfectly and I don’t miss anything left on the cutting-room floor.

  • Oh, yes. Peter hasn’t done any of his Genesis material during his solo shows since 1978 (he used to perform “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and “Back In NYC”) — unless you count the ‘Six Of The Best’ reunion show at Milton Keynes in Oct. 1982. For that matter, Phil Collins never performs Genesis songs in his solo shows (well, “Behind The Lines”, but he re-recorded that for his first solo LP), nor does Mike + The Mechanics. They all like to keep the solo material and band material separate and feel that if they don’t have the rest of the guys playing with them it would be cheating the songs and their history.

    Only Steve Hackett plays plenty of Genesis material during his solo shows and has re-recorded a number of the earlier band songs as well (check out his ‘Genesis Revisted’ 2-CD set for most of them).

  • Mark,

    Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford never did any Genesis songs with their other bands, but atleast they still got together AS Genesis every so often until finally breaking up a few years ago (or did they?). When Steve Hackett performed a few Genesis classics on his Once Above A Time DVD they were incredible. I’d just like to hear Gabriel do some because alot up us were never fortunate enough to see the Gabriel-era Genesis live.