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At Anaheim Stadium : David Bowie Spins A Glitzy Web

August 10, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

It's obvious from David Bowie's "Glass Spider" tour that the veteran English rock star didn't see any of the Jacksons' 1984 "Victory" shows.

Why else would he rumble into Anaheim Stadium on Saturday night with a show that so haplessly repeated the excesses of that slick, overblown extravaganza?

Remember the ludicrous special effects and hokey mini-dramas of the "Victory" concerts--the hulking monsters and mechanical claws that "threatened" the brothers?

The magic of the Jacksons tour was when Michael was on stage alone--electrifying audiences with moves during a "Billie Jean" moonwalk sequence that even James Brown could only dream about.

Similarly, the magic Saturday was when Bowie stood on stage in front of the estimated 50,000 fans with just his band, serving up classics like "Rebel, Rebel" and "Young Americans" with a radiant, sexy superstar aura that may not have been equalled in pop-rock since Presley.

In those intimate moments, Bowie recalled the triumph of his 1983 "Serious Moonlight" tour, which also included a stop at Anaheim Stadium.

On that tour, Bowie--who explored ambition, ego and lust in the '70s through a sharply defined series of psychological disguises, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke--stepped away from the early poses to celebrate the simple themes of survival and hope.

The new, more personal and revealing Bowie was all the more touching on that tour because his audience knew their hero had gone through a period in the mid-'70s of drug-related personal problems himself. He moved about with the joyful exuberance and warmth of a man who felt he had been given a second chance at life.

While he used the musicians as "actors" in a few highly effective mini-scenes, the heart of the "Serious Moonlight" tour was simply Bowie, finally freed from the elusive, often icy images.

In returning to stadium shows this summer, Bowie, whose show-biz instincts have always leaned toward aggressively challenging himself and his audience, may have felt another "no frills" tour would have been too predictable. Thus, the current extravaganza.

During an interview last spring, he spoke at great length about how he wanted the show to be richly theatrical--in a big, dazzling Broadway sense. "I want this show to be an epic," he said flatly.

Though Toni Basil helped him choreograph the production, the "Glass Spider" show (the name comes from a song on Bowie's latest album) was "conceived" by Bowie himself, according to the program credits.

From the opening moments of the show Saturday, it was clear that Bowie's instincts have failed him this time.

The evening began on a promising note with an hour's set by Siouxie & the Banshees, whose leader has had almost as much influence on an underground, post-punk rock scene in England in recent years as Bowie had on a larger, but equally adventurous rock community in the early '70s.

By inviting Siouxie on the tour rather than some lighter mainstream act, Bowie saluted the adventurous side of contemporary pop. It wasn't his fault that the band's impact was undercut for all but the hard-core fans (easily spotted in their trademark dyed-black hair, pasty white makeup and heavy mascara) by sound problems.

Bowie had no one else to blame, however, for the evening's other problems, including the unaffecting music from the new album, "Never Let Me Down." Even presented in straightforward fashion, tunes like "Glass Spider" would probably come across flat in live. However, the weakness of material was even more obvious amid the gimmicky staging and distracting production sequences.

The massive stage itself seemed like someone's unfinished nightmare: the shell of a giant 60-foot spider, complete with massive neon-lighted legs that dangle from the roof. While the spider imagery offered intriguing possibilities, they never materialized, leaving the elaborate set hanging over the proceedings like some ticklish reminder of missed opportunity.

Even more of a problem were the five dancers who hopped, skipped and jumped their way around Bowie on various songs, creating a lot of visual flair, but rarely connecting with the spirit of the song. Aiming for, but failing to register strong or convincing images (one dancer walked around swinging an aluminum baseball bat, another prowled the stage on a crutch like The Mummy), they gave the numbers the hollow glitz of the worst of show-biz rituals: Oscar show production numbers.

Ironically, the show picked up energy when the dancers mercifully headed for the wings and Bowie--who has always had great stage command--simply went one-on-one with the audience. Of course, it also helped that he was finally turning to some of his stronger, older material.

Some of the quieter theatrical moments worked, including a sequence during "Sons of the Silent Age" in which he stood opposite a female dancer and appeared to will her body to sway back and forth in line with the music. Elsewhere, he picked up a guitar and playfully assumed the conventional rock star role.

The irony is that even when trying to be conventional, Bowie, who was scheduled to perform again Sunday night at Anaheim Stadium, has such striking stage presence that he is one of the most arresting figures ever in rock. Even the severe miscalculations of Saturday's show couldn't hide that artistry and command.

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