David Bowie’s last tour, 2004

By David Watts Barton,  The Sacramento Bee, April 19, 2004

David Jones has had 40 years now – his first recording, as lead singer of the King Bees, was released in 1964 – to perfect being “David Bowie.”

Friday night at the Berkeley Community Theatre, Bowie, now a svelte and energetic 57, gave a sold-out audience of 3,200 the most concentrated and perfectly packaged “Bowie” that he has yet mustered.

Fronting a six-piece band that featured longtime collaborators (guitarist Earl Slick and pianist Mike Garson) and terrific newer players (brilliant drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist/singer Gail Ann Dorsey), Bowie’s nearly 2 1/2-hour show had a laserlike focus and intensity that was at times almost overpowering.

Running through a set that ranged from circa-1970 tracks “The Supermen” and “The Man Who Sold the World” to several songs from his latest release, “Reality,” Bowie did a remarkable job of mixing must-play hits (“Fame,” “Changes,” ” ‘Heroes’ “) with more obscure tracks and even a cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus.”

The show was an event of sorts, for it was the first time in decades that Bowie, who generally plays arenas and has even done a couple of stadium tours, had played such a small venue in Northern California. (A second show was added for Saturday night.)

The move from arenas to the smallish theater on the Berkeley High School campus was a treat, in that Bowie was much closer to the audience than he would normally be. But at points it seemed as if the show had been crammed into the smaller venue without being changed much.

In some ways that worked beautifully, because the intensity of his light show gave the show a heightened visual power in the relatively small space.

Much of that intensity was due to Bowie’s sheer presence, which was the single focus of the show, despite a few interesting video effects. And Bowie lived up to that focus, looking literally half his age. His hair highlighted and fashionably tousled, he wore a tattered purple, violet and black suit (with yellow tie) that made him look like a dandy gone AWOL from Napoleon’s army. While his peer, friend and sometime collaborator Mick Jagger looks lean but wizened, Bowie still looks remarkably fresh.

On the other hand, bringing the show down to theater size without decreasing the volume was brutal on some listeners’ ears and hard, too, on the music: Bowie’s voice often seemed lost in the compressed thunder of the low frequencies, and a lot of the subtleties of the music were swallowed up in the din.

Admittedly, though, this is not a problem unique to Bowie – aging sound men, their low frequencies damaged by years on the road, seem determined to take audiences with them into premature deafness. Still, it was a shame Bowie can’t hear what the audience had to put up with.

But Bowie was, for the most part, focused on rocking. While his records and some past tours have shown the remarkable creative breadth of his work, this show focuses on his harder- hitting, less-subtle material, though songs such as “Quicksand” (from 1971) and the contemporary “Slip Away” brought the intensity down a couple of notches and opened things up.

There were some extraordinary moments: His duet with Dorsey on “Under Pressure,” originally recorded with Queen, was explosive, with Dorsey managing the late Freddie Mercury’s quasi-operatic vocals with aplomb. And the locomotive drive of the latter-day “I’m Afraid of Americans” came off like trip-hop as done by Metallica.

Old favorites such as “Ashes to Ashes” and “Suffragette City” drew in the initially unresponsive Bay Area fans, loosened them up and inspired some impassioned singalongs, especially on “Suffragette City’s” classic payoff line, “Ahhhhhhhh … wham bam, thank you ma’am.”

Perhaps the most remarkable moment was the first: Taking the stage to his proto-punk anthem, “Rebel, Rebel,” Bowie – a close peer of the Beatles, the Stones and the Who despite his having gained notoriety nearly a decade later – seemed an almost heroic figure.

Cocky, ingratiating and as cool as they come, Bowie left no doubt as to his confidence in his body of work and his ability to nail it live. And, as one of rock’s greats, he delivered as promised.

He brought along a terrific opening act, the Polyphonic Spree. This Dallas-based group – 24 people in all, including a harpist, pedal steel guitar player, horn section and eight singers – hit the stage with an almost gospel-like fervor and a sense of joy that easily transcended the sound man’s inability to balance so many instruments.

 

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