For David Bowie, pop is intrigue, and he is a restlessly imaginative shamus searching out his own clues.
His concert at the Capital Centre Saturday night was a triumph of the will, but there were few apparent flashes of the heart as pop's reigning technocrat skillfully paraded through his multi-impersonalities.
Situating himself mostly on the proscenium of a gorgeously lit stage, Bowie condensed the fascinating chapters of his decade-plus career into two hour-long sets, moving from station to station with considerable e'lan and consummate professionalism.
He also offered his fans a slightly revisionist pop history, dressing his quirky past as a prologue for today's hip-smooth guise. No longer taking as many chances as he did in the past, Bowie appears to be consolidating and smoothing down the edges.
Looking like one of Hollywood's mythical bronzed matinee idols--lean and lithe as a rubber band, loose in his baggy '40s suits and studied liquidity--the flaxen-haired Bowie spent the night starring in his own mini-productions.
As father and child of the rock video revolution, Bowie is intensely video-conscious and so the show was--unsurprisingly--very much a high-tech production: tightly choreographed (including background scenarios on several numbers), impeccably lit, cleverly staged. In fact, the whole thing was paced and cut like a Cinemascope video. Unfortunately, the Cap Centre's Tel-Screen seemed woefully inadequate, since it could capture only segments--mostly Bowie profiles--of each spectacular scene.
Having revived his nascent film career in the glossy but anemic "The Hunger" and the upcoming "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," Bowie is happily torn between two careers. And if the film world has finally decided to capitalize on his translucently tortured good looks and charismatic personality, Bowie is reaping equal rewards from his current celluloid fixations as well as his long-ago involvements with mime and motion. His Cap Centre concert Saturday was a catalogue of studied movements. He gave a second concert there last night.
Bowie, of course, is an actor, certainly as much as he's a singer and songwriter. There's no other way he could have so convincingly assumed so many personas in such a short period of time, but where fans might have expected Bowie's Greatest Bits--Ziggy Stardust would have been certainly welcome from the Lon Chaney of rock--Bowie instead gave them his greatest hits, concentrating his newer material in the first set, the early and middle years occupying the second set.
Bowie once posited himself as his generation's Frank Sinatra. Both are certainly survivors of the vagaries of pop fashion, though Bowie has always tended to anticipate trends, whereas Sinatra seemed overwhelmed by them. There were plenty of other shared characteristics on Saturday: the professional recapitulation of old hits, the cool distance between performer and audience, and, most of all, the brilliant manipulation of a hard-driving big band. Bowie's 10-piece band was tightly wound and obviously drilled to perfection, like Basie with an '80s bottom, but where Basie would swing an arrangement, Bowie's boys rocked it.
As a precision-tuned ensemble, the band provided muscular textures--high-tech rock-funk propelled by a superb three-man horn section led by Lenny Pickett, powered by the twin guitars of Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick and paced by the powerhouse drumming of Tony Thompson. The drawbacks were a tendency to provide the same framing energy for songs from various stages of Bowie's career: thus, "Cat People," "Sorrow," "Jean Genie," "Life on Mars," "China Girl" and "Rebel Rebel" all emerged with the same detailed but homogenized crunch that obscured historical perspective. And Slick's guitar histrionics seemed all the more obnoxious next to Alomar's straight-ahead virtuosity.
Some have called Bowie the Great Pretender, and there were times on Saturday when he seemed to reinforce the suggestion. Particularly during the first set, every gesture seemed theatrically defined without being fully integrated into the music. There were times when it got downright silly--"Crack'd Actor" played out "Hamlet" style, with cloak, skull and director's seat. Yet on a classic song like "Ashes to Ashes," Bowie managed to compete with his superb video clip by singing inside a shimmering cage of light. The subsequent segue into his first hit, "Space Oddity," was effective, but the symbolism got a little heavy (or dopey) when Bowie kicked a huge inflated balloon--The World--into an audience willing to set it spinning topsy-turvy.
In his closing set, Bowie seemed considerably looser, and the passion surrendered to gesture in the first set seemed given over to emotion in the second. Then Bowie sang with the kind of zest and energy not usually associated with him. His voice--resonant, authoritative and clear, and really more suited to cabaret than to rock--dated some of the older material, investing those songs with a weight that was in turn amplified by the churning band.
But on the newer songs, it seemed just right. Among the best moments were the segues from "Fashion" to Bowie's current hit, "Let's Dance," and from "Young Americans" to "Fame." The dance rhythms were compelling, but oddly resistible.
As theater, Bowie's concert was boffo. As music, it tended to fall back on power, rather than passion. He remains one of the truly fascinating personalities in today's pop world--continuing to renew himself, hungry like the wolf.