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Live: David Bowie at the Amphitheatre

Robert Hilburn • Los Angeles Times • 4 September 1974

 

We had been told, both by advance press releases and newspaper/magazine accounts, that David Bowie’s new show was perhaps the most spectacular ever staged in rock. We were informed about the huge, futuristic Hunger City set, the movable platforms and cranes, dancers, special lighting and more.

Well, there was all of that and, indeed, more when Bowie opened Monday night at the Universal Amphitheatre, but the most spectacular thing about the evening, beyond question, was Bowie himself.

The effects – particularly a crane that lowered Bowie from a 30-foot space capsule at the rear of the stage to a spot just above the front of the stage – were often marvellously entertaining, but none of them came even close to the impact of Bowie’s charisma and talent.

Despite many problems during the evening (from an occasionally uneven pace to an improper sound balance that caused Earl Slick’s guitar often to smother Bowie’s vocals), Bowie was stunning – a performer of immense style and ability.

There is, quite simply, no one in rock today with as much range and dynamics. And it may be too limiting to suggest Bowie’s supremacy is confined to rock.

While there was always a sense of the theatre in his movements and concert approach, the 27-year old English singer-songwriter has grown enormously as a performer since he made his local debut in 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

At that time, he was convincing in the role of an imaginary rock star (Ziggy Stardust), but it remained a question whether he could move from that role to the broad, multi-directional, cabaret stance that he sought. He ended that uncertainty Monday. He continues to attract a glitter cult, but has successfully moved to a broader, more general base.

Aside from Eddie Floyd’s old rhythm and blues hit, Knock on Wood, all the material Monday was written by Bowie and most of it was from his Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs albums. But many of the songs had been redesigned, both vocally and instrumentally.

It was Bowie’s vocal work, in fact, that was one of the concert’s chief musical strengths. During this tour (his most extensive yet in the United States), Bowie has gained enormous confidence as a singer, thus permitting far greater shading and texture to his vocals.

In his music, Bowie combines the beat, urgency and sensuality of rock music with the compassion, sentimentality and gentleness that has been associated with the best of mainstream pop. But he also finds room for some of the horrors of modern life and the uncertainty of the future.

His themes generally center around the inevitability of change, the accelerated rate of that change, the loneliness of the individual in an increasingly depersonalized world, the loss of emotion in a frightfully mechanized society and the need to rely on one’s own judgement rather than place faith in the hands of would-be political saviours. As with most significant entertainers, he’s trying to liberate emotions.

The show began with a flood of spotlights across the darkened, eerie Hunger City set. The musicians – a four-piece rhythm section later augmented by saxophonist Dave Sanborn – were visible on stage, but the lights continued to search the stage for Bowie, thus building tension. He finally appeared at the rear of the stage and received an expectedly huge ovation.

Wearing a stylish blue suit and an open-collar sport shirt, Bowie opened with 1984. Almost shockingly thin in the manner of those lean models that often grace fashion magazine covers, Bowie had, as before, enormous body control, able to establish a striking emotional image with just a twist of the hip or sudden glance. Two male dancers assisted him with varying effectiveness, establishing the mood of various songs.

The first special effect was during Sweet Thing when Bowie, wearing a trench coat, appeared on a deserted street set that had been constructed on a huge platform high above the rear of the stage. In the second half, the effects included the Space Oddity crane, a huge, mirrored space capsule and a minimovie set where Bowie, as a disillusioned, aging actor, sat and caressed and was caressed by the skull of a skeleton.

But in the end it was Bowie, not the effects that mattered. The effects in various forms, have been part of our film/concert experience, but Bowie has not. When he drops the elaborate staging (as he plans to do soon), he’ll be just as important an attraction.

Bowie is, by far, the most arresting figure to enter pop music in the 1970s and, I have a suspicion, he still is a long way from his peak.

Production supervision and lighting for the Ampitheatre show, which runs through Sunday, was by Jules Fisher. The choreography was by Toni Basil and Mike Garson was music director.

 

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this page updated September 28, 2018