Vancouver Sun - January 26, 2004
Bowie's rock freak back sans changeling attitude
David Bowie: GM Place Bowl Jan. 24
By Kerry Gold
David Bowie lived up to his lofty status as a pioneering rock 'n' roll icon Saturday at GM Place, with a nearly sold-out audience on its feet for the 28-song setlist.
The ever-smiling Bowie was in top form, his leonine voice more powerful than ever before (even in comparison to the recordings), and he delivered old hits with unabashed glee - songs that will forever hold up in the rock canon, such as Rebel Rebel, All the Young Dudes, Breaking Glass, The Man Who Sold the World, Under Pressure, Life on Mars, Panic In Detroit, Ashes to Ashes, Heroes, Hang On to Yourself, Five Years, Suffragette City and, as the grand finale, Ziggy Stardust.
"Vancouver, you crazy motherf**kers, good to be here," he beamed, at once delighted with the cheering frenzy.
Thankfully, there was little from his highly commercial 1983 Let's Dance album, other than the song he originally wrote with and for Iggy Pop, China Girl. And other than the inclusion of head-bobbing jingle that is 1984's Blue Jean, he supplied a near perfect setlist - an almost impossible feat considering his formidable catalogue and diverse fanbase. For long time fans, a few more obscure songs would have been appreciated, such as anything off 1971's Hunky Dory. But he managed to please most everybody, because he blended the tried-and-true with unknown new or slightly obscure material that had been neglected because it belonged on albums that hadn't enjoyed commercial success. Of course, the critical success of his latest Reality album is the impetus for this world tour, and the general belief that Bowie - who put the freak into rock 'n' roll - is back. But he's back without the changeling freakiness, his feet firmly planted in reality - and nobody's complaining.
On the nine-year-old I'm Afraid of Americans (sure to be a touchy one in the U.S.), the megawatt vocal power combined with the thunderous drums and wiry, heavy guitars was enough to blow your hair back into the style you wore in the 80s. And the instrumental track off Low, New Career In a New Town, gave Bowie the chance to demonstrate his old harmonica skills and even a little pogo and jig dance, while drummer Campbell Sterling showed off his considerable and relentless machine-like talents. He even threw in Pixies' cover Cactus, better live than recorded.
Bowie was, in a word, amazing. If there was a concert to catch these last five years, this was one of them. Bowie seldom tours, and at 57, it's not too likely that he'll embark on another world tour any time soon, if ever again.
Classy guy that he is, he doesn't parody his former self, nor does he try in vain to remain forever young. He hasn't been pumping iron or doing strenuous amounts of yoga, like Sting. He doesn't rely on the same stage schtick that he used 40 years ago, like Mick Jagger. Bowie has settled into a dignified mantle as an English rock-gent who'll don black jeans, runners and T-shirts, but only if he gets to do something a tad outlandish, such as throw on a tattered morning coat over top. And then there was that bit of red fabric dangling around his neck, posing as an ascot.
If you had a close up view, you could see that Bowie is still devilishly handsome and the face more etched, but no healthier looking than when he sported those cut-up body stockings back in the day. He's pale as a cadaver, and school boy skinny. He can't kick as high as he did in his Ziggy days. But it's probably safe to say that he and tattooed guitarist Earl Slick have the best heads of hair in rock 'n' roll.
Bowie played with a six-piece band, and a rag tag assemblage of professional touring musicians this wasn't. As Bowie pointed out in the concert, Slick has been with him on and off since 1974, and keyboardist Mike Garson goes all the way back to his Ziggy Stardust days. Bald-headed, sandal-wearing Gail Ann Dorsey was on top of such trademark bass lines as in The Man Who Sold the World, and she turned out to be a spectacularly passionate vocalist on the Under Pressure duet.
"Hey Freddie, I've got Gail Ann Dorsey singing this one tonight," said Bowie, a reference to the old Freddie Mercury-Bowie collaboration. The song was one of several poignant moments throughout the show, moments that roused feelings of misty-eyed nostalgia, of being in-step with historical greatness even if you were too young to have been there (if you'll excuse the superlatives of fan-worship).
The big question of the night was how can a renowned former lifetime cigarette smoker like Bowie have developed his pipes into this mighty clarion instrument? Also, other fine singers have lost much of their range with age, but not Bowie. Years ago in performance, he'd lowered Life On Mars an octave, but this time out, he sang the song with that impossibly high note as originally written.
Mentally, he was in top form, too, skipping around the stage, making eye contact with his huge audience, spotting the few who'd taken time to pay homage with weirdness. One guy at the back of the floor with flaming red hair adopted the look of Bowie's campy glam period, and somehow Bowie spotted him.
In reference to bald keyboardist Garson, Bowie said to the guy: "He had your hairstyle back then, son. Now he keeps it in a box somewhere."
To Bowie's delight, a young woman in the front row wore a bunny suit (no, not the sexy Playboy kind, but an actual full-on bunny suit). Bowie responded by dedicating Heathen song I've Been Waiting For You to her, even altering a word to "bunny."
Bowie demonstrated his self-deprecating humour in the introduction to Blue Jean:
"This one is quite old, not like me."
The only downside to the performance was the poorly designed stage, which was baffling, considering that Bowie's producers must have been given a proper budget. Inexplicably, scaffolding supported long, runway platforms that flanked each side of the stage, and save for a brief time when Bowie hung out on one for Hallo Spaceboy, they were never used. Instead, they served to obstruct the view of everyone stuck to the immediate right or left of the stage. It also meant Bowie was walled in, never able to make proper eye contact with the hundreds of people seated in those areas.
But a large vertical video screen at the back of the stage showed cool, colourful animations of the band members and whirls of colour throughout the show. A video of Bowie lost in a tangle of trees for The Loneliest Guy made sense of the bunches of white branches that hung down from the ceiling.
Bowie has stripped the act down to the basics for many years now, so it wasn't surprising that his show would be simple and stark. But it is a surprise that Bowie would be riding another peak so late in his career - and not just riding it because of some misguided nostalgic loyalty by old fans praying for another Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie's on top again because after a seriously long stretch of toiling in the background, he's writing decent songs again and singing like his life depended on it.
The rock 'n' rollin' bitch has returned.
TO CLOSE WINDOW