Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - May 18th 2004
Rock legend Bowie still has his edge
By Ed Masley
Nearing the end of a marathon set at the Benedum Center that at one point reduced me to scrawling "religious experience" in a notebook, David Bowie told the fans who'd packed the theater how glad he was to have them there. Although he then went on to note, "We would've played if it was empty."
Given the enthusiasm he brought to the table, whether reconnecting with his own past, delving into other people's pasts or forcing new material to hold its own against the classics (which it did), there didn't seem to be much call to doubt the man's sincerity.
He took the stage to "Rebel Rebel," looking sharp and youthful for his 57 years in tattered purple tails, a very phallic belt (offset, it could be argued, by that scarf around his neck) and black jeans. He quickly established a playful rapport with the fans when after encouraging a sing-along, he gestured with his hands to signify "It wasn't that good."
If there was a point at which his judgment failed him, it was risking the momentum of that opener with the mid-tempo "New Killer Star" from "Reality" - too new, too obscure and not raucous enough to earn a spot that early in the set. He should have gone directly to the third song, "Cactus," a far more rocking Pixies cover, as featured on "Heathen."
"Sister Midnight," the opening cut of Iggy Pop's "The Idiot," made the most of a minimal funk groove, while the raucous "Ziggy" highlight, "Hang Onto Yourself," was surprisingly faithful, right down to the classic guitar break, a more straightforward part than either Earl Slick or Gerry Leonard would have arrived at if left to their own devices. But that willingness to play it simple backed with the ability to take it further when required is exactly what a guy like Bowie needs in a backing musician. And he's clearly found those qualities in not just Slick and Leonard but in every player he brought to the stage, from bassist Gail Ann Dorsey to keyboardist Mike Garson.
Bowie himself was in excellent voice and in total command of the stage throughout. But six songs in, he really seemed to come alive on an impassioned performance of "All the Young Dudes," the emotional highlight of the early set.
And it was like a different, better show from that point on. "Fame" was amazing, its insistent funk groove somehow sounding every bit as fresh in 2004 as it did in the '70s, as Bowie stripped down to a T-shirt while swiveling his hips. He kept the hits coming with "China Girl," then shifted gears dramatically with melancholy keyboards and noisy guitar to underscore the aching vocals at the heart of "The Loneliest Guy in the World," the strongest case he'd make all night for picking up "Reality."
"The Man Who Sold the World" was an obvious highlight, fueled by Dorsey's bass, some great percussion and a breathtaking vocal performance on a song from 1970 that's aged as gracefully as the legend who wrote it. An explosive "Hallo Spaceboy" ushered in a three-song mini-set of more contemporary Bowie, its guitar-fueled intensity dissolving in the moody aftershock of two dramatic cuts from "Heathen."
If "Under Pressure," a hit he recorded with Queen in the early '80s, seemed an unusual choice for inclusion at this point in Bowie's career, especially given the wealth of material that went unplayed that wouldn't have required Dorsey filling in for Freddie Mercury, it emerged here as a deeply moving highlight, Bowie giving in completely to its "Live Aid"-era call to give love one more chance. And then he took it up a notch with an epic performance of "Station to Station," the point at which I had no choice but to write "a religious experience" in my notebook, followed by the timeless New Wave brilliance of "Ashes to Ashes" and a three-song mini-set of "Hunky Dory" classics (a gorgeous rendition of "Quicksand" with Slick on a 12-string acoustic guitar, an awe-inspiring Bowie vocal on an understated "Life on Mars?," and a spirited cabaret reading of "Changes"). He dug even deeper for 1970's "The Supermen" (with surprisingly soulful backing vocals), then threw the "Let's Dance" crowd a bone with "Modern Love," which sounded like it got him to the church on time and made for an excellent segue to the Modern Lovers' garage-rocking "Pablo Picasso," followed by the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat."
"I'm Afraid of Americans," an industrial-flavored track from 1997's "Earthling," was introduced as "our Washington song - let's leave it at that." And Bowie closed the proper set with a stunning performance of "Heroes," a song that just kept getting more emotional and more majestic as it went along.
He'd planned a three-song encore but was forced to drop "Suffragette City" and "Five Years," explaining "They're real strict here" when it comes to curfews, before treating fans to one final performance - an impassioned "Ziggy Stardust."
He's come a long way since adopting that persona in the early '70s and left a trail of brilliant, pioneering music in his wake while proving that it's possible to grow old gracefully in rock 'n' roll without abandoning your edge. And last night at the Benedum, he made it all seem easy in an epic set that couldn't help but leave you wanting more.
Even Bowie wanted more, exhibiting a level of enthusiasm artists half his age have trouble faking.
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