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David Bowie + The Polyphonic Spree

Matthew Wheeland
David Bowie + The Polyphonic Spree

David Bowie + The Polyphonic Spree

City: Berkeley, California
Venue: Berkeley Community Theater
Date: 2004-04-16

David Bowie
The Polyphonic Spree
There are a few warnings I feel obliged to offer as a preamble to this review -- a caveat lector, if you will. First, I am not well-versed in the David Bowie catalog. I have nothing against the man or his music, I just have never delved into the man's work. Second, I do not frequent these kinds of shows; something about paying $76 for a ticket, even before Clear Channel's surcharges, rankles my sensibilities. It's the "Bridges to Babylon" effect: when a band with the history of the Rolling Stones (or, more to the point, Bowie) hits the road, every capitalist barnacle gloms on to squeeze some cash from our wallets. Case in point: have you ever paid $35 for a concert T-shirt? How about $70 for a sweatshirt (that's twice the money for somewhat longer sleeves)? The commemorative jackets, although quite stylish, were $130. Even the CDs on sale at the show were priced as high as the market could bear; I haven't paid $18 for a single album since I was stuck in Santa Fe shopping at Sam Goody. Griping aside, there is one simple argument for happily shelling out whatever David Bowie asks for his concerts: the man is a rock and roll god. In the course of his two-and-a-half hour set, he casually but effectively demonstrated the importance of his 35-plus year career in music. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, let's talk about the opening act, the Polyphonic Spree. Everyone's favorite cult-rock outfit showed Berkeley its full white-robed regalia. They played a 40-minute set consisting of a few old songs, a few new songs, and climaxed with a massive 13-minute medley that included Bowie's "The Sun Machine (Memory of a Free Festival)." At this kind of concert the opening act always gets the same treatment -- a few fans get there right on time to cheer along, while the headliner's followers come in later looking baffled and bemused. The 24-piece Polyphonic Spree laid it on heavy for the baffled; the middle-aged Bowie fans weren't quite sure what to make of the eight-member choir, the brass section featuring a flute, trombone, trumpet and French horn, or the sheer weird energy of lead singer Tim DeLaughter, who looks a bit like Robert Plant but strutted and preened like Mick Jagger. To their credit, the Spree set out to make believers of the crowd, and the set opener "Hey Now It's the Sun" especially shook the rafters. With the combination of their white robes, the white fabric backdrop to the stage, and the blinding white lights, one could easily buy into their fervent joy. Unfortunately, the band relied too heavily on material from their forthcoming album Together We're Heavy, which even the fans haven't likely heard, and which sounds more subtly sublime than the sledgehammers of joy from The Beginning Stages. Of the seven or eight songs in their set, only two were among that album's standout tracks. Back to Bowie. Despite not recognizing any songs from the night's show save for "Under Pressure" and "The Man Who Sold the World", I was completely awed by Bowie's legacy and versatility. His set list reads like a history of rock and roll, chronicling everything from '70s glam to late '90s electronica. His set list, available less than 12 hours after the show ended, thanks to the crew at DavidBowie.com, spans his entire career, with only a slight emphasis on tracks from his latest album, Reality, and the penultimate Heathen. Bowie himself was effusive and, in the view of fans, remarkably chatty. Throughout the show Bowie would crack wise about the changes in his music and talking with the crowd. True to Bay Area form, as soon as the lights went down folks brought out the marijuana, prompting Bowie to quip before launching into "Fashion", "I'm not the only one who's been to the botanical gardens today." The long life of a performer such as Bowie is surely difficult in its own ways. Considering that the crowd showed markedly little enthusiasm for or knowledge of later songs like "The Loneliest Guy" from Reality or the dance-music-inspired "Hallo Spaceboy" or "Battle for Britain (The Letter)", Bowie showed a respectable amount of enthusiasm for playing the songs that are surely demanded of him every night he's on the road. Bowie jokingly sang the first few lines of "China Girl" in Chinese as a tease to the crowd, flashed the "horns of the devil" hand signal during "The Supermen", and handed out ear plugs to the crowd before launching into the song the crowd was expecting, "Under Pressure". This is a song almost singularly likely to disappoint live, more than 20 years after its release and lacking Freddie Mercury's uniquely powerful voice. But Bowie's bass player Gail Ann Dorsey was more than up to the task, and the crowd went completely batshit for it. More than anything else, the most impressive aspect of the show was Bowie's hands-on role in music history. Despite sounding uncannily like Ricky Gervais' demented office manager David Brent from the BBC sitcom The Office, Bowie was charming and self-deprecating about the various phases of his career. At one point he called the 1971song "The Supermen" "goth stuff -- endearing in its own way," and later asked the crowd, "What did you do in the '90s? This is what we did in the '90s" before launching into the hard breakbeats of "Battle for Britain". The four-song encore was the closest Bowie came to embracing one era of his past. Fittingly, he brought the Spree back out in a full spectrum of robes for "Slip Away", dedicated to an obscure and bizarre television show from the '70s. Bowie then closed out the show with three songs from the early '70s, finally bowing out with his signature "Ziggy Stardust". For two and a half hours, Bowie performed almost without a break. Even the aging crowd grabbed some lumbar support when the first slow song, "The Loneliest Guy", began more than an hour into the show. But even more impressive than the man's stamina and charisma is the extent of his musical experience and influence. In the course of the night, Bowie mentioned getting high with T. Rex's Marc Bolan, covered the Pixies ("the newly-reformed Pixies," he added), played a song that younger fans recognize only as a Nirvana song, and discussed how kids used to flash the devil horns (hint: use the middle two fingers instead of the outer three). At an astoundingly young 57 years of age, David Bowie is a walking rock encyclopedia, but one made all the more impressive by his continuing relevance.

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