Thousands flock to Bowie's web. `Glass Spider' motif holds edge over his music
AT 8:30 sharp, a lone guitarist with Sputnik-spike hairdo struts on stage wielding his instrument like a Tommy gun. Masked musicians descend from a 60-foot inflatable spider, whose eight legs are merely luminescent conduits holding equipment for the light show that will take place later.
The stage is flanked by two mammoth video screens and scaffolding that holds enough woofers and tweeters to tweak the audience with small gusts of wind - not to mention sound - halfway across the filled-to-capacity (45,000) stadium.
And now from the mouth of the spider, descends the star, the latest incarnation of a protean persona that has never quit metamorphosing in 20 years of rock stardom.
After two-hours-plus of nonstop rock-and-roll, video, dance, and theater, David Bowie will don wings atop the spider, spotlit high above the masses. No one, least of all Mr. Bowie, will show signs of wanting to go home.
The Glass Spider tour of this British rocker is nothing if not spectacular.
If his past characters (extraterrestrial Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and others) showed a flair for the dramatic, his new show reflects a penchant for technological ostentation. It's as if Elvis met P.T. Barnum and then signed George Lucas to incorporate some leftovers from the Statue of Liberty centennial gala.
Rock purists lambaste Bowie for derivative glitz - from Michael Jackson's 1984 tour, for instance - and cry out for more of charismatic Bowie alone in the spotlight. But sellouts here and across Europe - including two 70,000-plus audiences at Wembley Stadium - suggest live-rock `a la David Bowie may be arena-rock's cutting edge for the end of the 1980s.
``I am first and foremost a writer, singer, and musician,'' Bowie has said, corralled by members of the press asking about his forays into theater (``The Elephant Man''), film (``Labyrinth'' and ``The Man Who Fell to Earth''), television (Bertolt Brecht's ``Baal''), and video. With his new tour, add ``actor/showman'' to Bowie's list.
``Glass Spider'' is really more theater than anything else. It piggybacks light, film, video, and dance onto the driving beats of the new and recent music that keeps Bowie near the top of the charts.
He has won 13 gold and three platinum records in the US over the years, en route to 40 top-30 hits in Britain and the US together. His most popular album of more than 20 years was ``The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust'' (1972). It's listed this month by Rolling Stone magazine as No. 6 in the top 100 albums of the past 20 years.
More a cult star in early years, Bowie really hit the mainstream with the success of 1983's ``Let's Dance,'' which went gold in 13 countries.
But as has always been the case with Bowie, the music here - much from the recently released ``Never Let Me Down'' - seems less to the point than Bowie's performance panache. There is little pacing, ebb, or flow to the cycle of songs, which Bowie once admitted ``sound pretty much the same.''
The evening starts at a high-decibel sprint and keeps going in that fashion until the end.
``I've eaten, slept, and thought about nothing but this show for six months,'' Bowie told an interviewer in Britain when his world tour opened there in June. After an extended trek across Europe, the show is now being seen in a dozen-plus cities in the US and Canada.
``Now we have what I feel is about the best rock theater show I've ever attempted to do,'' Bowie has said of it.
``I'm fabulously excited and nervous. I doubt whether I will ever be able to tour anything this complex again.''
The required five days of assembly time means the tour must have duplicate sets - each costing $10 million and weighing 360 tons - to make all its scheduled dates. Some 150 people are on the payroll, which adds up to about $1 million per week.
On stage, there are Bowie, five musicians, and five dancers. The mix of visuals is mindboggling - the stage and lighting itself, dancers, musicians, two video screens, and a flapping, diaphanous sheet where film clips are projected.
But the mix of music is less engaging.
Always driving, it contains precious little counterpoint to Bowie's single voice, straining to articulate lyrics, amidst the reverberating big-beat riffs of specialists like Peter Frampton, Carmine Rojas, and Carlos Alomar.
But in the same way that Bowie made more of himself by packaging himself as an accomplished rock star - Ziggy Stardust in the early '70s - he has produced a show possibly bigger than the sum of its parts. The question is, Is bigger better?
The choreography by Toni Basil is eclectic and only occasionally inspired. But it serves as a visual thread, uniting disparate elements of a sprawling production that might have sprawled further. At their best, the dancers provide small vignettes of intimate theater, particularly when they interact with Bowie, creating some of the most arresting images of the evening. These include shadowboxing with Bowie and tossing the singer into somersaults in mock assault.
Otherwise, they can appear downright silly: hopping around as individual spiders, uniting into a single spider, or visually punctuating the open cubicles of space formed by rolling scaffolds that flank the stage.
Bowie himself cuts a dashing figure in a scarlet suit with silver suspenders, then a green suit with gold vest. He sings from a variety of poses: on bended knees, relaxed in a chair, strutting the stage, and nestled into the scaffold.
His luffa haircut - the most identifiable mane in rockdom - is somehow always kept freshly coiffed. And the singer never seems to tire.
Six or seven songs are from his latest album, released with the tour, ``Never Let Me Down.'' If there are identifiable hits coming from the album, they almost assuredly are ``Day-In Day-Out,'' ``Never Let Me Down,'' ``Bang Bang,'' and ``'87 and Cry.''
Reviewers have criticized Bowie for abandoning hits for bleaker material and weighting his stage material toward dramatic ballads over pure rock.
By the show's climax, the translucent spider has chameleoned into every shade of the rainbow, aided by an ever-present light board, which flickers endlessly.
The audience responds with a light show of its own - hand-held matches and lighters.
Bowie saves the biggest wallops of light and sound for this finale, and the stadium floodlights direct the reluctant audience past the hot dog stands to the exits.
What is overkill to one is barely whetted appetite to another.