Considering a musician of Peter Gabriel's standing only has one live "video" to his credit, you have to think Growing Up Live might win simply by existing. This point is further driven home when considering 1993's Secret World Live release, a video often derided among fans for its grainy VHS visual quality and the rumours of lip-synching and audio touch-ups.
Either way, this highly stylized and dark DVD's title is apt, as if one thing is apparent early on, it's the aging Gabriel has undergone. The man is larger in girth and slightly shinier of scalp; sure, the title also says wonders about his musical prowess, as his always-warm voice has taken on a rougher, more worn hew. This is evident on the opener, "Here Comes the Flood", as standing alone and dressed in black by a modern strewn keyboard (read: encircled by what looks like computers and a mixing board), Gabriel serenades the gracious and exuberant Milan crowd without so much as a single movement which in this context comes across as less than unenthusiastic posturing and more as actual style, and in Milan, what better way to begin a show?
The trouble with this DVD -- and also the source of many fan's lamentations -- is the manner in which this release has been edited. In this song the fans' complaints are evident, as the visuals do less than impress, resting more on an awkward and slightly frustrating level. This continues throughout the song and the set in its entirety in fact, as despite the visually arresting colour light schemes and Gabriel's circular stage, we are left with strange edits and camera angles, and very rarely with a full stage visual. Worse yet, though, are the split screen cuts between songs that show barely discernible images busy in backstage preparations.
For an act that has always been visually sensitive and innovative, both live and during music videos, the DVD in that regard is a letdown. The revolving stage is also a bit of a disappointment; since most of Gabriel's band has little in the way of stage activity, the action is then focused around a small ring of people that encompass barely half of the stage's surface.
At any rate, what ultimately makes or breaks concert DVDs is the musical content, and in this area fans shouldn't be too disappointed, as Gabriel and his international band offer up 17 songs in over 134 minutes.
The always crowd pleasing "Red Rain" comes early and to an enthusiastic response, and with it Gabriel's usual accompaniers David Rhodes and Tony Levin are allowed to take more of a pro-active approach, as once again Gabriel's stage presence vanishes behind a table of gadgets... this while his voice sounds as gravely as it might ever have been.
"Sky Blue" is another highlight. With the Blind Boys of Alabama joining the performance, the song unfolds slowly and builds sweepingly behind their hauntingly beautiful harmonies and a strong lead vocal from Gabriel.
Despite these and other strong songs, there are some misfires. "Downside Up" suffers from a weak and almost shy vocal turn by Gabriel's daughter Melanie (vocals rumoured to have even been augmented by later touch-ups). Nevertheless, Gabriel himself almost saves the turn with an inspired vocal, and fittingly the two continue on to a gravity-defying "downside up" walk around a lowered stage prop, an act that rouses the crowd initially though quickly tires. As seen on this DVD the effect is worse, as both Gabriel and daughter Melanie look uncomfortable and nearly constipated, harnessed and pushed around in the manner they are. Equally showy and awkward is "Growing Up", which is performed in a sort of bubble that does well with the song's themes, though hides Gabriel for much of the performance.
"The Barry Williams Show" also barely sounds and looks as if it were recorded live, as through a series of effects the screen is split up into multiple images. While this fits the theme of the song, as well as Gabriel's introduction that "in this millennium they might say you are what you watch," the overall effect watching from home is slightly nauseating in its constant jittery movement. This effect lends itself more to that of a music video rather than a document of a live Gabriel show. If any of this were somewhat cutting edge or new it might be passable, but that rock giants like U2 and even Radiohead have dealt with similar topics with more panache and force makes the effort seem stale at best.
It is refreshing then that the later third of his show is reserved for crowd pleasing hits like, "Solsbury Hill", "Sledgehammer", and "In Your Eyes". With "Solsbury Hill" in particular augmenting its breezy feel with a bicycle ride around the revolving stage, and a fully coordinated circling walk by the band. Considering all the trouble Gabriel went to construct a sort of super sleek visual frost early on, this submission is telling. It shows he is realistic enough to know what many fans want, his act symbolizing why he is loved. It's a pity then that he could not extend this act to the rest of Growing Up Live.