A dose of reality from David Bowie

by Seth Rogovoy

(BOSTON, Mass., March 31, 2004) – A heady dose of reality is about the last thing one expects from David Bowie. For over 30 years, the British rock performer and multimedia artist has dished out a steady supply of fantasy on stage and screen, along the way influencing a multitude of other artists beguiled by his alienated, world-weary persona.

All the more is the surprise that in this gritty, post-modern era when life on Mars seems much closer to reality than fantasy, and when the fantasy of holing up and watching the apocalypse from a remote, secure location holds a distinctive appeal over the reality of terrorists blowing up trains, Bowie has chosen to jump into the quotidian feet first.

Bowie’s “Reality” tour, after the terrific album of the same name released last year, stopped at the Fleet Center on Tuesday night. His first full-scale national tour in nearly a decade presents a very human, amicable Bowie. Dressed in well-worn black T-shirt, black jeans and black Converse sneakers and topped by a full head of dirty-blonde hair, Bowie looked a very healthy 57. If he didn’t attempt any full-stage laps -- he was never the type to jump around too much -- he did turn a few good dance steps and kept the show moving at a steady pace for just over two hours straight.

If Bowie seems a blast from the past, the concert made a strong case for him as a vital, contemporary artist. Nearly half the songs were drawn from recent albums including “Heathen,” “Earthling” and especially “Reality.” Sprinkled throughout the show were some of his greatest hits, including “Rebel Rebel,” “China Girl” and “Fame,” and tasty nuggets for the hard-core fans in the audience, including “Sound and Vision,” “Fantastic Voyage” and “Five Years.” Bowie also catered to the hometown crowd, offering versions of songs by Boston-bred acts The Pixies (“Cactus”) and Jonathan Richman (“Pablo Picasso”).

Bowie made a name for himself years ago with highly theatrical stage shows and special effects, but in keeping with the theme this was a pretty straightforward rock show. Bowie performed before a now obligatory digital video backdrop, and lights enhanced the setting, but otherwise there was little spectacle. The arrangements were heavy on guitars -- the band including two guitarists, one keyboardist, a multi-instrumentalist tripling on guitar, keyboards and percussion, a drummer and a bassist, and Bowie himself occasionally strapped on a guitar. This straight-ahead approach served rock fare like “Rebel Rebel” and “New Killer Star” well, and early in the show, the band kicked out a sprightly, garage-rock version of “Hang on toYourself.”

What was sacrificed in Bowie’s embrace of the ordinary, however, was any distinctive character or strong point of view. Bowie wasn’t an alien, or an icy, cold technician, or a flamboyant party animal. He was just a lean, chatty arena rocker, albeit one with a rich, gorgeous voice and a terrific catalog of songs. That may be the reality, but coming from one of the pioneers of rock as theater, that had to rank as something of a disappointment.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 1, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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