[20 November 2005]
“There’s an echo of what was there, but it’s already fading.”
One of the toughest things about growing older is watching your heroes age with you, especially when they age poorly. And Peter Gabriel is a prime example of that with his newest DVD release, Still Growing Up Live & Unwrapped. Divided neatly between two discs, you can pick your poison. Disc one contains Still Growing Up Live, where Gabriel and director Hamish Hamilton attempt to document the 2004 tour of the same name (which was nothing more than a smaller venue version of 2002’s Growing Up Live tour). Disc two contains Still Growing Up Unwrapped, basically the same show, but intercut with interview footage and some additional visuals by Gabriel’s oldest daughter, Anna.
Still Growing Up Live consists of only 13 song performances that, apart from seeming like a short compilation, tend to highlight Gabriel’s passing relevance. With his entire band clad in black tunics (because it’s slimming?) and the men all shaved completely or nearly bald, a paunchy and graying Gabriel looks more and more like Burl Ives’ narrating snowman from Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Not helping matters is long-time bassist Tony Levin’s G. Gordon Liddy-esque mustache. Worst of all, Gabriel’s haggard vocals are revealed from the get-go with “Red Rain”.
The presentation of “Games Without Frontiers” from Gabriel’s third self-titled album is given a technological update with Gabriel and daughter Melanie performing the entire song on Segway Human Transporters. They dramatically and stoically enter the stage on the vehicles and move through a carefully choreographed routine. Designed to highlight the cutting-edge of technology that Gabriel loves, the entire affair instead comes off both geriatric and robotic all at once. Hamilton, who famously employed the “Bono Cam” on U2: Elevation 2001 Live from Boston, again goes for the gimmick with what can only be described as the “Segway Cam”, providing repeated spectacular shots directly up Gabriel’s nose.
Gabriel’s diminishing vocals are no match for 2000’s “The Tower That Ate People”, a hard alternative rocker with quieter moments interspersed. Gabriel alters his voice, amping it up and distorting it in order to not be completely lost in his own song, but ultimately it all ends up sounding terribly dated. Songs like “San Jacinto”, “Digging in the Dirt”, and “Solsbury Hill” are one unremarkable turn after another. “Digging in the Dirt” actually sounds more polished than the studio version found on Us. All the raw urgency and pent-up sexuality are gone, as Gabriel’s voice gets lost in the production. With “Solsbury Hill”, Gabriel treads through the benign, adult-contemporary, lite-rock territory Sting laid claim to a decade ago.
The problems with disc one are numerous. Gabriel’s vocals have lost their clarity and beauty. Nothing seems spontaneous or born out of the moment; the entire show seems over-choreographed—every gesture, every step, every expression. The performances are culled from seven different locations across Europe, and Hamilton’s decision to jump between venues within a single performance is jarring because the venues are so different: one is a performance in the round, one is an outdoor festival during daylight hours, one is an indoor arena with a circular catwalk out into the crowd. Also over-employed is a split screen effect in four, six, and sometimes nine separate views on screen. While there is rarely little value to be found in the alternate angle view feature of DVDs, at least if it had been used here the viewer wouldn’t be stuck with a chopped up display.
Wisely, Gabriel doesn’t monkey with “Sledgehammer”—giving it a steady run-through, even donning a lighted jacket similar to the one from the groundbreaking video. The high points in the show are “Secret World” and “Come Talk to Me”, both off of 1992’s Us, and the closer, “Biko”. “Secret World” is much more up-tempo than the studio version. About three minutes in, the whole show cracks open with strobes and (what else) choreography that transform the song—it ebbs and flows and churns, casting the anthemic song in a wonderful new light. Powerful as ever, “Biko” closes the show, ending with only drummer Ged Lynch pounding out the forceful beat and a lonely, spot-lit microphone at center stage while the crowd’s voices and fists are raised in unison.
Two curiously chosen extra tracks are on disc one. First up is an abysmal rendition of “In Your Eyes” from the Still Growing Up Live tour. As bad as it is, it seems strange it wasn’t included in the proper set. The second extra is “No Self Control” from the 1988 This Way Up world tour film P.O.V. Seeing Gabriel in his prime here is jarring after watching an hour and a half of his nearly three decades older self falter so badly.
“I think talent is very overrated.”
Still Growing Up Unwrapped is a mix of Hamilton’s work from disc one and Anna Gabriel’s vision, resulting in a schizophrenic feel that is every bit as difficult to watch as Still Growing Up Live. Consisting of 11 of the 13 performances from disc one (although inexplicably, “The Tower That Ate People” is in a different place among the track listing) and an “Epilogue”, Anna Gabriel intersperses interview footage of her dad answering questions with the work of Hamilton. She also has a penchant for projecting footage on her dad’s face and head, giving the entire business an air of artsy self-importance.
The five songs found among the extras of disc two are split between two venues. “Darkness”, “No Way Out”, and “Growing Up” are from the Big Room studio rehearsals for the Growing Up Live tour in 2002. “Downside Up” and an incredible rendition of “Father, Son” from Gabriel’s performance on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland in May 2000 round out the extras.
As should be expected from a technologically fascinated artist like Gabriel, the video quality is excellent and everything is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with the exception of the studio footage extra on disc two. As is often the case with concert DVDs, the audience is always mixed into the rear speakers. The DTS 5.1 is the preferred choice, offering a more robust audio experience. Unfortunately, there really is no reason to play Still Growing Up Live & Unwrapped, unless seeing your heroes age poorly makes you feel better about yourself. It is now with great trepidation that I am waiting to see what comes of the comments that have surfaced over the last month from Gabriel (Rolling Stone), Phil Collins (Reuters), and Steve Hackett (Chicago Sun-Times), all speaking openly about reforming the original Genesis line-up.