The main problem with Peter Gabriel’s performance on this two-album set recorded during his 1982 tour is that you can’t see it. The striking cover portrait of the singer in glistening face paint barely hints at the way he used ritual dances and dramatic flourishes to visually amplify the emotional tension between dark tribal mystery and futurist cool on his recent albums.
On Plays Live, the intricate rhythmic clip of “I Have the Touch” and the eerie primitivism of Larry Fast’s electronics on the epic “The Family and the Fishing Net” are muddled by the vagaries of concert sound. But Gabriel’s unearthly wail and the artful force of bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta transform both the chilling reverie “Family Snapshot” and the anthemic rocker “D.I.Y.” “Biko,” Gabriel’s salute to South African civil-rights martyr Steven Biko, comes vibrantly alive, its tragic martial pace inflamed by Fast’s bold synthesized bagpipes and guitarist David Rhodes’ angry fuzz chords.
As live albums go, Plays Live is an inspiring introduction to Gabriel’s extraordinary solo ambitions. If it isn’t the next best thing to being there, it’s certainly enough to make you want to go.