Chicago Tribune - Wed 14th January 2002

Bowie is newly relevant and ferocious, but Gray misses the mark

By Greg Kot

In the guise of a greatest hits show Tuesday at the Rosemont Theatre, David Bowie brought his peculiar ability to make anxiety and paranoia sound stylish.

Bowie demonstrated that he is paying attention to the grim world around him, and he has tailored his current tour as something of a soundtrack. He arrived in peak voice with a powerhouse band and a set list that soothed nostalgic cravings even as it worked as pointed commentary.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Bowie took the four-tiered stage in the first of three sold-out concerts looking as svelte, pale and ageless as a vampire from an Anne Rice novel. With black jeans and T-shirt, his belt dangling suggestively, Bowie was in dirt-blond swagger, a six-piece band in full roar behind him, and put an indelible imprint on the year's first major concert event. The cast included a couple of veterans from his '70s heyday, keyboardist Mike Garson and guitarist Earl Slick, and the set list was spackled with echoes of past glory: the opening "Rebel Rebel," the closing Ziggy Stardust trilogy of "Five Years," "Suffragette City" and "Ziggy Stardust," and in between his glam-era anthem for Mott the Hoople, "All the Young Dudes."

But the hand-waving chorus of the "All the Young Dudes" belied the dubious attitude lying underneath: "Is it concrete all around or is it in my head?" Taking nothing - not even himself - at face value, Bowie reinvented the rock star as a moving target three decades ago, and even as the world-conquering Ziggy he gave himself "five years," as he sang during the encore, to get it right.

He has lasted far longer, and now finds himself newly relevant. His last couple of albums presaged and then commented upon the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, with corrosive music and lyrics that sounded like they were written from inside a bunker. On his last tour, Bowie dealt with issues of mortality and aging in reflective songs. Now he exudes an elegantly disheveled energy; he has mastered the art of coming undone while still looking cooler than anybody on MTV. A London native who has been a New York City resident in recent years, he now stands as an outsider in two countries, and his show reveled in that sense of displacement. "This chaos is killing me," he wailed in "Hallo Spaceboy," as squalling guitars opened and shut trap doors beneath his black gym shoes.

Bowie's not one for broad political statements or protest songs, but his set list suggested a carefully considered commentary on the state of a world broken by terrorism and war: the distant refuge envisioned on "Life on Mars"; the desperation underpinning "Under Pressure," with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey standing in for the late Freddy Mercury as Bowie's duet partner as they declared, "This is our last chance"; the drum 'n' bass fury of "Battle for Britain," with Garson's nimble fingers racing across his keyboard like mice fleeing an inferno.

A ferocious three-guitar version of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" evoked a runaway subway train, setting up the show's most striking moment. Bowie poured paranoia into "I'm Afraid of Americans," while Sterling Campbell rapped out Morse Code SOS messages on his drums, and the guitars of Slick and Gerry Leonard barked at each other from opposite sides of the stage.

This was Bowie stripping away Ziggy's glam artifice, doing away with the Thin White Duke's disco moves, and the patrician elegance of his elder statesman years. His music had a lean, frayed urgency to it, and there was no time for theatrics, save for a bit of Sinatra crooning on "The Loneliest Guy," with the balladeer retreating into the darkness after lamenting "all the errors left unlearned." He was being far too harsh. After surviving the artistic missteps of the '80s and early '90s, Bowie has whipped himself and his music into shape again.

Bowie's opening act, Macy Gray, let her freak flag fly. Her statuesque frame topped by a massive Afro and wrapped in a sequined gown, the scratchy voiced funk mistress sang songs of "Sexomatic" obsession and sprinkled the bump-and-grind workouts of her nine-piece band with snippets of the Beatles' "Come Together," A3's "Sopranos" theme "Woke Up This Morning," and Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove."

But despite a river of rhythm that just wouldn't quit and Gray's outsize personality, the audience was unmoved. The singer performed her biggest hit, "I Try," sitting down, as if defeated by the response. Gray deserves a second shot in town, this time at a sweaty, claustrophobic club, playing in front of her own audience.