The Times Leader - 26 May 2004

Bowie knifes into NEPA

By Alan K. Stout

David Bowie sounds awfully relaxed for a guy who's been on tour for eight months. Calling from Pittsburgh, the 95th stop of his "A Reality Tour," he's jovial, intuitive and thoughtful when answering questions.

At times, the pop chameleon seems more like an enthusiastic young rock star on his first tour than a man who's been making music for nearly four decades.

"Reality," Bowie's latest album, presents him not as a character such as "Ziggy Stardust" or the "Thin White Duke" but rather as a simple songwriter. Unlike some of his past work, there is no theme or concept. It's simply the best group of songs he could come up with.

"I just wanted it to be songs that were written at home, where I live," Bowie says. "That was the only line I gave myself: 'Here I am, at home. What songs come to me, just living around town, doing what I do, going out with the family and being on the streets?' It was that kind of feel, and it was really no more complicated than that."

Bowie jokes that his reality has nothing to do with the popular reality-themed TV shows flooding the networks. For him, reality is an almost confusing term in these turbulent times.

"It's a broken, fractured word now," he says. "It feels at times that there really is no sense anymore, in a major way, and that everything is being broken down for us, and the absolutes have gone, and you end up with bits and pieces of what our culture was."

Bowie, 57, who has lived in New York City since 1990, says the Big Apple has helped shape his perception of what is real.

"It's really the hub of the nation in some ways," he says. "There's kind of an implosion there because of the tragedy of 9/11 and, after that, the gradual picking up of the pieces. I think now you're finding a New York that's coming out of that, physically as well as intellectually. Physically, there's a whole restructure of lower Manhattan, and there's also a new pattern. The artists are starting to move out to Jersey or Brooklyn, so the vibe is becoming very different. But it's always been so. It's never been without action."

Like the city in which he lives, Bowie also has always changed, and at times he has said he would no longer tour or play his big hits. He admits that came partly from his insecurities about his own musical legacy and his ability to match those songs with quality new material. Now he's comfortable with those songs and with himself as an artist.

"Several things happened over a short period of time, around the mid-'90s," Bowie says. "I was starting to feel that my strengths as a writer were indeed still there. I was getting not overconfident but certainly more confident in what I was doing as a writer. When I started doing little tours again, around '95 and '96, I realized that I was actually starting to enjoy the performances with those new songs, and it galvanized itself so that by the end of the '90s, I really felt that what I was doing was strong enough to be able to put in some of those old, invincible, hoary chestnuts."

Bowie says he's also finally comfortable with his singing voice.

"I really wasn't that big a fan of my voice at all," he says. "It functioned OK for me to be able to do my songs, but I never really thought of myself so much as a singer. That's probably why I had no problem playing around with it so much and adapting different styles of singing to suit different songs."

It's pointed out to Bowie that his voice, particularly on the chorus to a song such as "Let's Dance," is quite commanding and authoritative.

"Yeah, but it's a different singer from the guy who's doing 'Hello Space Boy' from the 'Outside' album," he says with a chuckle. "If there was still any furtherance of the idea of characterizations, it was that I would interpret a lyric in a particular kind of way to suit a kind of voice that I thought might be right for that song. I guess that still might be one of my peculiarities. Even on stage, I find that I still tend to change my voice to suit the song."

Though Bowie consistently has changed his look, his music and his live visual presentations, he says those moves and his development of new personas have never been overcalculated. Nor were they necessarily the result of creative evolution, he says with another laugh. Bowie says most artists have only about a dozen sources of inspiration for creativity, and art is simply a way to capture and express those sentiments in different ways. For him, isolation, abandonment and even spirituality have served as muses, but his approach changes with each album.

"I try to reference things differently," he says. "I try to look at something from a different angle, and I do come at it very differently every time."

For this tour, Bowie says his band has about 60 rehearsed songs from which to choose each night. The show comes with less theater and more music, he says.

"If I tell you it's a T-shirt-and-jeans-type show, believe me, that's what it is," he says. "If you like the idea of me just singing my songs, you're going to be thrilled. This band is very together. I personally would hold it as one of the best touring bands not only that I've ever had, but I would put it up against a lot of major bands. This band is absolutely superb.

"If it was 1968, I'd say 'Aw, we blow the competition off the stage,' but you don't say that kind of thing these days. Everything is much more sophisticated...

"But you know what - we blow the competition off the stage," he adds with another chuckle. "In the nicest possible way."

David Bowie with Stereophonics
Ford Pavilion at Montage Mountain, Moosic
Thursday, May 27, 7:30 p.m.