The Buffalo News - 27 May 2004

Bowie, at 57, remains ahead of the alt-rock curve

By Jeff Miers (News Pop Music Critic)

David Bowie has always been ahead of the curve. It was no surprise, then, that his sold-out show at Shea's Tuesday found him still pushing the envelope, 35 years deep into one of rock's most ambitious and consistently forward-looking careers.

Bowie's current tour flies beneath the moniker "A Reality," and that's fitting; for 2 1/2 hours Tuesday, he and his seamless band brought an audience equal parts stunned and elated into another world, an elevated plane of artistic experience. In the arena of rock, this was quite simply as good as it gets.

Taking the boards following an exquisite animated sequence interspersed with sweeping aerial shots of New York City, Bowie materialized center stage, obscured by shadows, as longtime guitarist Earl Slick laid out the skewed glam-a-billy riff signifying "Rebel Rebel." The song, given an up-to-date arrangement on this tour, brought the crowd to its feet, of course, but Bowie made it clear immediately that he had no intention of offering a Vegas-style nostalgic review. He'd come, after all, to show us that he's still the most vibrant of artists, and not a museum piece.

Toward that end, Bowie led his band out of the elegantly wasted rock-candy of "Rebel" deep into the dimly lit world he helped create - the alternative music movement of the '80s and '90s. "This is a song by the Pixies," smiled our boy, still remarkably youthful at 57, minus the snow-white tan and pharmaceutical veneer of his '70s guise. The band - guitarist Slick, pianist Mike Garson, percussionist/acoustic guitarist/vocalist Catherine "Kat" Russell, guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist/vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Sterling Campbell - then tore through that seminal alt-punk band's "Cactus" with a fiery irreverence that artists more than 30 years Bowie's junior are rarely able to summon.

Anyone coming to hear the hits - and judging by the staid, apparently confused portion of the crowd seemingly unfamiliar with anything Bowie's done since "Let's Dance" was a mega-platinum '80s-era hit, there were many - was going to have to enter Bowie's reality for a while first; the show was paced by a mischievously grinning Bowie offering older tunes as "rewards" for accepting plenty of new material. There were "hits," yes, but there were just as many deep cuts, rarely played gems and material from Bowie's '90s-and-beyond oeuvre.

So Bowie laid out the obscure "Sister Midnight," a tune he co-wrote with Iggy Pop, and produced for Pop's classic "The Idiot" album, before moving into a pair of glittering gems from his newest record, the current tour's namesake. "New Killer Star" and "Looking For Water" burned more intensely and brightly in the concert setting than they do on record; strapping on a guitar for the former, Bowie was transformed into a man with a mission. Bowie's intention with the set's pacing became clear as a pattern emerged - he'd lay a few new songs on the crowd, then toss them a doggie treat in the form of an oldie or two. Thus, the two "Reality" stunners were followed by a tongue-in-cheek but still inspired "All The Young Dudes" and the "Let's Dance" hit "China Girl," both of which featured raucous-but-beautiful Jeff Beck-styled interpolations from Slick.

The set hit its full stride as Bowie took us on a tour through the bizarrely compelling world of his vastly underrated '90s masterpiece "Outside," with "Hallo Spaceboy" driving home the point that Bowie married rock to techno with more conviction, panache and creativity than anyone, peer or otherwise, and "The Motel" conjuring the ethereal, white-walled world of ambient genius he'd originally concocted for the '70s watermark "Low" album. The band's interplay here - particularly between Leonard's effect-laden phrases and Garson's punk-classical piano lines - was simply breathtaking. "The Loneliest Guy," a forlorn, cinematic ballad from "Reality," tapped into the same vein, and was another highlight.

If the crowd seemed a bit tame - at times, portions of the audience suggested by their body language that they'd just as soon have been sitting on the couch at home, watching television - Bowie never let on that he was affected. In fact, he seemed thrilled. Grinning broadly, playfully goading the crowd, he squeezed every drop from the sponge, giddy with the thrill of bringing one of the finest ensembles he's ever worked with to a gorgeous, relatively small theater.

And then, of a sudden, there it was - the rarely played '70s tour de force "Station To Station," one of Bowie's most impressively progressive tunes. Its mantra-like opening was a showcase for Slick's tremolo bar, and when Bowie intoned the introductory narrative "The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lover's eyes," one felt gooseflesh rising. This was simply timeless fare, material that still sounds futuristic 30 years after its initial release.

Bowie saved some of the best for last. "I'm Afraid Of Americans" was a visceral stomp, a melding of industrial, electronic and glam rock stylings lent prescience by current domestic affairs; Bowie never explicitly mentioned the song's subject matter, but those in tune should have had no trouble reading between the lines.

A trio of songs from the flawless "Hunky Dory" album took us even higher; "Quicksand" was outer-space gospel with heavenly harmonies and a lush 12-string acoustic strum from Slick; the freshly-relearned "Bewlay Brothers" was sublime, a reminder of the ground Bowie was breaking on "Hunky Dory," which many diehards consider his greatest work of the '70s; and "Queen Bitch" - well, no one has ever fused glitter rock to substantive songwriting the way Bowie has.

The encores concluded with a pair of tracks from "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," "Suffragette City" burning like a house on fire, while "Ziggy Stardust" writhed and wriggled like tortured rock-theater.

Those lucky enough to claim a ticket stub for this intimate-yet-grandiose show will likely never forget it. Bowie is a class act, and remains one of the most influential artists in rock music. That he still manages to challenge his audience at this stage of his career is an inspiration to all who care about the music's future.