San Francisco Chronicle - 29th Jan 2004
A rock star revels in all his changes
By Joel Selvin
He asked if the audience was having a good time. He grinned incessantly, made snappy patter between songs, showed off his remarkable wardrobe and hair. He laughed and smiled at everybody as they waved their arms over their heads as if they were at an Air Supply concert or something.
In a career of creating new characters to play, his latest may be his most ingenious of all: David Bowie - Mr. Show Business.
"Hello, I'm David Bowie," he said, only half in jest. "This is my band. We've come to San Jose to sing you a few songs. ..."
Leading with charm, powerful musicianship and a careful sprinkling of keystone numbers from his lengthy career, Bowie thoroughly ingratiated himself with the near-capacity crowd Tuesday at the scaled-down HP Pavilion in San Jose. He was as jolly as Tom Jones and happy to belittle himself for tossing his head back to get the hair off his face - "that rock-star hair thing," he called it.
Not that anybody needed to be reminded that Bowie was a rock star. He may think he appeared practically en dishabille, but only certain rarified British fops can pull off the sequins, epaulets and tailcoat with sneakers look. And only a rock star could show up onstage with his long, dyed-blonde hair carefully hanging so artfully in his face.
Bowie has always primarily been a performance artist. Music was just the medium. He doesn't tour often and his productions in the past have always been known for attention to detail as well as ambition and scope. The "Reality" tour staging, less ambitious by far than many previous productions, still showed flair and design.
Without recent hit records, Bowie struggles to find a foothold in the present tense with an audience. But when he mingles - without any apparent distinction - uninspired recent material from '90s albums nobody bought such as "Earthling," "Heathen" or his latest, "Reality," alongside certified classics, Bowie is being disingenuous. Nobody is going to mistake "Hallo Spaceboy" for "Life On Mars," but Bowie treated them with equal reverence.
The charm is that Bowie still cares, still wants to behave as if his new music matters, still wants to keep moving forward. He utterly resisted the almost inevitable urge to turn into a jukebox and cough up a set's worth of obvious crowd-pleasing favorites. Instead he challenged his audience, many of whom were probably seeing the storied rock star for the first time, to listen to his recent material or left-field surprises like an old Neil Young song, "I've Been Waiting For You," or "All the Young Dudes," a number Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople more than 30 years ago.
He radiated confidence, practically glowed. Deft production touches at the soundboard gave his vocals a lustrous sheen, so he sounded resplendent, too. He surrounded himself with longtime associates such as guitarist Earl Slick, who played on "Young Americans" and "Station To Station," and keyboardist Mike Garson, who goes all the way back to the Spiders From Mars, Bowie's original backup band. Even Gail Ann Dorsey, the stunning bassist who handled Freddie Mercury's part on "Under Pressure" in the show, has been working with Bowie for the better part of 10 years.
In a way, perhaps brilliantly, Bowie lowered the bar for himself. He no longer must assume some strained, extravagant posture. He is brand-name rock entertainment and his reputation precedes him. But free from the burden of having to always outdo himself, he can finally just be exactly that - himself. Bowie need never change his act again.
TO CLOSE WINDOW