In today’s troubled musical climate, one wonders how to escape the choking morass of teenage weltschmerz, slipshod technical ability and half-baked political dissent so prevalent in live shows. Ironically – though it won’t surprise his longtime followers – the sorely needed breath of fresh air has not been delivered by some idealistic Johnny-come-lately, but by 35-year rock veteran David Bowie. His Monday performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl serves as an explosive reminder of the heights of refinement and fun that music can reach.
Turning a blind eye to the unabashed gouging at the merchandise stands (the price of shirts stretched into the triple digits) and a somewhat scabrous set by the 25-member opening act the Polyphonic Spree, the show was arguably flawless. Bowie himself appeared to be in top form, decades of experience having honed his showmanship abilities to a fine edge. The seven-piece band functioned like the proverbial, well-oiled machine; the vast majority of the time they were able to closely reproduce the sound of the original studio recordings, no mean feat considering their frequent sonic complexity.
Though Bowie had at one time announced the “retirement” of his classic tunes from the ’70s and ’80s, he has thankfully reneged on the promise. The lengthy set-list matched such crowd-pleasing favorites as “The Man Who Sold the World” and “All the Young Dudes” with unique career milestones like Low’s instrumental “A New Career in a New Town” and the Freddie Mercury collaboration, “Under Pressure.” As there are countless beloved songs in David Bowie’s back catalog, it would be an impossible task to satiate every screaming fan present. Nevertheless, the selection, though inexplicably missing the 1983 pop hit “Let’s Dance,” proved full of excellent choices.
Entitled “A Reality Tour,” this series has ostensibly aimed to promote Bowie’s latest album. However, the new material heard on Monday’s performance was mostly culled from the 2002 release Heathen. That may seem an odd choice when the heavy promotion of Reality is compared to the relatively quiet distribution of the previous record, but Heathen’s best cuts – the slow build of “Sunday,” the dramatic balladry of “Slip Away” – lent themselves to in-concert execution very well indeed.
That said, Reality was by no means underrepresented. “New Killer Star,” the album’s first single, provided the band with plenty of high-decibel rocking space, though the lifestyle anthem “Never Get Old” was notably absent. Also woven into the lineup were several covers, including the Pixies’ “Cactus” and the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.” Bowie’s version of the former was actually much better than the original, and the “White Light/White Heat” met with thrilled applause from the crowd.
Spry, cheerful and humorous, Bowie pulled off his starring role in the performance with more relish and enthusiasm than a musician 40 years his junior. Though an artist of his standing could easily adopt an attitude of aloof self-importance, Bowie instead took time between songs to joke with the audience, relate pieces of trivia about the conception of certain pieces and even poke fun at himself. “Here’s a song I wrote when I was about three or four years old,” he said of what he considers to be his own nonsensical lyrics. “This is what comes of spending your teenage years with a Nietzsche book… and never opening it.”
Above all, the show set itself apart from the norm by virtue of sheer focus and production value. For Bowie and his band, the oft-repeated clich