9th January 1997
Most people shy away from publicity acknowledging a 50th birthday, but not David Bowie. He invited some musical friends and some 19,000 paying guests to party with him at Madison Square Garden, in a benefit for Save the Children. The ever chameleon-like performer gave the audiences something of a mini-career retrospective as well as generous doses of his current passion — jungle and electronic music.
The more one hears of Bowie’s latest musical mode, the less convincing it seems to be. The-ever-so-hip musical genre of the moment doesn’t particularly translate well to arena shows, as the singer found out during last year’s tour with Nine Inch Nails.
Although it made a strong impression during his last New York gig at Roseland, Bowie’s music from his forthcoming CD largely failed to connect with this arena crowd, who treated it with respect but a notable lack of enthusiasm. It wasn’t until three quarters into the three hour show, when Gail Ann Dorsey started the familiar bass line from “Under Pressure,” that the crowd began screaming. The moment was sustained with a stirring version of “Heroes.”
Prior to that, Bowie had performed more obscure selections from throughout his career, as well as a great deal of new, techno-oriented music, starting with “Little Wonder,” the lead-off single from his upcoming CD, followed by the industrial flavored “Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (to be found on “Outside” and the “Seven” soundtrack).
The big draw for the evening was the presence of “special guests,” but their impact was underwhelming. Such performers such as Frank Black, the Foo Fighters, Robert Smith of the Cure and Sonic Youth showed up to lend a hand on a couple of numbers each, but they were often reduced to little more than back-up singers.
It wasn’t until Lou Reed (Bowie proclaimed him the “King of New York”) appeared that things really heated up. The pair, who share more than a little history, sang on a series of blistering numbers, including the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat,” as well as Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard.” The affection between the two iconic performers was palpable, and the crowd ate it up. Another highlight was the encore appearance of Billy Corgan, who lent his trademark vocals to the crowd pleasing “All the Young Dudes” and “Jean Genie.”
Bowie, looking better at fifty than anybody has a right to, sported spiky hair and a goatee. He enlivened the proceedings with his usual theatrical flair, throwing giant, inflatable bloodshot eyeballs into the crowd (they were quickly decimated) and providing much in the way of stylish video and lighting effects.
One number featured giant shadow imagery that looked like the outtakes from a James Bond credit sequence. Most effective was the encore, a solo acoustic version of “Space Oddity,” in which the singer dueted with a giant video image of himself.
The guest of honor was suitably presented with a birthday cake towards the end of the show, and was treated to the sound of 19,000 voices singing “Happy Birthday.”