Around twenty-five years ago I was working with some pretty esoteric theatre directors. It was a time when experimental theatre people were looking to try and recreate the power and energy of the shaman in the actor. Not, as so many people would think make them a priest or something ridiculous like that, but to give them that sort of authority on stage; the ability to be the focal point for thousands of people.
This director was very down to earth in spite of all his talk about priests and shamanism, and used as his examples the people he called the priests and shamans of our society. He said in terms of what he was talking about, being the focal point of thousands of people that as far as he was concerned Bruce Springstein was the most powerful shaman or priests in our world right now.
Who else, he said, can walk onto a stage and command the attention of 45,000 plus people. Interestingly enough it was only a couple of years latter that Pope John Paul started doing his huge outdoor Masses, where he would become the focal point for tens of thousands of people. Whatever you may have thought of the man personally he was no fool and he knew what kind of potential power there was to tap into from that type of gig.
What brought all this stuff to mind again was watching the latest Peter Gabriel DVD: Still Growing Up: Live & Unwrapped. This is a follow up release to the 2003 DVD Growing Up Live which was shot on the tour of the same name. The 2005 release is a two disc set: disc one is a record of some the smaller more intimate concerts they did after the main elaborate tour and disc two is a primarily a documentary and interview with Mr. Gabriel about the smaller tour.
Shot in a variety of smaller locations across Europe it’s a technically pared down version of the tour that places more emphasis on the performers than on a stage show. At least that’s what the promo says; if this is what they consider pared down the main tour must have been incredible.
I haven’t seen a picture of Peter Gabriel in years; I stopped following his career around the late eighties when I began to lose interest in pop music for a while, so my first sight of as he looks now was quite startling. The man who I remember as a frenetic bundle of energy, like a coiled spring, has evolved into a rock at the centre of a storm on stage.
Perhaps it’s the radical change in his physical appearance in the last fifteen years, rounder and greyer, and the slowing down that age can bring, but now instead of coming across as an entertainer he has the appearance and the demeanour on stage of a monk or guru who is there to impart wisdom and guidance.
He’s always been an incredibly intense performer with massive amounts of energy expanded during his performances, but now instead of bouncing all over the place he exudes the same power while standing still. That’s not to say he doesn’t move anymore and remains fixed in place like a post, but it’s no longer necessary for him to be the centre of attention. Whether he’s stalking the stage like a large cat, doing some simple choreography with the band, or riding incredible two wheeled standing scooters (as is the case in amazing version of “Games Without Frontiers”) he demands attention and commands the stage
I don’t think I have seen audiences so riveted and completely in the hand of a performer before. He could just be reading a French introduction to the song he’s about to perform and you could hear a pin drop, in an open-air concert. People want to listen to him and share in the experience of his music.
That’s the thing that comes across so clearly on the concert disc of this set; Peter Gabriel songs in concert are an experience. They are more than just a band getting up on stage and running through a collection of their hits. Obviously the disc is not able to recreate the atmosphere of being at a live concert, there’s almost no way in which to be able to do that. What they have done instead is equally as effective.
We are brought face to face with individual band members; we look into the eyes of Peter Gabriel as he sings. We are given access to the raw emotion that a performer generates while on stage through the magnificent camera work and brilliant editing of director Hamish Hamilton.
They made a risky choice with this film in the way in which they decided to present the songs. Instead of having a song from this venue, and then another song from that venue, they’ve inter-cut venues in the songs. You could be watching one song, but it’s footage from four different venues.
The potential of this being a confusing mess is quite high, but they have managed to bring it off with great success and actually increasing the impact of songs through showing the variety of staging. I don’t know if they’ve used only one audio feed for the song or have edited the sound and the picture of each excerpt into the final result. But whatever they have done the sound is impeccable.
The material on this disc spans the breadth of his career, form “Solsbury Hill” and “Games Without Frontiers” and onwards. “Games Without Frontiers” is the song where you first begin to realise the connection this man has with his audiences. Even while he and his daughter, who sings harmony vocals, are propelling themselves around the stage on these two-wheeled standing scooters, he brings the crowd into the singing of the refrain “Je sans frontiers” (I’m without frontiers) seemingly effortlessly.
In some ways his control over the crowd is actually quite terrifying as it’s a reminder of how easy it is for a charismatic figure to control large numbers of people in a mass rally type situation. His closing song, “Biko”, the memorial to Steven Biko, South African activist killed in the seventies by the police, is almost chilling. With its rhythmic chanting of the name Biko the crowd actually continues singing the song after Gabriel has physically left the vicinity ( we see him driving away while the drummer is on stage playing the beat and the audience is still singing away)
The second disc of the set is a documentary of the concerts seen in the first disc. Footage from the concerts, and others, and the travel between gigs are interspersed with an interview with Peter Gabriel. While some it deals with just the specifics of the tour, he also talks in a general manner about his work.
He is at great pains to stress how unimportant he or any pop musician really is. Lines like “I don’t buy this genius stuff, Einstein was a genius …” or “Anybody can be an artist…Put a gun to somebody’s head and tell them they have a year to produces some great piece of art or the gun will go off I’m sure they will…being an artist is about being exposed to the right kind of people and atmosphere…not just about talent”
There was no false modesty in any of those statements, just the perspective of a man who had his feet firmly on the ground, and is refusing to get caught up in the hoopla surrounding what he does for a living. Perhaps this is why he is so compelling when he is on stage. He genuinely appreciates that he has been given the opportunity to do on a full time basis what millions would love to do.
Still Growing Up Live & Unwrapped is a great release, especially if you are someone like me who has never had the opportunity to see Peter Gabriel in concert. He is one of the most enigmatic and potent pop performers alive today. This two disc set not only lets you sample that power but gives you insight into what makes him tick and some behind the scenes look at touring. This is a great release for those who have never seen him live on disc before, or even if you just haven’t seen him in a while. There’s been quite a change.