The Times-Picayune - 2nd May 2004

Bouncing back, Bowie blends old gold, 'Reality'

Ziggy does more than play guitar

By Keith Spera (Music writer)

Before Friday, David Bowie had not graced a New Orleans stage in two decades. He should consider that slight to local fans forgiven.

For two hours and 45 minutes at a sold-out Saenger Theatre on Friday, Bowie presided over a set of nearly 30 songs that reaffirmed his status as both an iconic figure and a still-vital artist fully invested in his craft. It would be difficult to overstate how good Bowie and his band were, how successfully they integrated standards, obscurities and his more challenging recent material.

His sometimes discordant latter-day albums have sought to circumnavigate pop trends, as he once did so effortlessly, with mixed results. But Friday's compelling presentation of select material from those albums underscored how, unlike so many of his faded contemporaries, the 57-year-old still thrives in the present tense, still revels in the action.

An opening of the golden oldie "Rebel, Rebel" and "New Killer Star," the first track on his current album, "Reality," established the show's parameters. Trim and dressed down in a distressed jacket, black jeans and black sleeveless T-shirt, he attacked both songs with gusto, applying a versatile, dexterous and strong voice that never flagged in a nearly three-hour workout.

His estimable wit, timing and sense of drama informed lyrics and between-song banter, as he eagerly engaged in quips and historical asides. Early on, he handed a microphone to audience members, soliciting the proper local pronunciation of "New Orleans." He joked about the statues that stand along the Saenger's upper reaches. ("You guys not get seats up there?") He milked a tale about the enduring lessons of his stint in mime school. He referenced the Kinks and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Reznor and Kinks leader Ray Davies were in the house.

Brawny guitars and an industrial edge defined old and new material alike. Such treatment cost "Modern Love" its spry step, but "Fame" benefited from a fresh sheen of sleazier guitars and fatter bass. "Quicksand," from 1971's "Hunky Dory," unfolded with simple acoustic guitar and piano. By contrast, the personal apocalypse "Sunday," from 2002's "Heathen," unwound as a chilly, desolate soundscape, frayed electric ends hissing and crackling over a skittering synthesized beat.

The airtight band's contributions were invaluable. Mike Garson, a Bowie collaborator for 30 years, jazzed up "Changes" with piano swing. Guitarists Earl Slick, another three-decade Bowie veteran, and Gerry Leonard engaged in a constant push and pull, glam rock power chords alternating with more subtle gestures. Drummer Sterling Campbell kept unflappable, efficient time. Bassist Gail Ann Dorsey filled in the late Freddie Mercury's high vocal parts on "Under Pressure" and supplied a shape-shifting bottom throughout. Catherine Russell's acoustic guitar, voice and keyboards further dressed up arrangements.

Two dozen members of opening act The Polyphonic Spree, a trippy Dallas voice and brass collective clad in matching robes and sunshiny smiles, joined Bowie's band for an orchestral "Slip Away," an ode to British kids' show host Uncle Floyd. Spree leader Tim DeLaughter traded verses with Bowie as a bouncing cartoon ball illustrated lyrics on a jumbo LED screen. The Spree's final night on the tour earned a gracious thanks from Bowie for contributions on - and offstage.

The encore drew on the classic "Ziggy Stardust" album: "Hang on to Yourself," "Five Years," "Suffragette City" and "Ziggy Stardust." As an oversize "BOWIE" flashed on the screen behind him, he bore down on the final, familiar "Ziggy played guitar" line in a moment devoid of nostalgia. Though he never quite left, Bowie is clearly back.