Live Bowie! Brussels Voorst National

by Charles Shaar Murray / NME

25th May 1983

BRUSSELS VOORST NATIONAL

“WE ARE the goon squad and we’re coming to town. Beep-beep!”.

Thirteen minutes before they open the doors on the opening night of the Bowie tour and the soundcheck is still in progress. The two gigs in Brussels are essentially warm-ups, mainly because gigs in Brussels are about as discreet as it is possible to get in front of eight and a half thousand people.

Let me tell you about Brussels. If you managed to remove every single vestige of style from the French, and then dumped them in a reasonable facsimile of Holland, they would – and did – build Brussels. There are no more than sixty of seventy acceptably dressed people in the entire audience.

The Serious Moonlight Tour is Bowie’s first venture onto a rock stage for five years or so, and despite all the painstaking (and expensive) pre-production that goes on for modern megatours, there still remains a variable (or three). The most blueswailing Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose spirited Albert King impressions added so much sharpness and piquancy to the ‘Let’s Dance’ album, departed from the company some five days before blast-off, which meant that Bowie alumnus Earl Slick was drafted in to learn a two-hour 35-song set virtually overnight. (And then the poor bastard’s new amp blew up in the fifth number).

Coming to grips with the megagig often leads performers into the kind of techno-excess associated with Pink Floyd or the semi-departed ALice Cooper, but ‘Serious Moonlight’ managed to be the best-staged and best-lit concert I can remember without once seeming cluttered or gimmicky or cute. Every moment of the way, Bowie’s staging supports, enhances, underlines and comments upon the music, rather than distracting your attention from it and creating a lot of fuss to tide you through boring bits.

On the left of the stage, a huge pointing hand. On the right, the (serious) moon. In between, strung out across the back of the stage behind the instruments, four huge translucent columns. Plus a computer-driven lighting system that produces colours I’ve never ever seen from stage lighting.

The band expand outwards from a basic funk/rock position to encompass whatever musical requirements are presented by each tune: Earl Slick’s (quite understandable) lack of assurance was more than outweighed by the agile, powerful grooves laid down by Chic drum maestro Tony Thompson, former Stevie Wonder bassist Carmine Rojas and the indispensible Carlos Alomar. With a blazing horn section and two uncannily Bowie-like backing vocalists, the band punch through the set with a rare blend of imagination, enthusiasm and precision. The arrangements for the tour demonstrate that Bowie is at least as interested in revitalising his music as he is in simply reproducing it, as he did on the ‘Stage’ tour.

Oh yes, David Bowie. What can I tell you? Five years off the stage has done no damage whatsoever to his voice, his skills or his presence. He sailed through the two hour-long segments of his show without the slightest hint of Springsteenian sweaty endurance spectacles. Despite the show’s almost Romanic pace and energy, Bowie stayed as cool as Gregory Isaacs from the opening teaser of ‘Jean Genie’ through to the all-systems-gone encore of ‘Modern Love’.

Dressed up way past the nines (tens or twelves, easy) in a cream-coloured ‘Young Americans’ soul suit (with haircut to match), Bowie programmed his material so intuitively that it became routine to anticipate the set-list simply by the association conjured up by each song. If Bowie plays ‘Fashion’, complete with a quick display of body-pop-ping, then of course it goes into ‘Let’s Dance’.

Plus a few surprises: Bowie hasn’t performed Lou Reed’s ‘White Light White Heat’ in concert for a good decade (if you’ll pardon the expression) and… ‘I Can’t Explain’?????

The 12-string comes out of mothballs for ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Young Americans’, the alto sax surfaces for ‘Modern Love’, and the skull rears up once more for ‘Cracked Actor.’ All it needed was a few bars of mouth-harp on the final berserk-out on ‘Jean Genie.’

You have to give the man some credit. Rather than cynically tout a freeze-dried legend around the world – Rolling Stones stylee – Bowie has created a show that lives up rather than down to expectations. Not on the basis of his legend or his publicity, but on the strength of this show, Bowie is the finest white pop performer alive. I’ll be very surprised to see any of Bowie’s alleged peers produce anything remotely this good for quite some time to come.

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