I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early 20s. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don’t know if I’ve changed and concerts are still the same, but I won’t go to one anymore unless I’m sure they will be in a controlled environment where people’s focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.
All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they’re probably better than what you’d find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren’t able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual’s talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel, Live In Athens 1987, released by Eagle Rock Entertainment.
Instead of the usual dual-format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel’s songs from the last 25 years, re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the remastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
Gabriel took a much more hands-on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V. Produced by Martin Scorsese, the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and backstage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N’dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.
In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band, and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy, from N’dour’s opening note to Gabriel’s final encore.
If you never had the chance to see N’dour and his band when they were in their prime, their five-song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course, seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N’dour’s soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music, but the joy of being alive as well.
However, this is Gabriel’s show. From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass), David Rhodes (guitar), Manu Katche (drums), and David Sancious (keyboards), open the show with “This is the Picture/Excellent Birds” (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you’ve entered into an exciting new world of sound, light, and dance. For this isn’t your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead, what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show, down to the smallest of hand gestures.
Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner, as he uses shadow, colour, and light to help him weave the various stories he’s telling or to accent a song’s emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (he introduces “Shock The Monkey” as a song about jealousy) to hope, “Games Without Frontiers,” and his anthem for peace and the joy of life’s simple pleasures, “Solsbury Hill”. On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin, and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
However, it was on the song “Mercy Street” where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane-like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted, and extended seemingly effortlessly. During “Mercy Street,” these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel’s stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.
Nevertheless, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn’t a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it’s the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it’s when he’s still he’s his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12, 1977 at the age of 30.
Gabriel wrote the song “Biko” in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stock still in the centre of the stage to sing this song. On this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N’dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko’s plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko’s death today.
Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn’t need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist’s vision rather than the other way round.