Before I start, I should mention that I had intended the Friday night show at the Roseland Ballroom to be a warm-up for me as well as for Bowie. The time and scoping out of the venues and arranging to distribute tickets for overseas visitors before the show meant I planned to just enjoy the Friday night show, and not worry about getting close and taking in a camera (shhhhhh) until the following night. Unfortunately, my plans were thwarted when the Saturday night show was cancelled after Bowie blew out his voice with the 2 1/2 hour, 25 song show on Friday. So, I apologise in advance for any missing details and the lack of pictures for the Friday show.
I had been lucky enough to see Bowie just over 6 months ago when he played the Kit Kat Klub in New York as part of the hours promo tour. Personally, I'd felt the hours promo tour band lacked a little something - and most people I talked to agreed that although lead guitarist Page Hamilton was technically proficient, he lacked the charisma and style of his predecessor Reeves Gabrels whom we had become accustomed to seeing as Bowie's right hand man over the past 10 years.
So it was with anticipation that I looked forward to the return of Earl Slick on lead guitar for Bowie's 2000 gigs. I had first heard Earl live on the Serious Moonlight tour at my very first Bowie concert and to this day I still vividly remember the wall of sound across the entire stadium during the opening of the 1983 version of Station To Station. I'm glad to say that this concert left me just as impressed with Slick's performance and it restored a vigour to the entire band that I feet was missing during last year's performances.
The ballroom was packed to the gills around 8:15 p.m. when Mike Garson walked in darkness across the front of the stage to his keyboard setup to cheers from the crowd. The rest of the band followed: Slick on guitar, Mark Plati on rhythm, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and Holly Palmer and Emm Gryner on backing vocals. From the shadows emerged the man we'd all really come to see and hear; long blonde wavy hair (eerily reminiscent of his early 1970's pre-Ziggy hairstyle) and clad in a strange satiny/nylon-looking (someone disparagingly said it looked "very 80's") black wrap-around jacket and black pants.
We'd been told to expect some new songs for this series of concerts and the opener Wild Is The Wind was the first surprise. Bowie had played this just a few times at the very beginning of his 1983 tour before dropping it from the set. It's one song that I always point out when I hear critics who say "Bowie can't really sing". Friday's version (like nearly all the other songs) was very faithful to the original album version complete with its soaring and sustained notes. Bowie's voice was up to the task - something which I would have been more surprised at if I had not heard his performances of Life On Mars from last year's concerts. Bowie's voice, which in the late 80s and early 90s some may have suspected had lost its upper range, seems to have recovered at least some of the higher end and songs such as Wild Is The Wind, Life On Mars and Ziggy Stardust (see later) now sound much more faithful to the originals than the versions we may have heard on the Sound+Vision tour in 1990.
Looking to get the difficult vocals out of the way quickly, Bowie started into Life On Mars for the second song of the night. For those who heard last year's performances, it was just as strong and once again laid the spotlight (figuratively and literally) on Mike Garson and his keyboards for the first verse.
Moving on the second of four songs during the night from the 1976 Station To Station album on which Earl Slick (probably not coincidentally) played lead guitar, the lighting flicked over to a golden glow which basked the stage and Bowie in particular as we got to hear Golden Years live for the first time in 10 years. Bowie harmonized with Gail Ann on some of the lines rather than singing the exact original melody.
Speaking of the lighting and staging, I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though Bowie's 2000 engagements are very limited, that doesn't mean he's skimped on the set. In fact, I'd say that the staging and lighting I saw on Friday night was more elaborate than that used for the extensive 1997 Earthling tour. Tall vertical scaffolding like columns across the back of the stage held bright tube lighting which lit and pulsed appropriately in sync with the vocals on some songs. The curtain across the back of the stage had a "starry night" projected onto it for songs such as Stay. Spot and coloured lighting made the visual experience just as interesting as the auditory experience.
It had been a typical humid June day in New York, and before the third song Bowie removed his jacket to reveal the yellow long sleeved tunic that he wore during some of last year's shows. Accordingly, the next song was one I'm sure most people never expected to hear again after he promised to "retire" his hits after the Sound+Vision tour. But if the rendition Changes signalled that now any hit is fair game, it was performed with just as much verve as those during his 1980s stadium-filling days.
After a band intro, Slick started in on a stirring lead guitar solo for Stay and the song ended with the same vocal interplay between Bowie and Palmer/Gryner as on last year's minitour. China Girl and Survive followed before we got another major surprise, Absolute Beginners, Bowie's 1986 hit which he'd previously only played on the Glass Spider tour.
For the next song, as on last year's performances, Mark Plati and Gail Ann switched roles with Mark picking up the bass and Gail Ann taking the guitar. The version of Ashes To Ashes which followed was fortunately much more solid than the one I heard at last year's Kit Kat Klub show, having had a few shows more practice at getting everything down right.
Proclaiming "That's song all about addiction... but I no longer have any addictions", Bowie stuck a cigarette into his mouth but appeared not to light it (from my far off distance). However, he was definitely smoking a cigarette later in the show, so obviously that addiction hasn't completely gone yet.
The loudest cheer of the night so far came for Rebel Rebel, obviously most recognizable to the crowd as a Bowie classic rocker. One thing which once again came to the fore on this version is how much Mike Garson's keyboards add to this song. Usually when you think of Rebel Rebel, you think only of the classic guitar riff from the album version, but Garson's seemingly improvised solo keyboards come through loudly in the current live mix and add a wonderful subtlety to the song.
The bass-thumping 1997 version of Fame sent rumbles through the floorboards and then the third major surprise, the highly underrated (in my opinion) This Is Not America from the Falcon and the Snowman soundtrack.The now-staple All The Young Dudes was followed by the long-absent Starman. During this, Bowie seemed to be struggling a little to reach the high notes (There's a star-MAAAN) which may have been a premonition of the following day's problems. A very faithful The Man Who Sold The World (unlike the 1995 Outside version) and Under Pressure with Gail Ann laid way for the final song of the main set.
Those unmistakeable synthesizer-generated tempo increasing "wooooosh - wooooosh - woooosh" chugs, and then Earl Slick, with his back mostly to the audience, setting up the wailing guitar which is the intro to Station To Station. Slick turned to face the audience in the spotlight as the rest of the band joined in, finally with Bowie coming in with vocals signalling the real "Return of the Thin White Duke" (although I couldn't help but feel that his "hippie" hairstyle was a little incongruous with the Thin White Duke persona one associates with Station To Station :-)) That being said I personally would have liked a little longer and slower buildup on the intro. Perhaps I'm just pining for what I remember from the 1983 version, but I recall Slick's guitar being a little more experimental during that tour than the version he played on Friday.
After a brief respite, it was back for Encore 1. Gail Ann played acoustic guitar to accompany Bowie on Seven and the ensuing Thursday's Child and The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell meant that the crowd got to hear all four singles from the 'hours...' album (yes, even the Australian and Japanese single). A rousing, although somewhat rough (e.g. Bowie missed coming in on a few lines) Hallo Spaceboy completed the encore. After two hours of nonstop performance, some people began to file out but when the lights didn't come up we knew there was more to come - although it would perhaps prove to be Bowie's undoing for the following night.
Encore 2 started off with the pre-show rumoured Ziggy Stardust. It was the biggest sing-along of the evening with what seemed like the entire audience lending their voices to the faithful reproduction of the original. Another crowd-favourite, "Heroes" followed. But the song with the most distinct rearrangement was Let's Dance. I'd heard the acoustic version of this at the Bridge Benefit concert, and while this wasn't exactly the same it was still unusual enough that I heard lots of people muttering around me... "What is this??" The lyrics were unmistakeable though, and after a couple of verses of this slow rearrangement, the band joined in full with the original arrangement. Personally, I always enjoy the rearrangements of the classics so I would have preferred him to do that for the entire song. But it's understandable that the majority of the crowd wants to hear the songs that they know and love rather than some weird arrangement Bowie dreams up :-)
The closer was I'm Afraid Of Americans - an interesting choice for the New York crowd. The 2000 version was much closer to the original Earthling album version than the Reznor remix which he employed on the US leg of the Earthling tour.
So overall, how do I rate the concert? I give it an 8.5 out of 10. I think some of the shows on the Earthling tour were a little more solid musically (some of that due to this just being warmup rehearsals obviously) and had a more interesting selection of songs. Portions of this setlist sounded suspiciously like the Sound+Vision Greatest Hits tour, although the vocal performance from Bowie was better than that of 10 years ago. I, along with a few others, am still a little perplexed as to the need for the backup singers Holly and Emm and often their vocals seem to get turned up a little too high in the mix for my personal liking. But there's no denying that Bowie is evidently enjoying himself immensely at this stage in his life. His enthusiasm on stage invigorates the crowd and his band around him.
With a new child just a couple of months away and an uncertain time in terms of albums and touring after that, those who attended the New York shows this past weekend will have a memory which they can treasure until the next time that Bowie decides to turn his talents to another live show for his faithful fans.