The live album is a wild card. Sometimes it’s fodder to fill a contract. Sometimes it is more – a new vantage, say, on the artist or the songs featured. In theory, a live album by one of my favorite artists is rife with potential: to hear something I like reworded, rearranged – renewed, even, by the chemistry onstage or the buzz from the crowd, or its placement in a set-list – so that more of a good thing exists. If you’re a rock & roll star, chances are you put on a good show. But do you record yourself all the time? And if you do happen to record a good show, getting it to sound right in playback is a lot like catching lightning in a bottle. It’s hard.
Case in point: David Bowie. The studio Bowie beats the live Bowie. Except, perhaps, for the Live Nassau Coliseum ’76 recording (which is on the expanded Station to Station ), his live albums should have stayed in the can. The sloppiness and the audience get in the way.
Their energy and their historical worth aside, the live Bowie albums lack for quality control. The Bowie completist knows; and if you aren’t a completist (you never got past the Changesbowie comp, or that offering plus one or two of the studio LPs), why are you reading this review? Without its visual density – the tactile immediacy of the artwork and the lyrics and the singing and the tunes mixed just so for the mind’s eyes and ears – the music suffers. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some fun stuff here. Just don’t expect any keepsakes.
Full of flubs, quips and false starts (which give it a certain charm), Live Santa Monica ‘72 feels a tad less felt than the Hammersmith gig on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983), where DB sounds like a tired homecoming queen who wants Ziggy to go out on a high note. On both discs the Spiders bring it, but (the remasters notwithstanding) the engineering does them no favors. Mick Ronson cuts it, Mike Garson tickles the ivories “some odd,” and Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey pound cardboard. At first Bowie did not want these shows released. You can hear why.
The Philly Dogs show on David Live (1974) is equally thin. Aside from a couple of intriguing arrangements, the record is limp. David’s coked chanteusery has nowhere to hide. (Says he: “That record should have been called ‘David Bowie is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory.’”) The BBC documentary, Cracked Actor (1974), is a better representation of the era.
Among other things, Station to Station (1976) is a great guitar album. And Live Nassau Coliseum ’76 supports it. Carlos Alomar plays a lean, mean, dirty guitar. The band is hot, and Bowie is in fine voice. But, though I hear a lot of jacked-up, juiced-up jive (especially on the V.U. cover and the V.U. tribute, “TVC 15”), I don’t come back to this set often. As on Stage (1978), the live versions of the Station to Station tracks miss that album’s secret weapon: pianist Roy Bittan.
On the whole, the live albums are an afterthought. Less compellingly than the studio efforts, they chart Bowie’s artistic growth. The arch vocals of the Ziggy phase morph into the smoky croon of the Thin White Duke period. Then, sobering up, he goes “arena” (as witness the stale Stage, and A Reality Tour , even worse). From a songwriting point of view, his visiting New York in 1969, and later, the rest of America, does wonders for his craft. Only then does his shtick begin to soar.
Lastly, the live stuff reinforces the man’s showmanship. As evidenced by these albums, he knows how to make an entrance and an exit.
And you had to be there.
When it comes to Bowie’s live catalog, I like to skip around. Culling the highlights from the titles above, with three rarities added, I present a choice sampler. Enjoy!
|“Aladdin Sane”||The Tower Theater, Philadelphia, 8-12 July 1974|
|“Dead Man Walking”||The Conan O’Brien Show, 1998|
|“Drive-In Saturday”||The Cleveland Public Auditorium, Cleveland, 25 November 1972|
|“Fame”||The Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, 23 March 1976|
|“John, I’m Only Dancing”||The Music Hall, Boston, 10 January 1972|
|“Rebel Rebel”||The Point Theatre, Dublin, 22-23 November 2003|
|“Space Oddity”||The Tower Theater, Philadelphia, 8-12 July 1974|
|“The Jean Genie”||The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Santa Monica, 20 October 1972|
|“The Supermen”||The Music Hall, Boston, 10 January 1972|
|“TVC15”||The Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, 23 March 1976|
|“Waiting for the Man”||The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Santa Monica, 20 October 1972|
|“Waiting for the Man”||The Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, 23 March 1976|
|“Ziggy Stardust”||The Hammersmith Odeon, London, 3 July 1973|