Tuesday, February 21, 2017

'The Man Who Sold the World Live in London' (album review)

Let's be honest: When you're a diehard fan, it's difficult to get anything past us.

So it was somewhat startling to realize that Maniac Squat Records had released a 2014 David Bowie-inspired concert as the double live album THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD LIVE IN LONDON in 2015.

I pride myself on being a diehard Bowiehead; I should have heard about this record. (To my own defense, I do remember hearing about this concert and tour — just not the subsequent CD.) 

THE MAN… was performed Sept. 22, 2014 at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire. Not surprisingly, given the title, Disc 1 is a live performance of Bowie's 1970 album in chronological order. 

TMWSTW is one of DB's most severely overlooked and underrated albums, with its abundance of haunting lyrics, catchy melodies and memorable guitar work. 

Listening to it as a teenager when I received it as a Christmas gift, I was stunned at how heavy the music is; it's arguably harder rock and more aggressive than anything on his 1972 masterpiece, the concept album that rocketed Bowie into the stratosphere — THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS. The only exception might be "Suffragette City." I initially found TMWSTW dark and depressing, which it is, but over the years it's grown on me considerably and is now one of my favorite Bowie albums.

Disc 2 comprises 12 of the greatest tracks from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane era. (The rest of this review focuses on Disc 1). He performed all but "Lady Stardust" and "Starman" on a regular basis in 1972 and '73.

Lisa Ronson is the daughter of the late Mick Ronson,
lead guitarist for David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust's
Spiders from Mars band.
The set starts with "Life on Mars?," as Bowie was apt to perform first in more intimate shows in 1999 and beyond. The band then goes into his standard, Ziggy-era show-opener, "Hang Onto Yourself." The concert ends with "The Jean Genie-Love Me Do" (Bowie's hit with a taste of The Beatles' tune inserted briefly near the end), which Bowie performed with guitarist Jeff Beck during DB's last gig as Ziggy on July 3, 1973. Grade: B- 

What's special about this 2014 concert are some of the performers and their connection to Bowie.

Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer and good friend, is the bassist and Woody Woodmansey, the Spider from Mars drummer, is behind the drum set. Both musicians played on the 1970 THE MAN… album. Another Bowie bandmate — Erdal Kizilcay from the 1987 and '90 world tours — plays keyboards for the first set and then switches to bass on the first 10 tracks of the Ziggy-era setlist.

There are also relatives of Bowie band members doing background vocals: Lisa Ronson and Hannah Berridge Ronson and Visconti's son, Morgan Visconti. Lisa Ronson is the daughter of the late Mick Ronson, the lead guitarist in the Spiders while Hannah Berridge Ronson is his niece.

Tony Visconti
What's especially cool to realize is the middle tracks from TMWSTW hadn't been performed live before the 2014 concert ("Black Country Rock," "After All," "Running Gun Blues," Saviour Machine" and "She Shook Me Cold"). The casual fan may take me to task about "All the Madmen." But Bowie performed it during his 1987 "Glass Spider" world tour; those of us who remember that likely attended those concerts, as most of the bootlegs and the official concert video/DVD don't include it.

Most impressive is that each track is true to its 1970 studio original. (The performances in the Ziggy setlist are fairly accurate to what Bowie did in the studio or in concert, but nothing compared to what you hear on Disc 1.)

Visconti probably had as much to do with this as anybody else associated with the concert, seeing how he was Bowie's bassist in the 1970 band known as The Hype.

The opening and iconic riff from "The Man Who Sold the World" is the only exception to the overall stunning accuracy. The introduction doesn't include as much electric guitar as the original — and certainly not as much as Bowie's guitarists used in 1972-'73 and 2003-'04. The 2014 performance also has a bit faster tempo.
Marc Almond (in black beside bassist Tony Visconti) is a special lead vocalist during a performance
of the 1970 David Bowie album THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD.
Visconti mixed and produced this concert album. Let's be fair: he's a master in the studio and even with this live setting, the instrumentation-vocal balance is perfect. Visconti's bass is fairly prominent, but keep in mind each studio track features a fantastic bass line. Much like Bowie's TMWSTW album, Visconit himself is an underrated musician; he's simply one of the finest bassists in the music business and this gig shows off his prowess on the four strings.

This Bowiehead has few complaints about the live THE MAN… performances or arrangements from the first set. In fact, they're damn impressive. What there is to criticize only comes from a nitpick fan like me who has a finely tuned ear for hearing differences and nuances in the original version vs. various concert arrangements.

"All the Madmen" gets a bit of an unusual intro by the rhythm guitar and there's simply too much going on with the background vocals near the end.

The haunting "oh by jingo" vocals are spot with a tremendous harmony on "After All." The band, and especially the vocalists, give an extended ending to "Running Gun Blues" based on a variation of the chorus medley, which works nicely in concert. "She Shook Me Cold" gets a somewhat psychedelic ending, but that's understandable given that the studio track does much the same thing.

As I listened to lead vocalist Glenn Gregory, I struggled to come up with an equivalent singer. It avoided my memory banks until I finally nailed it: Gary Numan, who has a Bowie-esque voice and is best known for his 1979 hit "Cars."

Gregory doesn't try to mimic Bowie's vocals, yet he also doesn't stray far from what the master did in 1970. On "Running Gun Blues," "Saviour Machine" and "She Shook Me Cold," he goes slightly off-key and/or isn't quite true to the pitch. This could be because of anything from having a mid-set lull to trying too hard or even not hearing the band precisely in his earpiece. Either way, Gregory's challenge in trying to perfectly nail such obscure tracks note-for-note is a testament to two factors: Deceptively challenging melodies and Bowie's vocal work being harder to match than it seems.

THE MAN… concert recording is a great find. I'm especially tickled I discovered it for only $6. Bowieheads will enjoy the musicianship, attention to detail and hearing obscure songs performed in concert.

Grade: A-

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