Wow!!! Oh my!! (insert other exclamations as
needed) But you're probably wondering "What the
---?", and rightly so: STAGE was a live album released in
1978, scoring no hits, and dismissed at the time in favor of
DAVID LIVE, which had been released four years earlier and was
better mixed & more focused in style.
And yet ....
Bowie covered a lot of musical ground in the
70s -- and much of it charted to one degree or another. By
1977, he was performing as the Slim White Duke -- sort of an
outer-space alien investigating life on this planet. But Bowie
the person had just hooked up with avant-garde artiste Brian
Eno for a couple albums, exploiting Eno's interest in German
minimalism. The results were sometimes surprisingly accessible
("Sound & Vision", and especially
"Heroes"), even when they were anything but
commercial ("Sense of Doubt"; "Art
1977 was probably the last year anyone could
make such albums with any expectation of sales, but Bowie went
a step further and actually toured in support of them.
Possibly suspecting the strain this could place on his
audience, he pulled five songs from the Ziggy Stardust
collection out of retirement; the result was a set spanning
several genres, to say the least.
STAGE chronicles all this, and the original
release artfully organized each album side by artistic style:
one for Ziggy rock; one for 1975 - 76 material; one for
instrumentals, and side four completed the set with recent
vocal songs from the experimental albums. Each album side
worked as a collection unto itself, while the whole acted as a
calling card for Bowie's artistry of the moment.
All well & good, but the album was
rather flat-sounding -- and what the heck WAS all this stuff?
Moody instrumentals, Ziggy remakes -- did anyone really NEED
this album? If so, why?
The answer, as it happens, is this: the
band. For this tour, Bowie assembled one of the best bands he
would ever have, and they bring to life several songs which
were only semi-interesting ideas in their album incarnations
(especially the LOW material). Both "TVC-15" and
"Station to Station" benefit from stronger
arrangements, as does "What in the World" -- little
more than filler on LOW, it's a show-stopper here. But even
the Ziggy material is played with enthusiasm; these guys were
keen to impress, and it showed.
But what about the sound? Well, there is
that .... or, rather, there *was*. Because the 2005 release is
worlds away from all previous versions: better mixed, better
equalized, better produced. Furthermore, the songs have been
restored to the actual performance order, so STAGE can now be
experienced as a *show*. This is only helped by the addition
of two more songs, one of which is the redoubtable
Finally, there is Bowie himself: confident
& in control, he moves easily from helping out on
instrumentals to taking center stage, singing with the
confidence such material requires. This album was assembled
from several nights, no one of which could have contained all
the energy displayed here, but that doesn't matter: this all
really happened, one week back in the late 70s, before record
companies became corporations.
By now, we've all heard more than enough
versions of "Fame", but the real rewards are in his
adapting Ziggy material to a more mature voice, taking real
chances with audience patience on music that was low-key and
anti-commercial, and assembling a first-rate band that could
play that material for all it was worth. Of all the Bowie
albums, this is the one most often in rotation on my stereo.
Ramble on Joeİ