- 10 Jan 17
"Bowie can act alright, so long as he’s singing at the same time," ventured our man Peter Murphy.
David Bowie might’ve played as many “secret” gigs as official ones in Dublin over the last ten years, but the level of exclusivity remains undiminished.
If anything, this HQ show, part of Guinness’ Witnness programme of bigwig gigs in small venues, was higher profile yet harder to get into than any of the previous events. By nine o’clock, the joint was jammed not just with the usual press corps (Fanning, Ryan, Keane, Fitzsimons, Kelly et al) but the upper echelons of the ligging classes, including Michael Flatley, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joe Elliot, Brian Kennedy, Louis Walsh, Jim and Andrea Corr, actress Orla Brady, Liam and Colm O Maonlai and scores more who slipped under your reporter’s radar.
In this light, Placebo, normally too big for HQ themselves, were mere appetisers, although they did turn in a steady set, cramped in front of Bowie’s backline, with tunes like ‘New Morning’ and ‘Teenage Angst’ getting gobbled down by the sizeable gaggle of black-clad, whitefaced chicklings down the front.
But the meat of the matter was DB. No matter how high or low his critical and commercial stock (and on the back of the new hours… album, he’s not as hot as he was with Earthling, but a damn sight better placed than in the wake of Never Let Me Down) this show was always going to be about spectacle: never mind the material, check out those cheekbones from a vantage point of 40 paces or less.
However the cut of Bowie’s band remains an important consideration. The ringmaster himself was in self-deprecating mode, referring to this gig as a “live rehearsal”, and true enough, with Reeves Gabrels off making his own album, deputy guitarists Mark Plati and Page Hamilton - while being more than competent players - lacked the demented edge required for that crucial Fripp/Belew/Ronson foil-role. That said, Bowie and his seven-piece ensemble worked damn hard, possibly harder than at many a Point-sized or arena show. And with bass-mistress Gail Ann Dorsey on hand to hold down the bottom end, plus Mike Garson splattering the new arrangements with his trademark scatty-logical avant-piano arpeggios, the music was in safe hands.
And it was Garson’s piano that opened the show, with a tantalisingly familiar chord sequence, as Bowie ambled on from the wings, looking better than any man has a right to at his age, long-haired, skinny as a whip, crooning those famous first lines: “It’s a godawful small affair…”
What followed was four minutes of ‘Life On Mars’ delivered as a sparse but space-aged show-tune, with the singer frequently cracking that famous skull-like grin and milking the choicer lines (“Look at those cavemen go!”) the voice enviably under-ravaged by three decades of not considerable abuse. At such moments, you have to pinch yourself.
hours… was given a dutiful going over, with ‘Thursday’s Child’ and ‘Survive’ demonstrating that if Bowie’s moved on from the inconsistent but often electrifying shapes of Outside and Earthling, then he can still turn on the brooding atmospherics when the occasion demands. More surprising though, was a take on 1966’s ‘Can’t Help Thinkin’ About Me’, a red-blooded blast of garage-punk replete with Keith Moon fills and Yardbirds chorus.
One thing about Bowie - the guy never forgot how to sing, a fact borne out by renditions of even minor tracks from the classics Station To Station (‘Word On A Wing’) and Lodger (‘Repetition’). Sure, only a madman or a hagiographer could profess to like everything he’s done, but even his worst mistakes were made with conviction (okay then, apart from Labyrinth).
And while the singer has frequently ventured so deep into a self-constructed maze of personae that he’s forgotten who the hell is writing these songs, the array of magnetic vocal styles uncovered en route is impressive; from cat-scratching glam dandy to coked out European son to suited-up soul man. Bowie can act alright, so long as he’s singing at the same time. Case in point: see how he seems to morph into co-author Iggy while interpreting the dirty poetry of a robust “China Girl”: “I stumble into town/Just like a scared cow/Visions of swastikas in my head…”
But this listener’s own private Hall of Fame moment was a faithful visit to ‘Drive In Saturday’ off Aladdin Sane, all doo-wop ghosts, 50s futurama and starlet-harlot nostalgia (“When people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored/Like the video films we saw…”)
After that, during the set-closing “Changes”, it was even possible to see the odd twinkly tear in the eyes of the crinklier members of the congregation.
Then, during encore time, ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ was cut-up Bowie by the numbers, recycling both his and the Stooges finest titles into strobe-lit death rock. By contrast, ‘Seven’ is his most sombre new song, another exercise in songwriting-through-Stanislavsky (“I’ve got seven ways to die”).
Then, to finish, a radioactive guitar figure and a four-on-the-floor glitter stomp heralded the cross dressing guttersnipe call-to-arms of ‘Rebel Rebel’, delivered with twice as much gumption as on the previous nights NetAid extravaganza.
And that was it: another day, another icon. HQ, you never had it so good.