Revisiting His Weird and Wonderful Performance: ‘Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live’

Reaching the pinnacle of his popularity in the ’80s and early ’90s, Peter Gabriel was in the beginning, in the middle, and ever shall be, an odd fellow. He has also, all along, been a consummate entertainer whose early theatrics with Genesis groomed him perfectly to become one of the grand and shining stars of the video age. Through videos for pieces such as the sexually charged “Sledgehammer” and the ballad of the working man and, indeed, mankind itself, “Don’t Give Up”, Gabriel tore up the envelope, ate it, and demanded that, in the future, he be served one of better quality.

Both “Sledgehammer” and “Don’t Give Up” were culled from his 1986 album So (which receives the deluxe reissue treatment this autumn), but it was his 1992 outing Us that cemented his place in the video kingdom with “Digging In the Dirt” and “Steam”. It was in the aftermath of that latter album that the former public school student concentrated on making an unforgettable stage show that would touch on many of the––Jungian––themes found across his work but especially on Us.

Released in September 1994 this film––and accompanying album––were welcome arrivals from a man who probably did visuals––and live performances––better than most of his contemporaries––including U2, a band known for its highly stylized promo films and stadium tours. This wasn’t Gabriel’s only live video from those peak years––1988’s POV titillates the memory cells and brings to mind many a happy evening spent warming the ocular vessels ‘round the television––but it’s a damned fine one that retains its own musical and visual character and, as they say, holds up rather well.

Shot over two November evenings in 1993 during a Modena, Italy stopover, the footage looks remarkably fresh and vibrant on the current Blu-ray edition, radiating aliveness from the stage––and from Gabriel’s facial hair. True to our expectations, the stage set doesn’t disappoint––it, too, is rife with props and such that would make Dr. Jung proud. There’s an awful lot of dancing––more than you’d probably expect from most prog rock icons––but none of it ever strays so far from the core that Gabriel loses his sense of popzeit.

This isn’t a comprehensive best-of package. There’s no “Biko”, “Shock the Monkey”, or “Intruder”. This is Gabriel the hit maker making hits for one and all in a performance that is as delightfully off-kilter (read: filled with PG being his awesomely weird self) as his best work with Genesis. Curiously, the accompanying album has not yet been reissued, which is a shame because it’s as good a snapshot of the man during the era as the albums––So and Us––which it leans so heavily upon.

Backed by drummer Manu Katché, bassist Tony Levin, and Paula Cole, Gabriel surprises us with new but still comprehensible arrangements of favorites and a surprise or two––the (relative) rarity “Across The River” and a nod to the Birdy soundtrack via the excellent “Slow Marimbas”. Naturally, it’s the hits that come to the fore––he opens with “Come Talk To Me” (replete with a sentient—and possessive––callbox), then travels through “Steam”, eventually landing in the “Blood of Eden”, climbing “Solsbury Hill” and “Digging in the Dirt” while suggesting that, when faced with adversity, the best mantra is “Don’t Give Up”. One of the real stars here is Paula Cole who proves herself an able replacement for Kate Bush during the also aforementioned “Don’t Give Up” and maybe a superior vocalist to Sinead O’ Connor whose memorable turn on the studio version of “Blood Of Eden” may truly be bested here.

The rest of the band––guitarist David Rhodes, violinist Shankar, and keyboardist Jean Claude Naimro––delivers the musical goods with new arrangements and indefatigable musical acumen. Enough, any way, that one wonders how Gabriel could fail to bring a similar energy to his 2011 live release New Blood: Live In London. We digress. With footage such as this still lurking in the wings it seems that Gabriel’s legacy is secure and that the music that sounded positively of the future when it first emerged continues to sound that way two decades on.

Bonus materials include a time-lapse film of the stage set up at Gabriel’s Berlin performance, a making-of film with interviews and behind the scenes footage as well as two tracks that serve as the bed for a photo montage from the tour. The classic “Red Rain”, previously absent from the film, appears as a bonus track while a 2011 performance of “The Rhythm of the Heat” (a track about Carl Jung’s travels in Africa) with the New Blood Orchestra gives us future shock.

The remixed and remastered soundtrack sounds vibrant and neu, the master’s voice as clear and clairvoyant as ever. The ultimate Peter Gabriel experience? Nah. You really have to bathe yourself in the whole oeuvre for that, but this is one great spoke in the greater wheel that is Peter Gabriel’s not-so-secret world.

RATING 8 / 10