10th September 1997
Only the most eagerly anticipated performers can saunter onstage with just an acoustic guitar and receive thunderous applause from a couple of thousand people who have just sat through two hours of canned techno (in place of a planned opening DJ). Judging from the crowd reaction at his Tuesday night concert in San Francisco, David Bowie is one of them. But figuring out just who Bowie is and where he’s going artistically at this point in his career is anybody’s guess.
Bowie has pushed many a musical envelope in his time, but his most recent album, “Earthling,” finds him content to put the stamp on the parcel handed to him by the likes of Trent Reznor and Goldie. He built his career borrowing from other genres, but never has his role as apprentice been so obvious — or so awkward. The realization that Bowie was out of his element became clear during tepid run-throughs of seven of the nine tracks on “Earthling.” The show was billed as a Thin White Duke career retrospective, and fans greeted his industrial meanderings with respect, but not enthusiasm.
He appeased that audience early on in the show with an incendiary “Jean Genie” that started off as a slow blues number but quickly exploded. He followed that with a raucous “Panic in Detroit” but lost his momentum amid an onslaught of new material. At one point, he even shamelessly plugged his new Reznor-produced single, “I’m Afraid of Americans.” (Does a living legend really need to promote product onstage?) Bowie ended the mid-set lull with another song from “Earthling,” “Looking for Satellites,” which ends with him singing “Where do we go from here?” Tellingly, Bowie answered his own question: “You know, I don’t have a clue.”
Bowie has continually reinvented himself over the years, helping to define pop music in the process, but all his onstage theatrics and pan-sexual flirtations couldn’t hide the fact that he hasn’t made the latest genre he’s delved into his own. He seemed to realize this in time to save the rejuvenating encore, which included crack versions of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” (the latter sung by bassist Gail Ann Dorsey).
Bowie finished the two-hour show like he started it: relaxed and smiling. More of the menace and power that comes from an artist following no one’s example but his own would have brought the evening up to the exacting standards set in the past by Bowie himself.