It's his party, but fans get the gifts Preview: David Bowie celebrates his 50th year with glorious guests and guitar and minimal nostalgia in pay-per-view concert.

March 08, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When Mick Jagger turned 50 a few years ago, only family and friends were invited to watch his famous lips blow out the candles. By contrast, almost anyone could attend David Bowie's 50th birthday bash -- provided they had a ticket.

How so? Because Bowie, ever the shrinking violet, decided to celebrate his first half-century by throwing a concert (with guest stars) at Madison Square Garden. "David Bowie and Friends -- A Very Special Birthday Concert," which took place Jan. 9, is being broadcast this week on pay-per-view, beginning tonight at 9.

Typically, what Bowie delivers is likely to both enthrall and infuriate fans -- possibly at the same time.

On the plus side, the show not only offers cameos by guests ranging from Lou Reed to Billy Corgan, but finds Bowie reworking such classics as "Space Oddity," "Heroes," "All the Young Dudes" and "Under Pressure." But the bulk of the set-list is material from his most recent albums, "Outside" and the just-released "Earthling." As Leslie Gore might say, it's his party, and he'll play what he wants to.

Besides, it's hard to begrudge the guy his choice of material, if only because Bowie remains too vital an artist to spend even his 50th birthday mired in nostalgia. This is, remember, the man who has reinvented himself more times than Madonna. So who are we to complain if he decided to dress up "The Man Who Sold the World" in knife-edged electronica?

That's not to say that everything old sounds new here. "Fashion," performed with Frank Black, is pretty much as fans would expect, "Heroes" is only slightly modified, and "Space Oddity" sounds almost exactly like the original. Moreover, a few of the oldies actually sound better in their new arrangements, particularly the Billy Corgan-ized "All the Young Dudes" and the strikingly soulful "Under Pressure."

It's the new stuff, though, that truly makes the show an experience. It helps that the guests are so well-suited to these songs, with the Cure's Robert Smith bringing sparkle to "The Last Thing You Should Do" and Sonic Youth adding a layer of glorious guitar noise to "I'm Afraid of Americans." But even without the added star-power, Bowie's band sizzles. In fact, between Reeves Gabrels' note-shredding guitar heroics, Gail Ann Dorsey's supple bass lines, Zachary Alford's techno-savvy drumming, and Mike Garson's keyboard virtuosity, this may well be the best band Bowie has ever had.

We get to see plenty of 'em, too, as director Tim Pope lets us see what the musicians are doing instead of wasting screen-time on grimaces and arty effects. With visuals just as daring and entrancing as the music, this birthday concert is a real gift for Bowie fans.

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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