The Houston Chronicle - April 29, 2004

David Bowie's characters won't steal this show

By Michael D. Clark

Which incarnation of David Bowie will appear at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion tonight? All of them.

During his 35-year career, Bowie has reinvented his music and himself as a mod hippie, a Philly soul-man, a pharmaceutical-dabbling rock fiend, an androgynous drag queen and glam rocker Ziggy Stardust. For Reality, his 24th album, the 57-year-old has stripped away the makeup and costumes to show the world the man underneath.

He has not, however, forgotten those personas. If anything, the two-hour-plus performances on his Reality tour have been his opportunity to start each show with a clean canvas and draw on previous personas along with the songs that inspired them. While formerly he lived the characters he invented, these days he's more at ease letting them make cameos.

"I think they are a bit theatrical to me," Bowie told the San Jose Mercury News earlier this year when asked about his incarnations. "You wouldn't catch me wearing that stuff."

The unfettered Bowie has produced a tour that fans of all his music can get excited about. According to chroniclers at, 54 songs have been performed through the first 83 shows on the tour. He's sung everything from his first hit single, 1969's Space Oddity, and The Man Who Sold the World and Changes to forgotten mid-'80s gems like Blue Jean and Loving the Alien.

More surprising has been the resurrection of some little-known tracks like Be My Wife from 1977's experimental synthesizer album Low and the Neil Young-inspired Quicksand from 1977's Hunky Dory set. Some will relish hearing these rarities live. Others will wonder why Bowie decided to dig so deep into his catalog at the expense of his hits.

While Bowie has performed crowd-pleasers like China Girl, Let's Dance and Modern Love, he has yet to do Young Americans, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and Diamond Dogs on this tour.

Maybe the Woodlands Pavilion will be the place he sings them (repeated attempts to talk to Bowie about his selections were unsuccessful).

Still, including as many hits as he has is a complete reversal of what Bowie did nearly 15 years ago. Following the original release of the 1989 box set Sound & Vision (which was updated and re-released last year), the singer announced that he was mothballing material from his early career.

"I really thought quite hard and long (about retiring songs)," Bowie told the Boston Globe in 1990. "I honestly didn't want to feel like, at age 45 or 46, that if I was still working as a writer and performer that I didn't want to rely on what I'd done in the past to keep an audience with me."

The problem is that Bowie has released seven albums since (including the little-known The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack for the 1993 British miniseries), and none has produced a radio hit. Were it not for his catalog, there would be little to draw people to his shows.

Black Tie, White Noise in 1993 started Bowie's slide. The album had a likely hit single in the frantic Jump They Say as well as a standout cover of Morrissey's I Know It's Going to Happen Someday. But the small RCA boutique label on which it was released went bankrupt and took the album with it. An experimental reunion with Brian Eno for Outside failed despite Bowie's pandering to younger audiences by co-headlining a tour with Nine Inch Nails to support it.

The drum 'n' bass club beats of Earthling featuring the song I'm Afraid of Americans seven years ago was the closest Bowie got to capturing a new generation the way he did with Let's Dance and China Girl during MTV's infancy.

Of course, Bowie is touring to spread the word about Reality, an album that has been called a return to his Heroes and Scary Monsters heyday. He's performed all 11 Reality tracks, but the Sept. 11-inspired New Killer Star and piano ballad The Loneliest Guy have become the standouts. If Houston is really lucky, he'll throw in his punky take on Jonathon Richman's Pablo Picasso.

The songs from both Reality and his previous album, Heathen, merge into Bowie's repertoire well because he is trying to sound like his old self in new music.

"I don't understand why people say I change that much. I've always felt the subject matter that I deal with has been much the same over 30 years," Bowie told the Rocky Mountain News in January. "It's not changed over all these years; that's just the stuff I write about."

It's ironic that after so many years of trying to be other characters, the one he has had the most success with is simply David Bowie.

David Bowie
When: 7:30 tonight at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins, The Woodlands.

Tickets: $30-$87; call 713-629-3700.

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle.