Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 3, 2004)
Since I go to many more concerts than the average person, folks sometimes ask me to name my all-time favorites. I find this almost impossible to do. Actually, I’d pick Prince in 1988 as the greatest show I ever saw, but after that it becomes difficult to narrow down my choices.
Since 1983, I’ve gone to eight separate David Bowie tours. That number doesn’t include the four-concert 1996 or the fan club-only performances in 2000, so those could also be considered “tours”, I suppose. How does one narrow down the best tour from 10 over more than 20 years? It’s pretty tough. Because it turned me from a casual fan to a passionate one, 1987’s Glass Spider show will always be high on my list, and because I actually met Bowie that summer, 1990’s Sound + Vision trek remains a sentimental favorite. 1995’s Outside tour presented the most challenging sets of Bowie’s career, as he almost totally eschewed any hits that time.
However, each of those tours suffered from some notable flaw. Objectively, I’d probably go with 1997’s Earthling tour as Bowie’s high-water mark. Great band, strong setlists, and energized performances made that a year to remember. However, 2003-2004’s Reality tour gave Earthling a run for its money.
I’ve seen David Bowie live more than any other artist, with 73 shows under my belt as of October 2004. Bruce Springsteen’s catching up on Bowie, largely due to 48 shows over the last five years, but he’s still behind by 15 concerts. That’s exactly the number of times I saw the Reality concert from December 2003 to June 2004.
My first couple of Reality shows didn’t exactly dazzle me. Admittedly, that’s not unusual when I see someone with whom I have a long track record. I often need to get a couple of performances under my belt before I can accept the concert on its own merits. It’s like I need some warm-up shows to wash away my expectations and allow me to view the tours for what they are.
That was definitely the case with Reality. However, once I got into the show, I could see how good it was. It helped that the tour grew considerably as it progressed. The trek began in October 2003 and concluded the following June. At more than 117 shows, it was Bowie’s longest tour ever.
Sadly, Reality may act as Bowie’s extended tour swansong. It got cut short in July 2004 because Bowie suffered from heart problems that required surgery. I expect Bowie will play live again, but I doubt he’ll do another major world tour. Actually, Bowie always implied that Reality would be his final big go-round, but the heart issues may seal that particular deal.
If that’s the case, Reality serves as a fine conclusion. Bowie put on consistently solid and occasionally epic shows that covered his whole career and once again established his mastery of the stage. No one does it better, and Reality demonstrated that clearly.
For the first time in 16 years, American audiences can buy a Bowie concert DVD. Despite all those tours over the last few decades, the last commercially-available live Bowie show was from the 1987 trek. One could easily find bootlegs of Sound + Vision via a Japanese TV broadcast, and 1991’s Tin Machine tour came out as a video overseas but not in the US. The January 1997 50th birthday concert from Madison Square Garden also aired on pay per view.
So the A Reality Tour DVD comes as an “it’s about time” release for Bowie fans. Even better, unlike the Glass Spider or Serious Moonlight videos, Reality presents an entire concert - or close, at least. Shot during November 2003 in Dublin, the DVD includes a whopping 30 songs.
The tunes encompass many parts of Bowie’s career. The oldest song comes from the title number off of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, while “Changes” and “Life on Mars?” emanate from 1971’s Hunky Dory. 1972’s classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars provides its title number plus “Five Years” and “Hang On to Yourself”.
1973’s Aladdin Sane goes unrepresented, though we get the Bowie-penned “All the Young Dudes” - made famous by Mott the Hoople - from that year. 1974 presents Diamond Dogs’ hit single “Rebel Rebel” while 1975’s Young Americans tosses out another smash via “Fame”. Bowie skips 1976’s classic Station to Station but from 1977, we get Low’s “Be My Wife” and ”Heroes”’ title tune.
From 1979’s Lodger, we get “Fantastic Voyage”, a song never played live on previous tours. He also covers Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight”, a song from the era on which he collaborated. (Indeed, Lodger’s “Red Money” uses the same backing track.) “Ashes to Ashes” comes from 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and we also find the 1982 hit “Under Pressure”; it appeared as a single as well as an album track on Queen’s Hot Space.
Though Bowie regularly did “China Girl” off of 1983’s smash Let’s Dance - and occasionally trotted out the title tune and “Modern Love” - nothing from that album appears here. 1984’s disappointing Tonight presents its best tune, “Loving the Alien” before Bowie jumps ahead 11 years for the next material; he completely skips 1987’s Never Let Me Down and 1993’s Black Tie, White Noise. (He also does nothing from 1989’s Tin Machine or 1991’s Tin Machine II, but that’s not a surprise; those were band projects that he clearly considers as separate from his solo career, though he’s done some of those songs on his own a few times.)
1995’s Outside presents “The Motel” and concert staple “Hallo Spaceboy”. From 1997, we get Earthling’s “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “I’m Afraid of Americans”, another oft-played track. Bowie usually ignores 1999’s …hours, so don’t expect anything from it. Off of 2002’s Heathen, we find “Cactus”, “Sunday”, “Slip Away”, “Afraid” and “Heathen (The Rays). Finally, 2003’s Reality adds another tunes: the title track, “New Killer Star”, “The Loneliest Guy”, “Never Get Old” and “Bring Me the Disco King”.
Whew - that’s a lot of songs! Study that list for a sign of Bowie’s priorities and compare it to other acts with as long a track record. Almost half of the set comes from the last 10 years, and a third of it emanates from his last two albums. When you recorded your first hit 35 years ago, you’re supposed to play two or three recent songs and concentrate on the back catalog for the rest.
Not Bowie, who likes to keep things current. And that’s really cool with me. Back in 1990, he claimed the Sound + Vision tour would be the last hurrah for his hits, and he briefly kept his word. He didn’t play a single Sound + Vision song during the 1995 tour, which was why those setlists were so interesting to die-hard fans.
Unfortunately, he got his head handed to him, as the audience responded poorly. Partly that occurred because he co-headlined with Nine Inch Nails, and the shows drew a heavily Trent-centric crowd. They might’ve reacted well to the hits, but a show made up of Outside tunes and obscurities proved disastrous. Even most of the Bowie fans in the audiences didn’t know what to make of these sets; heck, the tour started before Outside hit the streets, which put us in the unusual circumstance of being unfamiliar with much of the of show.
Anyway, Bowie slowly started to integrate Sound + Vision numbers back into his concerts; Reality includes eight of those once-“banned” songs. Nonetheless, he continues to maintain a very modern balance, as I already noted by the heavy amount of material from the last 10 years found in Reality.
That’s much of the reason Bowie continues to offer such energetic and vital shows. Indeed, when he planned to loose the hits after 1990, he did so to make it more difficult to rest on his laurels. The inclusion of well-known songs like “Ziggy” and “Fame” does allow for a little laurel-resting, but don’t mistake Bowie in the 21st century as an oldies show. The hits pop up as spice, whereas the new songs and less well-known older cuts act as the main course.
The renditions of the songs usually work well. I could really live without “Rebel Rebel”, but the version here is decent, and at least he gets it out of the way quickly. Among the DVD’s hits, “Changes” fares the worst; it’s a rinky-dink take on a fairly feeble tune. Others do much better, and old warhorse “’Heroes’” - the first “banned” song to come out of retirement - soars. The Reality Tour versions of it were arguably the best Bowie’s done.
Where Reality works best connects to the renditions of the newer songs. Frankly, after 21 shows since the June 2002 release of Heathen, I find it tough to listen to those studio tracks; the live takes invariably blast them out of the water. Unfortunately, Reality lacks my favorite improvement, the segued combination of “Sunday” and “Heathen (The Rays)”. Those songs are quite similar, and sometimes in 2003-04 Bowie’d move straight from one into the other. This worked beautifully, so it’s too bad Dublin wasn’t one of those nights.
The Reality tracks work pretty well too, but they don’t come to life as vividly in concert. For instance, “New Killer Star” sounds good but hews too closely to the album take. Nothing can save the tedious jazz odyssey of “Bring Me the Disco King”, the album’s only true embarrassment. At least the title tune cranks, and “Never Get Old” also prospers in the concert setting.
Reality doesn’t specify from which concert it comes. Bowie played Dublin on November 22 and 23, 2003, and both shows were shot for possible release. It looks like the majority of Reality comes from the concert on the 23rd, which was by far the longer performance. The 22nd presented a nice set, with 27 songs, but the 23rd went for a remarkable 35 tracks! Nothing unique appeared on the 22nd; the 23rd offered the same set plus an extra eight tunes.
As such, obviously those eight numbers must be from the 23rd, but the others are up for grabs. At times the program’s action doesn’t match the visuals perfectly, which made me think some of the tracks melded images from both concerts. It’s not a big distraction, though, and you’re not likely to notice many inconsistencies.
You will notice the annoying editing and visual style, though. A schizophrenic program, parts of Reality present the concert well, while others go with wacky music video attitudes. Generally slower songs use a more subdued approach, so tracks like “Sunday”, “Life On Mars?” and “The Man Who Sold the World” are eminently watchable.
Unfortunately, many others feature weird visual techniques. We see lots of gimmicks, alterations of color, quick cuts and slow motion. The results often become jerky, messy and distracting.
Shot with a mix of good and bad equipment, it frequently becomes difficult to get into Reality. After 73 shows, I have a pretty good idea of what a Bowie concert’s like, and the DVD only sporadically communicates that feeling. It falls victim to the concert video trend that dictates too much visual excess and not enough honest documentation. Musically, it’s excellent, and you can’t do better than Bowie as a live performer. It’s not a great DVD, unfortunately.
Setlist footnote: even with 30 songs, Reality doesn’t include everything Bowie played on November 23, 2003. It loses five tracks: “Days”, “China Girl”, “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon”, “Breaking Glass”, and “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”. Why did the DVD drop those tunes? I have no idea, but it’s a disappointment. You can never have too much Bowie!