Contra Costa Times - Jan. 29, 2004

Getting Ziggy with it

By Tony Hicks

DAVID BOWIE'S peaks were high enough Tuesday night at the HP Pavilion in San Jose to keep the show from falling too hard into the valleys.

There were definite lulls, mostly during the not-so-smooth transitions between old and new material. Thankfully, for Bowie's sake, he can always churn out a quick "Suffragette City" and make everything right again.

Not that Bowie cares. He's an ageless, sharp-dressed professional, with a head full of blond hair, a strong voice and no fear. Nor does he seem to focus on the idea that much of his crowd is nearly his age. He churns out records faster than 20-year-olds with no regard for singles, hits or sales. It's what he does, and then he hits the road with the same enthusiasm. No 57-year-old rocker ever looked this comfy on stage, not even Mick Jagger when he's realizing how much money he's making in all those stadiums.

But with the promise of a set rooted deeply in Bowie's past - the current tour has been billed as something of a greatest-hits package - the fact is that he occasionally left the moderately responsive crowd behind when he unveiled a new song like "New Killer Star."

The English icon is such a prolific songwriter, it's almost an aberration that most of his set was old stuff to begin with. And being Bowie, he has "old stuff" meaning precisely what he wants it to mean.

Tuesday, following an adequate if unmemorable set from Macy Gray, it didn't mean anything from Bowie's ever-popular "Let's Dance" album, except his salvage job of pal Iggy Pop's "China Girl." Hilariously, when the band misfired about 45 seconds into the song, Bowie stopped them, shook his head and said "That was (expletive) tragic."

Bowie's definition of old stuff did, however, mean a kick-tail cover of the Pixies' (not so old) "Cactus," a reclamation of "All the Young Dudes" and a powerful "Under Pressure" in duet with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. No one could ever top co-writer Freddie Mercury's performance, but Bowie gave Dorsey and her mighty voice every chance, and it worked.

But part of the problem with Bowie doing songs like "The Man Who Sold the World" was the letdown that came when the new stuff, while good, punched holes in the crowd support and concert momentum.

Then again, it's hard to complain when he's dragging out "Rebel Rebel," "Heroes," "Ashes to Ashes" and a banging cover of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/ White Heat." Aside from the "China Girl" false start, Bowie's band was flawless, as usual. As professional as their frontman, they know when to hang back and when to try to burn the paint off the ceiling. Guitarist Earl Slick was juiced during the ultra-muscley "I'm Afraid of Americans," driving the song with huge, hanging power chords.

Despite the few bumps, it was still a great show until everything started winding down. Dragging was more like it, with a snappy approach suddenly lapsing into meandering Pink Floyd territory. Figuring Bowie's two show-enders would be "Suffragette City" and "Ziggy Stardust" made sitting through the new song "Bring Me the Disco King" difficult. It's hard to criticize someone who regenerates as well as Bowie for playing new material, but the song was terribly long and didn't move very well for something that late in the set.

Perhaps Bowie was just setting everyone up for the last two, charged-up songs. If so, it worked. Like there was ever much doubt.

Gray - and her huge Afro - opened the show with a groove-heavy set bordering on disco-funk. She spent most of her 30-minute set (which was absent her biggest hits) strutting around with her two backup singers like it was 1974, and they were on "Soul Train."

She had lots of attitude, and sang decently, but ultimately didn't produce anything one could remember - at least by the time Bowie was done.