Plot: What’s it about?
I’m going to assume that anyone taking the time to read this review is already familiar with this deservedly legendary concert. For those who aren’t, take my advice if you’re any kind of Peter Gabriel fan and run – don’t walk – and find yourself a copy of this Blu-ray right now. Then you can come back and read the rest of my review. I won’t be offended. This is the very definition of essential Gabriel on the top of his game, and if you regret purchasing this disc for one moment, I’ll be astonished. And we can’t be friends. As for the rest of you, I’ll go into my technical thoughts on this release in the sections below. But first, a brief description of what you’ll find on this Blu-ray as opposed to what you might be expecting if you’re a Gabriel fan. This is not simply the PoV VHS or Laserdisc simply repurposed and cleaned up to modern standards. Well, it is PoV, and yet Live In Athens 1987 was created to be an entirely different animal, both for (far) better and (slightly) worse – more on that under the technical portions of this review. PoV was a strange beast, cobbled together from live footage from Athens and home video footage, interspersed throughout. But the concert footage – what there was of it – was undeniably fantastic. This particular performance from the So tour was so good in fact that it would ultimately go down in Peter Gabriel’s history as arguably the defining moment of what was already an almost unfathomably successful period in his career.
As such, PoV has long been something of a Holy Grail among Peter Gabriel devotees; that long-lost VHS tape that they’d kill to see in high-definition with lossless audio. Heck, even a DVD would do in a pinch. Well, last year, it seemed that Mr. Gabriel had heard the cries from fans, and announced that a remastered DVD of the show with 5.1 audio would finally be made available in the 25th Anniversary box set of the classic “So” album. The trouble was, that box set was exorbitantly expensive for the average music fan, and many cried foul over putting such a highly sought-after item in what was practically an unattainable package. Adding insult to injury was the inclusion of the concert as a CD-only presentation in a cheaper version of the remastered album. And, unbeknownst to many, a few of those audio-only tracks were actually shortened down from the DVD version (“Lay Your Hands On Me” and “In Your Eyes” being the biggest offenders of the bunch). But Peter reassured those fans whose pockets were deep enough for the immersion box that no Blu-ray release was in the cards going forward, so if they only ponied up for the grail, they’d at least have boasting rights for a good, long while. As it turned out, “a good, long while” turned out to be just under a year.
And so, here we find ourselves staring into the ugly face of the worst kind of bait-and-switch marketing campaign, one that leaves the most devoted fans angry and disillusioned. There’s not a single element inside the “So” box set that isn’t now available in equal or better quality outside of that package, and many are still understandably jaded from the sting of such an undisguised money grab. To those people, I can only say that my heart does indeed go out to you. But being a devotee has its tests, and this is simply another one of them. And you’ll have to decide for yourself if this release is worth (more of) your hard-earned money. But to those like myself who did enough research on the remastering effort undertaken for Live In Athens 1987 to know that there was simply no way that a restructuring of original, 35mm film elements and discreet sound stems would ever be undertaken without a planned release on a format capable of fully demonstrating the results, then I recommend this Blu-ray to you fully and without reservation. This is PoV as you’ve never seen it before. Indeed, this is Live In Athens 1987 even as people who managed to snag a copy of the DVD set have never seen it before. This is the show without interruption, fully and completely, with no intercutting home video footage to ruin the live experience. This is the show complete for the first time with Youssou N’Dour’s opening set – something never before seen on any format. What’s presented here is one of the greatest, most defining concert experiences of the 1980’s. That this release should be sullied in controversy because of (admittedly) shady marketing tactics is a real shame, because this Blu-ray edition is what fans have been waiting over 25 years to see. It’s that good.
Video: How’s it look?
In a word? Miraculous. Now don’t get me wrong here, this Blu-ray isn’t going to win any awards for best picture quality next year. Nor is it devoid of issues. So how can I use a word like “miraculous” to describe it? In short, because I’ve owned this concert on VHS, on Laserdisc, and – yes – even on that DVD that was released last year. I know how rough this concert has always looked at home. And yet I just knew there was something special there underneath the muddy analog technologies on which it had always resided. And I’ll be honest, last year’s DVD was impressive for someone used to those old versions. Or so I thought. But let me be clear: this Blu-ray absolutely buries the experience of seeing this concert on DVD. I’m sorry to pour salt in the wounds of people still hurting over that box set by putting it that way, but if the Athens concert was your main reason for buying that box, you’re going to need to buy it again. When I put in this disc for a side-by-side comparison, I was extremely impressed, but not yet totally blown away. Not, that is, until I put in the DVD. Then I went back to the Blu-ray and was astonished at just how significant an upgrade it really was. Detailing is now visible on pant legs. Individual audience member’s faces are easily discernible during the now-famous crowd surfing scene. There’s even a wide shot of that moment from up top where Peter’s face is as clear as if it were a close-up. Amazing. It’s ironic that this looks so much better than Gabriel’s 1994 Secret World Live Blu-ray, released just last year (itself, in my opinion, a truly valiant effort to revitalize 16mm film), but that’s the magic that 35mm can give you. This concert was recorded with love and affection, and it shows. The entire show has been reformatted to a 16:9 framing from the original 4:3, but doing a comparison with my VHS copy, I honestly didn’t find the new framing to be at all compromising. In fact, I find that, on the whole, I actually prefer it. Sure, there’s a bit less information on the top and bottom of the frame, but in many shots, there’s actually a bit more on the sides. So in the end, it comes down to personal preference, and I find the 16:9 frame far more pleasing to the eye. Black levels are wonderfully deep and dark – quite important as this is a nighttime show. Skin tones appear more accurate than I’ve ever seen them. Perhaps most importantly, though? The edge enhancement that (especially upon direct comparison) riddled the DVD version, is totally gone on this Blu-ray. Now, with that said, sharpness isn’t up to the best 35mm restorations I’ve seen, with the concert taking on a more sterile feel rather than the organic, grain-laden appearance that I’d normally associate with a motion picture. But this appears both tasteful and purposeful, lending the concert more of a “digital video” feel than a 35mm source might otherwise provide. Would I have preferred a true-to-source, warts-and-all restoration in the same way that I expect it done for catalog film titles? Honestly, after seeing this, I’m not so sure that I would. Concerts are different experiences than movies, and the aesthetic choices made here suit the subject matter perfectly in my humble opinion. There’s no doubt that some effort has been employed to remove grain here, as very little of it remains. And yet – and I want to stress this – it never feels like this is a DNR-fest, either. It merely looks clean. It looks new. It looks like you’re peering through a window into a time and place that was so very gloriously 1987. It’s exactly how I’ve always dreamed this show could look. And now it does. As such, I can’t imagine giving this anything less than a perfect score.
Audio: How’s it sound?
And now I find myself regretting that I used the word “miraculous” in the previous section. For the sake of eliminating redundancy, I’ll say that the audio here sounds astoundingly revelatory. Neither word on its own would really do this presentation justice. This is, simply put, one of the best-sounding discs I’ve ever put in my Blu-ray player, period. And that includes movies. A video I’ve seen of the restoration states that every instrument during this performance was recorded separately, lending today’s audio wizards extraordinary freedom in crafting a new and fully immersive 5.1 soundstage. While I do have one (wholly personal) caveat to this remix, on the whole it sounds simply stunning in DTS Master Audio. Even comparing this with my DVD of the show, the audio here sounds fuller and richer in all the ways that lossy presentations simply don’t have the ability to replicate. There’s a presence to the performances that I’ve never heard before in any of the various ways I’ve ever experienced this concert. A few moments actually sent shivers down my spine, as I knew for the first time what it must have been like to experience Gabriel back then, when he was at the height of his career and popularity. Bass response is absolutely jaw-dropping, if appropriately restrained just on the right side of gimmicky or showy. But what really stands out on this Blu-ray is the transparency of the presentation, which rivals anything else I’ve heard on the format. Although the analogy is perhaps an odd one, the last time I remember being wowed to this degree by an audio track was during the opening sequence of Blade Runner, hearing the other-worldly sounds of Vangelis’s score combined with the perfectly integrated directionality of the ships flying overhead. Everything just sounds incredibly tight and, more significantly, utterly natural throughout. Now on to my one problem with Live In Athens 1987, and this really has nothing to do with the disc’s technical proficiency. Peter Gabriel is a notorious revisionist, and unfortunately, this concert hasn’t been spared his aural tinkering. The instrumental section of “Mercy Street” is robbed of several of Gabriel’s crying sounds as they originally appeared in the mix, and the end of “In Your Eyes” is missing one extra chant of “in your eyes” by the band (just before the African dance section as the performers get on one foot). These changes may not be overtly obvious to those not as intimately familiar with PoV as I am, but for hardcore fans, they stick out like a sore thumb. The changes to “Mercy Street” are especially troublesome, as the best section of the song is what’s impacted. It’s all the more distracting when you can clearly see Peter singing portions of the vocals that have now been arbitrarily excised. That said, I can’t truly hold the audio score accountable for what was so clearly an artistic decision by Mr. Gabriel, nor can one argue too vehemently against any discrepancies that exist between this and the VHS recording when the tools employed for this new edition gave today’s sound designers such absolute control over how the show should sound at home. Taking those factors into account, I’m still granting this disc my highest score for audio. It should be noted that the LPCM stereo track included on the disc is simply a stereo version of the remixed 5.1 track, so if you’re DTS-capable, there’s absolutely no reason to listen to the show that way (as there absolutely would have been had it instead been the original stereo mix of the audio).
Supplements: What are the extras?
Aside from the aforementioned inclusion of Youssou N’Dour’s entire opening set (in itself a wonderful extra for “lunartics” like myself), we also get the original “Sledgehammer” video in HD for the very first time and a vintage interview with Peter (with mono sound) recorded during the time period of the concert. Also included in the package is the Play: The Videos DVD. Now, fans bemoaned this inclusion as being redundant to the set when it was announced, arguing that most Gabriel fans already own that disc. Well, yes and no. There’s one major distinction here: this is not the same pressing of the DVD released in 2004. That’s not to say that it’s in any way technically superior, because it’s not. However, the 2004 disc did have one major problem – one which I was unaware of until after my original review of the disc on this site. Due to a mastering error, the original Play DVD contained a flagging error that affected the DTS 24bit/96kHz 5.1 track. The result was that the track played back 30dB too low on certain receivers. This problem didn’t impact me until I upgraded my equipment several years ago, and the error was (accurately) read by my Onkyo 605, which lowered the volume of the track to levels which were unlistenable. Real World was made aware of the issue, yet never bothered to correct it in the nine years since that initial disc was released. It’s my understanding that the problem did not impact PAL versions of the release, only the NTSC copies. But the disc contained in the Live In Athens 1987 Blu-ray has FINALLY corrected this error, rendering the best and most satisfying audio track on the release playable on thousands of systems, which, up to this point, have been unable to enjoy it. Given my thoughts on the excellent Play DVD, I consider this correction to be worth the price of admission alone. Any way you slice it, though, Live In Athens 1987 is a simply outstanding Blu-ray and it’s going to take something truly remarkable to knock it down from its current standing as my favorite music release of the year. This release gets my highest recommendation, both for Peter Gabriel fans and aficionados of amazing 80’s concerts in general.