Saturday, January 30, 2016

Reviewing every David Bowie live album

Two years ago, I paid tribute to Lou Reed by reviewing all of his live albums in the wake of his death.  Needless to say, David Bowie is more than deserving of a similar honour.

But whereas with Reed I was already familiar with parts of his live catalogue, heading into this project I have not, to the best of my knowledge, heard a note of music from any of these albums.  In fact, I've neither seen nor heard hardly any live Bowie -- besides the famous Live Aid performance and a bootleg from Glastonbury 2000 (which is fantastic) I can't recall a single thing off the top of my head (does the Bing Crosby TV appearance count?)*.  I'll be listening in chronological order of each album's first release (not the very different order in which they were recorded), although in some cases I'll be substituting the expanded re-release for the original.

* Oh, there is a 45-minute documentary of Bowie and Massive Attack in Israel in 1996 -- how about that for a double bill? -- that includes a few live songs.  I discovered it on Youtube the day after Bowie's death, but since then, it seems as though Israel Channel 2 have forced it off the internet.  Here's a short clip.  

David Live (1974) (2005 re-release)

This album has plenty of obstacles to overcome.  It was during one of Bowie's "drugged out of his mind" phases, so even though he a gives perfectly serviceable performance, it's almost totally lacking in passion and conviction.  That's a serious problem for an artist trying to transition away from glam rock and into what he claimed was soul music.  The same can be said of his backing band.  In place of a kindred soul like Mick Ronson who intuitively understood the Bowie aesthetic, here he brings a slick, professional outfit that is there to provide steady backup to Bowie but nothing more.  If the singer could carry the show on the strength of his charisma then that might be sufficient, but unfortunately that is far from the case here.

Songs like "Changes" and especially "Suffragette City" should be ramshackle and slightly unhinged, instead they become "Bowie: the Musical"-style supper club entertainment with ample layers of squawking (overdubbed) sax.  But as the album goes on, oddly enough, the style starts to work in a number of places, for example, with "All the Young Dudes" which for me has always been a Broadway-ready piece thanks to its dramatic and endlessly croonable chorus.  "Rock and Roll With Me" has a raw, freestyling feel with a pronounced gospel streak that anticipates what Spiritualized would do nearly thirty years later beginning with "Amazing Grace".  And of course, there's "Diamond Dogs", which was supposed to be a half glam, half Philly soul track in the first place.

Unfortunately, the album peaks around "Diamond Dogs"/"Panic In Detroit", before he digs into the meat of the "Diamond Dogs" album.  That middle forty or so minutes out of the 100-minute slog is wonderful, and there's just enough good to outweigh the bad overall, but I wouldn't call this an essential live document or anything.  5.5/10

Stage (1978) (2005 re-release)

Even two songs in, this album blows away nearly everything on "David Live".   "Stage" was heavily criticized at the time for being too "clean" (i.e. a soundboard recording with very little crowd noise) and sticking too close to the album arrangements.  I didn't know that excess crowd noise was considered a must in 70's live recordings, so let's just dismiss that line of criticism.  As for the arrangements, I think people weren't used to hearing seven minute instrumental pieces on recordings, so we can chalk it up to Bowie being so far ahead of the curve in his Berlin period.  There are plenty of fascinating arrangements here besides the general increase in tempos.  The squalls of guitar noise in the final minute and coda of "Beauty and the Beast" is just one example.  The entire "Ziggy Stardust" section that begins disc 2 is another.  Those songs lose much of their glam hedonism and take on a more sinister tone with Bowie's new band.  "Ziggy Stardust" is a song (and album) about the dangers of rock and roll excess and the "Stage" recordings are played with a subtle restraint that communicates that message perfectly, whereas the original studio recordings glorified that excess.

This performance of "Heroes" may be the best live version I've heard because it truly "gets" what made the studio recording so magical.  Subsequent versions tended to change it into a driving rock and roll anthem, but the studio version specifically tried to be less rock and roll despite its steady beat and soaring guitar solos.

In contrast to "David Live", Bowie is energized and focused throughout the album, finally content to play something closer to his real life self (the underground artist from Berlin) rather than yet another character he had to convince himself he wanted to be.  The entire album sounds frighteningly contemporary too, I have little doubt, in a parallel universe where Bowie was still with us, that this performance with a few songs from "Blackstar" thrown in could have gone over huge at any festival this year.  What kind of mutant genius is this?  9.5/10 

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983 original release)(recorded 1973)

"Hang On To Yourself" explodes out of the gate, fueled by an intensity that is almost punk, a remarkably aggressive sound for 1973.  The slightly murky recording quality sets the scene beautifully, I can picture myself in the packed club, with raunchy smells in the air, watching a fierce and gloriously colourful rock and roll band.  The Spiders From Mars sound spectacular even at the end of what was surely an exhausting tour.  It is every bit the legendary gig that lives up to its reputation.

The guitar solo on "Moonage Daydream" is just ... wow.  "Space Oddity" provides the necessary comedown after that, and it was at this point that I finally understood exactly what Suede were aiming for in 1993 when they followed up "The Drowners" with "Sleeping Pills" on their first album.  Yes, of course they were glam-loving Bowie worshippers, I'm not talking about copying Bowie in the general sense.  I'm talking about trying to duplicate this exact moment, about three minutes into "Space Oddity", when you try to take in its soaring guitar lines when the exhiliration of "Moonage Daydream" is still wedged in your brain. 

After that extended cool down section, featuring epic versions of "Time" and "Width of a Circle", the energy ramps up again with "Changes", keeps increasing with "Let's Spend the Night Together", and hits impossibly high heights on "Suffragette City".  The song sequencing is impeccable here.

As for the "retirement speech", all five seconds of it, it's no wonder why people thought he was really retiring (those few seconds, separate from the rest of this gig, are the total extent of what I've heard previously from this album).  There's no sense of drama, as if he's immersed in the character and adding an extra element of drama to the show.  It really feels like an out of character moment, and of course the final song is "Rock and Roll Suicide", and the symbolism couldn't be clearer -- "we're going out on top and throwing ourselves on our swords as we go".  8.5/10

Live Santa Monica '72 (released 1994/2008)

Recorded nine months before the famous Hammersmith Odeon concert (see above), but released as a semi-legal bootleg in 1994 and then officially in 2008, this album captures a somewhat softer side of the Ziggy-era Bowie.  It's clearly the same band pushing the same buttons, but there are a few key differences.  The proggy middle section of the "Ziggy Stardust" soundtrack is replaced by an all-acoustic run.  "Changes" is closer in tone to the album version, and ballads like "Life on Mars" appear in place of the more aggressive "Aladdin Sane" material.  You can also sum up the differences by the choice of Velvet Underground covers.  On "Ziggy '73" they play "White Light, White Heat" -- raw, visceral, unforgiving.  Here they play a rollicking, almost jaunty version of "I'm Waiting for the Man". These aren't negatives, but there is a lot more risk taking with the "Ziggy" gig and a clearer shift away from rock and roll norms.  7.5/10

Side note: on these live versions of "Hang Onto Yourself", they attack the riffs with more ferocity than the album version, and with a far greater emphasis on the bass.  I wasn't convinced before, but I'm now fully on board with the theory that "Hang Onto Yourself" = sleng teng riddim.

Glass Spider Tour live (2008) (recorded 1987)

This is the one instance where I watched the concert video, for the rest of the albums I am reviewing just the audio recording.

This is the version of Bowie I grew up with -- the clean cut crooner of the post "Let's Dance" period. The clothes, staging, choreography, between song skits (weird half-street, half-surrealist stuff with a tinge of Janet Jackson ... definitely an odd coat for Bowie to try on) have all been impeccably stylized for the commercial 80's rock market.  We're right in the thick of what Bowie derisively called his "Phil Collins" period.  I still enjoy his singles from these years but I've never bothered to dig deeper into the albums or anything.  This version of Bowie is "what you see is what you get" -- still cool and stylish, but for an artist who was constantly evolving, he was never more like everybody else than he was from 1983-1987.

And yet goddamn, this concert is still great.  Sure, Carlos Alomar tries to show off his shredding skills a few too many times, Peter Frampton duets on "Sons of the Silent Age" and nearly ruins the song, and there's way too much Huey Lewis-style sax for my liking.   But check out Bowie's dancing on "Fashion" -- who knew he was so flexible and could dance so well?  Him and his band slay with "Young Americans" and "The Jean Genie", rearranged into bombastic overload for the 80's.  And this concert features "Absolute Beginners" in its impossibly cool prime.  Is it probably or most definitely the most underrated Bowie single?  8/10

VH1 Storytellers (2009) (recorded 1999)

The best part of this brief concert is a second hand story told to Bowie by Iggy Pop.  Iggy went to a club on an anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, and at the appropriate moment, the clubgoers gleefully smashed up a model of the Wall.  After it was done, everyone burst into tears.  From the perspective of a frequent visitor to 21st century Berlin, as the city completely reinvents itself for the third time (at least) in the last century, that story got to me.

There are no standout musical performances or unique arrangements (although the semi-acoustic format of Storytellers does limit potential risk taking from the artists) but Bowie does take risks with song selection, digging deep into his catalog to play a number of seldom played album cuts.   Also of interest is "Thursday's Child", the lead single from "Hours", which comes off sounding more lively than any of the older tunes.  Sometimes you need reminding about how great Bowie could still be at his commercial nadir.  "Thursday's Child" is easy on the ears, and is easily his most radio friendly single of the last fifteen or so years (my favourite radio station still plays it from time to time). 6/10

A Reality Tour (2010) (recorded 2003)

Sadly, this turned out to be Bowie's final tour.  If he had announced it as his final tour at the time then you couldn't have asked for much more as a fan.  Over the one hundred plus dates of the tour, he played a total of 67 songs from every phase of his career (the popular and not so popular ones).  The concert was recorded over two nights in Dublin, and on the second night he played 35 songs from 15 different albums, plus a number of covers.  The general theme is that there's something for everyone.  It's a celebration of his career, and a decidedly uncontroversial and non confrontational one from an artist who usually tried hard to be both.  Then again, "Reality" was a fairly straightforward rock album.

Still, if you don't get goosebumps hearing "Life on Mars" and "Ziggy Stardust" for the 10 000th time and at least five or six other songs of your choice (including at least one or two from his later albums), then I have no idea why you've made it to the end of this post.  7/10

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