East Bay Express - 21 April 2004

Bingo with Bowie

Ziggy's stardom is timeless - but he still needs to stay relevant.

By Rob Harvilla

As we sauntered onto the Berkeley Community Theater grounds for Friday night's David Bowie concert extravaganza, a most jarring and unwelcome sight greeted us: a promotional van for 98.5 KFOX, emblazoned with the phrase The Classic Rock Experience.

A DJ announced plans to give away tickets to "the concert event of the summer" - Fleetwood Mac. The sound system then began blasting the Beatles' "Twist and Shout."

If David Bowie had any sense, he would rent a monster truck - the Ziggy Starduster, maybe - and crush said KFOX vehicle himself, as an opening act.

Mr. Bowie, you see, desperately needs to avoid the distinction "classic rock." For him it is a graveyard, or at the very least an old folks' home, and David is far too hip and with-it and well preserved to while away the rest of his days shouting "BINGO!" and gumming slices of cantaloupe as KFOX mashes his "Space Oddity" between "Dream Weaver" and "American Pie."

No, David isn't quite ready for the nostalgia circuit yet; he aspires to the Cutting Edge, to Continued Relevance. He has fought for it continually for more than thirty years now. But after Friday night's fabulous show - sold out, just like the following night's - I say let him have it already.

First, though, someone needs to deal with the Polyphonic Spree.

The Spree served as Bowie's monster truckless opening act - a gleefully psychotic twentysomething ensemble of robe-clad weirdos, including a spastic choir, a full horn ensemble, and a harpist who looked like a Dazed and Confused extra. The most appropriate three words to describe this: Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Jesus is not crucified, but rather pumped full of LSD and forced to roadie for the Flaming Lips.

Let's join in for the chorus: The sun machine is coming down/And we're gonna have a party!

Alright, look. The wholesale termination of dour, joyless indie rockers remains one of this column's holiest crusades, but this is ridiculous. The Spree bombarded early stragglers with absurdly giddy psychedelic rock anthems, and huge stupefied grins slowly spread o'er the crowd. But the joy felt oddly forced and vaguely menacing, and like the beloved Lips, frontman and spiritual guru Tim DeLaughter seems cut from this strange cloth of stoners who've ingested so many chemicals they've burst through to this alternate universe of Teletubbies-grade kiddie euphoria: a delightful place to visit and a terrifying place to be trapped for more than, say, a half-hour.

Jesus. There's a war on, people. As Bowie himself announced from the stage an hour or so later: "If they offer you any Kool-Aid, don't drink it."

Listen to David, if for no other reason than he gets to open his show with "Rebel, Rebel," as thrilling a get-off-your-tuchus-and-whoop-like-an-idiot introductory riff as you can possibly imagine in your druggiest Polyphonic Spree daydreams. Sir David remains unnaturally thin and even more unnaturally blond, stripping down to a tight sleeveless T-shirt and an enormous bright-yellow scarf that makes him look like an emaciated hipster Barney Rubble.

So here's Barney's dilemma: Should he bombard the Berkeley faithful with hit after hit - the Classic Rock Experience - or go the Prince route and indulge in presumably more gratifying "jams" and new material? The luxury of pounding out nearly thirty songs, it would appear, gives you the option to do both. Bowie dutifully lobbed out several noncommittal cuts from his new album Reality, but the instant the crowd's collective mind started wandering (or contemplated sitting down), boom, here comes the charmingly clumsy funk-blues jam "Fame," the Zippo-draining rock-back-and-forth anthem "All the Young Dudes," the unabashedly corny Drew Barrymore sing-along "China Girl."

Bowie could've quietly buried that last tune in the name of "artistic growth" - his own version of Nada Surf's "Popular" or Radiohead's "Creep." But he possesses that rare gift of being able to play the hits without visibly pandering to the crowd or visibly boring the shoes off himself. He can still wrap his platinum pipes - above all, the live Bowie experience reminds you how bombastic and mesmerizing his voice still is - around "The Man Who Sold the World" and not sound nearly as resigned and downtrodden as, say, Kurt Cobain did.

But unloading your '70s-rock artillery doth not ensure Continued Relevance. Friday's do-or-die moments would involve subtler, less automatically crowd-pleasing thunderbolts of Zen. Thunderbolt #1: a cover of the Pixies "Cactus," a nod to the incoming next wave of Classic Rock Experiencers. Bowie's taste in covers can screw him over royally - witness Reality's bizarre take on Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso," glorious in its absence here - but nobody pulls off psychosexual menace like Barney Rubble, even when he's stealing someone else's words: Bloody your hands on a cactus tree/Wipe it on your dress and send it to me.

Bowie's other quiet triumphs, though, were his own. His mid-'90s "industrial" period is his wobbliest overall in terms of trend-hopping - it felt at the time like a cheap Nine Inch Nails piggyback - but Friday night's "Hallo Spaceboy," a refugee from '95's failed concept album Outside, was a surprisingly awesome slice of pounding Trent Reznor goth rock, and it drove the crowd completely bonkers. The similarly aged "I'm Afraid of Americans," slicker but somehow scarier, fared even better, its creeping keyboard-beat dread morphing into a more bombastic climax than the cavalcade of hits - "Heroes," "Changes," "Suffragette City," "Slip Away" (infiltrated by the still-mortifying Polyphonic Spree), "Ziggy Stardust" - that followed.

What matters now to an artist of this caliber aren't the hits, but the sub-hits, the surprises, the sneak attacks. Bowie's legacy is sealed forever, but his Continued Relevance depends on his ability to sneak up on you while you're waiting for "Under Pressure." That's what granted him the keys to the monster truck Friday night: He dropped a few unexpected bombshells but still hauled his all-aces, six-piece backing band through that tune's manic Give love one more chance breakdown, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey hijacking Freddie Mercury's role to reenact one of the most transcendent rock moments the Classic Rock Experience has to offer.