Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bowie at his Best (Part 2): My favorite live albums/concert videos and films

Welcome to part 2 of my "Bowie at his Best" mini-series in which I'm celebrating the music (and now, the severely overlooked acting chops) of the late, great and unsurpassed David Bowie!

In part 1, I covered my 10 favorite Bowie albums with brief reviews of each. The installment also included the 25 songs "I consider quintessential to the Bowie music experience."

This week I've had a couple people tell me they would have chosen a few different albums than the ones I selected, but overall they seemed OK with my selections.

The biggest oversight is Bowie's 1971 HUNKY DORY, which has many great songs and is a solid album, but not one that was that "Wow!" Factor I look for in my favorites. IMHO any truly awesome album by any artist is one that after I hear it not only do I think, "Wow, that was a great listening experience," but I also want to listen to to it all over again.

This is the original back cover of HUNKY DORY.
I've always enjoyed David Bowie's 1971 album, but it fails
to deliver the "Wow!" Factor I deem necessary to be
among my favorites. 
Sorry, Bowieheads, but I've just never felt that way about HUNKY DORY. It's a great album — and I understand why critics rave about it. But while I enjoy it, I don't consider it the masterpiece that others do. Just one fan's opinion!

So what do I have up my sleeve for the second installment of "Bowie at his Best"? Nothing short of DB's five greatest live albums and/or concert videos and his five best performances in film (aka the big screen).

Read on — and make sure you post a comment in the section after this op-ed. Let the healthy discussions, debates and conversations continue, Bowieheads!

Top 5 live albums and/or concert videos

In no certain order, here are the recordings that don't just represent the Bowie experience live, but also deliver the Thin White Duke's greatest concert performances. (In the first of my ongoing tributes to Bowie, I reflect on the six times I saw him in concert.) 

Another consideration in my selection is the strength of Bowie's band. He always had a knack for gathering some of the finest musicians in rock music and that's reflected in my five choices. Please know there's no slight to the Spiders from Mars; Ziggy's band was solid, but the bands in the list below are even tighter.

What many fans don't realize is even though these are professional and slick recordings (with a few touch-ups when it comes to the live albums), the raw performances by Bowie and his band are on-par with the official material. I own many bootlegs and imports, which I can compare to the official products, so I know this to be the case. It's no wonder DB was one of the most highly bootlegged rock acts (back when such recordings were "a thing").

DAVID LIVE (1974 double live album): The beginning sounds as if Bowie's band has been recorded while warming up, but the intro leads into a killer take on "1984" — the only time DB opened a tour with the song. This is part of a four-song set straight out DIAMOND DOGS before giving way to one of the jazziest versions ever done of "Changes" (thanks to piano virtuoso Mike Garson) and bleeds into a killer version of "Suffragette City." The rest of the set list is just as strong as the first six songs.

David Bowie wears boxing gloves from a choreographed
fight/dance during his theatrical "Diamond Dogs" U.S. tour.
Without a doubt this is one of Bowie's tightest and most talented bands — and likely features two of the most high-profile musicians to ever back Bowie (they just hadn't hit the big time yet): Future movie composer the late Michael Kamen (electric piano, Moog synthesizer and oboe) and soulful saxophonist David Sanborn. (The two later performed Kamen's moody score for the four "Lethal Weapons" films.)

Whether it's Garson, Sanborn or lead guitarist Earl Slick, DAVID LIVE overflows with musicians delivering one stunning lick after another. Bowie once said he looked like he stepped out of the grave on the album cover (and rightly so!); aside from the morbidly ironic title and his heavy cocaine usage at the time, his vocal flexibility and range is on full display here.

Soapbox time: We Bowieheads deserve to have a full concert from the 1974 U.S. "Diamond Dogs" (later called the "Philly Soul" tour) released on video along with the infamous "Cracked Actor" BBC documentary. Fans should get to see this theatrical footage in its crisp entirety, not the very, very low-quality short clips we've seen so much on bootlegs.

"Serious Moonlight" (1983 concert video): As I said in my "classy, cool legend" tribute, I wore out this concert video when I owned it on VHS. And for good reason: Bowie may be at the apex of his vocal strength here.

He's dashing in each of the suits he wears (LOVE those!) and he's working so hard during this high-energy show — yet making it look easy — it's no wonder his dress shirt is drenched in sweat after only a few songs.

I know I sound like a broken record, but this is one dynamic band; the incomparable rhythm (and some-time lead) guitarist Carlos Alomar leads the group that features Slick once again killing it on lead guitar, Frank and George Sims on back-up vocal duties (adding some theatrical flair along with their tight harmony) and Bowie's own sax section, the Borneo Horns. Wow.

"Glass Spider" (1987 concert video): In short, this is theatrical Bowie at his best. He has a load of fun as he interacts with his dancers and plays to the camera and more importantly, to the crowd.

The "Glass Spider" concert DVD may be hard to track down, but it's worth it.
"Glass Spider" is such a feast for the eyes it's easy to overlook the dynamic lead guitar work by Peter Frampton. Just as in this concert from Australia near the end of the tour, hearing Frampton trading solos with Alomar during "The Jean Genie" in DC nearly 29 years ago was a treat for the ears.

Bowie was never afraid to borrow one of his own ideas
that worked before. Here he uses a telephone as a microphone
as he descends from the belly of the spider stage.
In 1974, Bowie used a "telephone" to sing "Space Oddity"
while the chair he sat in was swung over the crowd.
(When it worked, that is!)
And if you don't fall in love with dancer Constance Marie (later the smokin' hot wife on "The George Lopez Show"), you may be a little dead inside. Marie shines when she is featured on the mime performance with Bowie and Frampton on the "Sons of the Silent Age" and has a ton of fun playing around with the band members during "Blue Jean." Despite how adorable Marie is, Spazz Attack (Craig Allen Rothwell's stage name) and Steven Nichols are the most talented of Bowie's dancers.

What's overlooked here is Bowie and choreographer Toni Basil have a great balance of showmanship and theatricality with straight-ahead hard rockin' performances, each of which allow time for the musicians and Bowie's dance troupe to shine. The best example is the back-to-back selections of "Rebel Rebel" and "Fashion."

A REALITY TOUR (2010 double-live album of Bowie's 2003-'04 tour): Here I chose the double live album over the video concert because the quick edits on the video drive me crazy at times, but both are worth having for Bowie fans. Besides, there are three bonus tracks on the CD, meaning the album features a whopping 35 songs recorded Nov. 22 and 23, 2003 in Dublin, Ireland.

This recording emphasizes newer material yet there's such a fine combination of lesser-played tunes performed live ("Loving the Alien" and Iggy Pop's "Sister Midnight") and crowd pleasers that it's easier to forgive Bowie for doing go-nowhere duds such as "Slip Away" and "Heathen (The Rays)." (I admittedly fast-forward over those, depending on my mood — despite DB's fine vocals.) 

Now that Bowie is deceased, his three-song Ziggy Stardust homage to end each concert is now one for the ages. Amazingly, DB's voice is as strong in the climactic ending of "Ziggy Stardust" (how long can the dude hold that note?!?) as it is earlier in the set. And I witnessed the same phenomenon during the Jan. 7, 2004 concert in Cleveland. A spine-tingling conclusion!

BBC RADIO THEATRE, LONDON, JUNE 17, 2000 (the bonus disc to the two-CD BOWIE AT THE BEEB: THE BEST OF THE BBC RADIO SESSIONS '68-'72 collection): Much like DAVID LIVE, I find myself often including this CD on road trips and/or for pure rockin' out in my car.

 He never seemed to age.
Bowie's awful hairstyle in 2000 makes him a dead ringer
for how he looked in 1970 and '71.
Bowie daringly starts the one-off club show with the haunting ballad "Wild is the Wind" — and absolutely nails it. Soon after the one-two punch of "This Is Not America" (his only time performing it live) and "Absolute Beginners," the set list builds up steam to what ends in nothing less than a party atmosphere.

This talented band (essentially his post-1995 ensemble but with Slick now on his third and final stint with Bowie) is one of The Thin White Duke's finest. I was never a fan of guitarist Reeves Gabrel's barely controlled solos and instead have always adored the more melodic and technically sound work of Slick, Frampton and of course, the late Mick Ronson, of the Spiders from Mars. I had the pleasure of hearing Garson play piano for Bowie three times — in three years. What he does on the keyboards is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

This Bowiehead would have a hard time choosing my favorites from these impressive bands: The Spiders from Mars, the DAVID LIVE band, Bowie's 1976-'80 studio and live band, the Alomar-led Borneo Horns ensemble from LET'S DANCE through 1987 and the post-1995 band (but with Slick on lead guitar). Much like being forced to choose my favorite daughter, cousin or even Bowie song, it's just not right. What an elite group of musicians.
What I call Bowie's "Serious Moonlight" suit is one of my favorite outfits he wore during the 1983 world tour.

Best film performances  

Bowie's filmography as an actor is nearly as diverse as the music genres he tackled and the looks he had over the years. 

Even if he just has a cameo, DB's time onscreen is always memorable. I don't remember much about director John Landis' "Into the Night"-- but it's hard not to forget Bowie's couple minutes with Jeff Goldlum when he casually pops a revolver in Goldblum's mouth, threatening him in a very polite British manner. And how can you forget Bowie's Broadway dance sequence —on a giant typewriter no less! — in the overlooked British musical "Absolute Beginners"?! 

Here are Bowie's best performances in the five greatest films he's done (in no certain order):
“Labyrinth” (1986): Bowie plays Jareth the Goblin King and performs multiple songs he wrote for this delightful, family-friendly film directed by Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas. "Labyrinth" is as enjoyable the umpteenth time as it is the first time. A true classic.

“The Prestige” (2006): Nikola Tesla (Bowie) has created a dangerous invention that Hugh Jackman’s magician believes is the key to trumping his rival (Christian Bale).

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983): Bowie delivers a gut-wrenching performance as a British soldier held prisoner in a Japanese prison camp. Not easy to watch, but DB shows off his acting chops here.

“Basquiat” (1996): He plays Andy Warhol in this dramatic biopic about promising street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Gunslinger’s Revenge” (aka “Il mil West”) (1998): Bowie is downright scary and frightening as a bounty hunter with a nasty reputation who tracks down Harvey Keitel’s character who is attempting to leave the gunslinger’s lifestyle and reconnect with his estranged adult son.

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