The Daily Californian - 22 April 2004

Take a Bowie

After Years of Musical Experimentation, David Bowie's Performing Prowess Hasn't Ch-Ch-Changed

By Rich Bunnell

OH MY GOD - this place is SO small. No, really, I'm SO EXCITED, it's just SO, SO incredibly tiny - I'm SO close to the stage! No, really, you REALLY wouldn't believe it if you saw it - this show is going to be SO awesome."

I don't know how the lady in the seat behind me managed to nab cellular reception in the middle of Berkeley High's cavernous Community Theatre last Friday, but as I looked back from my 16th-row seat towards the vast expanse of reserved seating extending back to the venue's overhead balcony, I couldn't help but feel like a pretentious indie kid for being used to holes in the wall like Slim's and the Bottom of the Hill.

Still, considering that I was about to spend two hours basking in the radioactive chameleon glow of the Thin White Duke, the Buddha of Suburbia, the Man Who Fell To Earth, the Laughing Gnome, David friggin' Bowie, it was easy to bite my tongue and reluctantly admit that try as you might, when living legends choose to frolic amongst mortals, a certain amount of space is inevitably required lest they find themselves incapable of performing their divine art.

Admittedly, David Bowie is probably the most musically inconsistent living legend I can think of. Aside from his immortal run of classic albums in the '70s, his career from that point onward has been filled with dabblings in genres ranging from synth-pop to grunge to New Jack Swing to drum 'n' bass to industrial, and though the adventurousness is admirable, the same can't be said about most of the actual songs.

Not that any of that mattered, of course, when the lights dimmed, the stage was slowly encased in fog and spotlights, and a shadowy figure bearing an oddly familiar cropped hairstyle leapt out and belted out, "You've got your mother, in a whirl! / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl!" over a stuttering riff just as fresh today as it was in the midst of a decade soaked in glam, glitter and Grand Funk.

A mainstay in Bowie's world is that what he lacks as a musical visionary is easily made up for by his indomitable skill as a performer, and Friday's concert seemed hell-bent on making sure that everyone in the audience had this fact virtually drilled into their skulls. Even in the largest and most impersonal of venues, he has an undeniable yet unimposing presence that makes it so the audience is affixed on his every move without outright eating out of his hand in a manipulative Mick Jagger sort of way.

Plus, he's smart enough to know how to assemble a setlist that won't alienate casual radio listeners but still doesn't play like a classic rock triple shot, meaning that "Suffragette City" and "Changes" both put in appearances, but sitting alongside lesser-known should-be classics like "The Supermen" from 1970's "The Man Who Sold the World." Even "Space Oddity" was nixed in favor of its more stylish sequel, "Ashes to Ashes."

Preceding Bowie's set was a musical love-in by everyone's favorite cult of iPod worshippers, the Polyphonic Spree. Musically, the Spree takes a cue from the Beatles' "Your Mother Should Know" and writes most of their songs by taking one catchphrase and repeating it over and over again in such a joyful, grandiose manner that nobody notices or cares.

Visually, they're nigh-on indescribable. Imagine 24 robe-clad musicians somehow crammed onto a single stage, bathed in 50 layers of color and playing every instrument fit to be played by a pop band, firmly affixed upon the sole purpose of squeezing every last drop of happiness out of the pleasure center of your impotent, pathetic brain, and you might vaguely understand what they're about.

To sum up the experience as a whole, Ziggy's concert proved that he's still the nazz with god-given ass. His more recent albums may not be the sign of a man in his golden years, but in concert, he makes it clear that nothing's gonna touch him anyway, so all you young dudes and diamond dogs had best sit back and revel in his heavenly sound and vision, and everything'll be just hunky dory.