March 1, 2010

Featured Release: David Bowie: A Reality Tour
ISO Records / Columbia Records 88697588272
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

It’s pointing out the obvious to say that David Bowie has tried and discarded many stage personas, but his latest is perhaps his strangest and most unexpected. The Bowie onstage for A Reality Tour is an old school entertainer. "Last night, I gave my voice a belting, so if I ask you to join in some of the things, to help me out, yeah?" he asks the crowd at this show, recorded in 2003 in Dublin. They applaud politely, and Bowie asks them again and gets a more enthusiastic response. He could be playing Vegas, but the music is lean and tough. The tunes here are from the 2004 DVD of the same title, but Bowie, who produced the disc, added three tracks to this specially priced two-disc set.

Bowie’s Reality Tour followed the release of his 24th studio album, Reality. That album and its predecessor, Heathen (2002), were well received, and the singer included a healthy number of songs from both discs in this performance. He also revisited lesser-known songs, such as "The Motel" (from 1995’s Outside) and "Fantastic Voyage" (from 1979’s Lodger), performing them with energy and conviction. "Loving the Alien" is far simpler in this version than in its original on Tonight (1984), and it’s much better. A Reality Tour covers a lot of creative ground and many years, but it never sounds like a mere trot through Bowie’s greatest hits. The set’s 155 minutes never flag because the discs are well-sequenced and full of surprises, even for Bowie fans.

The band for the 2003 tour included guitarist Earl Slick and keyboard player Mike Garson, who both had long histories with Bowie, as well as bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, who had toured with him since 1995. She joins him on a lively "Under Pressure" that has more soul and spring than the original. Guitarist Gerry Leonard leads the band through the many demands of Bowie’s tunes, from the hard rockers like "New Killer Star" and "Hang On to Yourself," to the slow funk of "Fame" (a brilliant rearrangement) and the beautiful, affecting ballad "The Loneliest Guy." Aside from the Spiders from Mars, this might be Bowie’s strongest, most passionate band.

Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer and friend, mixed A Reality Tour, and he’s captured the momentum of the live show while giving the instruments presence and clarity. Bowie’s voice is well out in front of the band, with Sterling Campbell’s kick drum giving the music a solid, punchy foundation. Dorsey’s attack on the bass is precisely rendered and the two guitars are well separated. The keyboards and sound effects on tracks like "New Killer Star" and "Be My Wife" don’t get lost in crowd noise, yet Visconti has left enough live atmosphere and space to retain the excitement of a live performance.

Bowie hasn’t recorded an album of new material since 2003 and hasn’t toured since 2004, although he has appeared sporadically onstage with other musicians, including Arcade Fire. Listening to A Reality Tour is a reminder of how vivid and exciting a performer he is and how relevant he remains.

. . . Joseph Taylor