Although David Bowie has been pretty quiet for the last several years, his enduring influence is something which continues to permeate virtually every aspect of pop music today.
From the electronic excursions of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead — whose Kid A, Amnesiac, and In Rainbows make up a trilogy not at all unlike Bowie's seventies "Berlin" albums with Brian Eno — to the work of modern bands like Arcade Fire (who Bowie himself has enthusiastically and publicly endorsed), Bowie's stamp remains everywhere, even if the artist himself has been mostly silent in recent years.
So here's the thing.
David Bowie's status as an innovator is pretty much beyond reproach. He's never sold records in quite the same numbers as such contemporaries as the Rolling Stones — outside of the early eighties Let's Dance period anyway. But save for maybe Neil Young (which is another discussion entirely), there simply isn't another artist from the same time period whose influence remains so pervasive in pop music today.
From the textures of electronica to the immediacy of punk (and its nineties bastard child grunge/alternative), most of it can be traced to Bowie's groundbreaking albums in the seventies. But this is also where the rub comes in…
Ask most Bowie fans, and they will tell you that his once-bright, creative spark began to dim back in the eighties shortly after Let's Dance. And for awhile — especially during the latter half of that decade — that argument was largely a legitimate one. While albums like Tonight and Never Let Me Down as well as his brief small-rock-band experiments with Tin Machine had their moments, they were also largely hit-and-miss affairs.
What few people realize, though, is that Bowie had a very nice creative resurgence beginning in the nineties, and continuing well into the past decade. Though his star may have long since dimmed, and game-changing albums like Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, and Heroes were long behind him, such didn't stop Bowie from following his artistic muse. There would be no Rolling Stones-styled Bridges To Babylon embarrassments.
With nothing left to prove, Bowie instead soldiered on with a series of recordings that catered to no one's expectations other than his own. Nobody is going to mistake albums like 2002's Heathen and 2003's Reality for a groundbreaking work like The Man Who Sold The World. But there is no doubt that with these latter-day albums, Bowie had settled into a very nice place. And perhaps for the first time in his career, he wasn't playing a series of roles, but rather simply being himself.
And that is what the new Bowie 2CD concert set, A Reality Tour, is really all about.
Recorded on the road in support of his then-current Reality album, A Reality Tour was first released as a DVD concert film in 2004. To coincide with its long overdue audio release this coming Tuesday, the Fuse network will be running the original concert in its world-broadcast premiere.
As anyone who has followed Bowie over the years already knows, his career has been as much about performance and its theatrical aspects as it has been about his musical innovations (which are no less significant, though they have been overshadowed at times).
Make no mistake. On A Reality Tour, Bowie remains ever the showman and the crowd pleaser. The difference here is that this is a far more mature Bowie. Finally comfortable in his own skin, Bowie leaves the greasepaint and big productions of years past behind for the most part to concentrate on delivering a more-direct performance.
Even so, he is not at all beyond putting a fresh spin on time-tested favorites ranging from Ziggy period chestnuts like "Hang On To Yourself" and "All The Young Dudes" to his more experimental Berlin-era material like "Heroes" and "Breaking Glass" (one of three very cool, previously unheard extras on these new audio discs).
The common thread through it all is how Bowie makes these songs sound like new creations, while delivering them in newly immediate and personal ways. There are no alter-egos to be found here. No Ziggy. No Thin White Duke. No Plastic Soul Revue. What you see is what you get, and it is a Bowie which owes as much to the time-tested performance tradition of Sinatra and Presley as it does the avant-mime artiste pretensions of personas past.
Credit is also due to Bowie's band on this tour, which includes such longstanding hands as guitarist Earl Slick and keyboardist Mike Garson (both of whom date at least as far back as seventies Bowie tours behind albums like Station To Station).
Anyway, Bowie pleases the crowd here with the hits while making it all sound fresh and new. They are all here too — from "Life On Mars?" to "Fame" to "Ashes To Ashes" to "China Girl" (another of the audio bonus tracks).
The real revelation, however, springs from the more recent (at least relatively speaking) material. Selected songs from his then two current albums — 2002's Heathen and 2003's Reality — more than stand up here to classics from the seventies and eighties, even if they are nowhere near as celebrated. I have to admit that although I never paid them much attention at the time, songs like "New Killer Star" and "Bring Me The Disco King" sound pretty damn good here.
So what does this all mean? Even though the live recordings on A Reality Tour are now about six years old, they demonstrate foremost that even now David Bowie remains a pervasive influence on contemporary music even in what is hopefully a temporary state of absentia. More than that though, they prove that Bowie remains a vibrant artistic force who is nowhere near ready for the rock and roll retirement home that is the oldies circuit.
Don't count Bowie out yet. Because I suspect we are far from hearing the last of him.
The remastered 2CD set of A Reality Tour will be in stores Tuesday.