The Buffalo News - 21st May 2004

The odyssey continues

Bowie keeps showing why he's a legitimate legend of rock

By Jeff Miers (News Pop Music Critic)

I go to concerts for a living. When I meet people, they find that pretty hard to believe. The reaction is predictable: "Dude, where do I sign up? What a sweet gig!"

Clearly, it is. But like any job, it has its downside.

I haven't really picked up the pace in my concert attendance since coming to The Buffalo News. I've been going to as many concerts as I possibly can since my first one. (That would be Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow with the Pat Travers Band in the Palace Theatre in Albany, back in 1980. I was 13 and forever changed by the experience, as laughable as that might seem.)

It's amazing to be able to support my family doing what I love. It's not always fun, though.

To remain engaged with what I do, I try to retain that same feeling I had for music when I first fell for it as a young kid - the same feeling I see reflected in my 31/2-year-old son's eyes when he jumps around the room to his favorite artist (This week it's Queen. Go figure.). More often than not, it's easy to summon those same emotions. But I'll confess: There are times, watching a band plunder through a set of deeply shallow tunes with all the grace of an angry rhino, or experiencing the glory that is in-concert teen-pop karaoke, when I wonder if loving music with a passion is like trying to embrace a cloud of smoke. It's fleeting, ephemeral. You try to grab it around the waist, and it's gone.

Driving to Toronto last month to catch David Bowie's rescheduled appearance in the Air Canada Centre following the singer's midwinter bout with the flu, I felt like I was heading for my beautiful reward. Bowie, the chameleon of rock, has never let me down. In more than 35 years as a recording artist, he's made very few missteps, and only one clunker has been released as a full-length album - 1984's "Tonight." Bowie is the kind of artist who makes my job easy. He's never less than great.

The only reasonable analogue for Bowie's metamorphic career is that of jazz giant Miles Davis. Like Davis, who spearheaded at least four distinct eras in 20th century jazz, Bowie has effected palpable changes in rock, leading the way for glam, art-rock, R&B-rock crossover, '80s alternative, and techno/drum'n'bass/rock hybrids. Through it all, there have been two constants - adventurous, left-of-center songwriting and that glorious, rich voice.

On Tuesday, Bowie brings his A Reality Tour to Shea's Performing Arts Center for a rare small-theater appearance. Bowie is playing mainly arenas in the 12,000 to 15,000-seat range on this tour. He almost never performs in such intimate venues these days and hasn't for years. It's a treat, which could explain why the show sold out in 45 minutes.

Three thousand lucky concertgoers can expect to see one of the few legitimate living legends of rock offer a 21/2-hour set of smart, visceral and often profoundly moving pieces culled from his career. This is the sort of show that passes rather quickly into the arena of myth. (Undoubtedly, in 10 years, more people will say they were there than could actually fit in the place.)

I traveled to Toronto with a friend and fellow Bowie freak - the guy can sing every lyric of every tune from both "Diamond Dogs" and "Station to Station." We got lucky: Our tickets were in the front row, dead center, right smack in front of a short planklike platform that would be Bowie's home for most of the show. Sitting there as the lights went down, I felt overwhelmed. No matter how many concerts I see, I've never grown numb to the excitement of being so close to genius. Though by most reports, Bowie is much more of a regular guy than the legend would suggest.

Suddenly, there he was, as guitarist Earl Slick muted the opening chords of a completely reworked "Rebel Rebel" and the band fell in behind him. My first reaction was that Bowie, at 57, looks and sounds better than ever. His voice is full, elegant, virtuosic; his microphone technique - up close for the low stuff, backing off for the grandiose full-voice emissions, whipping back and forth for an organic tremolo effect - absolutely refined.

Throughout the Reality Tour, sets have been changing a bit from night to night, but the core consists of tunes from Bowie's two most recent efforts, the brilliant 2001 release "Heathen" and the nearly-as-great latest, the tour's namesake. All these tunes - "New Killer Star," a cover of the Pixies' "Cactus," "The Loneliest Guy," "Heathen," "Slip Away," "Looking for Water" - were granted a deepened existence by their live incarnations.

There was no shortage of old stuff, either - in fact, the entire encore consisted of tracks from the epochal "Ziggy Stardust" album, a mini-set made up of "Star Man," "Five Years," "Suffragette City" and the title track.

It seemed, at the time and even more upon reflection, to be about as good as rock gets.