[14 July 2009]
David Bowie made his formidable reputation by being ahead of the musical curve. His expressive voice, his idiosyncratic use of language and melody, and his deft manipulation of his image frequently set precedent. The high level of quality in the majority of Bowie’s music from the 1970s alone still boggles the mind. This period was as fruitful as it was turbulent for Bowie. Fantastic music, famous friends, drugged-out behavior, and bizarre public appearances only contributed to his mystique as a tortured, pop chameleon. By 1983’s Let’s Dance, Bowie found sobriety and multi-platinum success but had lost some of the most challenging aspects of his music and image. The following years brought hit-and-miss dalliances with industrial music, electronica, and (gulp) Tin Machine. This is a man with stories to tell. It is therefore a shame that with so much classic material to his name, and with so many stories to tell, that VH1 Storytellers feels so pedestrian.
The underwhelming effect of this album is due to some poor choices. Among them, Bowie chooses to highlight his most recent album at the time, 1999’s adult contempory-sounding Hours…. Two of the scant eight songs that provide the primary set, “Thursday’s Child” and “Seven”, come from this uninspiring album. These tracks are tailor-made for the VH1 crowd, so it is no surprise that Bowie, ever the astute businessperson, knows where to pedal his wares. The trouble is, these songs are horribly bland. Watching the DVD, with the crowd stiffly “rocking out” in their chairs to these atrocities offend both eye and ear while killing any momentum that Bowie and his band manage to conjure with more familiar material.
The “more familiar” material includes a spare and stately version of “Life on Mars” with only Bowie’s vocals and piano accompaniment. It functions as a decent opener and fits the sterile VH1 set in a strangely satisfying way. Then, Bowie and his full band treat the audience to a version of “Rebel Rebel” lasting all of thirty seconds, complete with a half-hearted audience sing-along. Following the aforementioned “Thursday’s Child”, a surprise performance of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” provides a welcome diversion from adult contemporary territory. The track, written by Bowie in 1965, was the first single released after he changed his name from David Jones. A re-worked “China Girl” follows and further incites the staid crowd before “Seven” deflates the good times and pitiful chair-bound dancing.
The final two tracks find Bowie and his band finally hitting a minor stride. “Drive-In Saturday” from 1973’s Aladdin Sane gets a spirited treatment, despite some overbearing backing vocals, that builds to a genuinely rousing conclusion. As rendered here, the song takes on a less-whimsical quality with the omission of the original recording’s whooshing, 70s-era backing effects. If the original dripped with nostalgia for the bygone days, this version positively drowns in it, but it works in Bowie’s favor. The world-weary vocals speak to the years of hard living behind him and make the nostalgic longing a bit more convincing than on the original. “Word on a Wing” from 1976’s Station to Station follows “Drive-In Saturday” and the track’s melodramatic nature suits the occasion and the audience. Bowie tweaks a section of the chorus to a lower register, a decision that dials back the overwrought nature of the original. It is a mainly solid ending to a rather unremarkable and brief set.
As far as the storytelling component of the performance, Bowie the occasional actor gleefully steps into the role. He offers up an anecdote or two that may or may not relate to the song he’s about to perform and he frequently dips into mildly amusing impressions. These narratives, however, are not terribly interesting or illuminating. Bowie’s affable stage persona does manage to shine through on the DVD, but his stories lose a bit in translation on the audio portion sans visuals. But on a positive note, at least with the CD the listener can avoid seeing all that awkward chair-dancing.
As of this writing, six years have passed since David Bowie released an album of new material, 2003’s Reality. Since then, Bowie survived a heart attack and contribution to a Scarlett Johansson album. Given that this performance occurred in 1999 and is of underwhelming quality, it is difficult to see this release as anything but an attempted cash-in for his former label Virgin. Here’s hoping Bowie returns soon with some compelling new material to wash away the bland, adult contemporary aftertaste of this release.