Milton Keynes Bowl
July 2nd 1983
Milton Keynes Bowl is not the best venue in the world, as far as sound quality is concerned, and one suspected from the outset that the subtle nuances of Bowie's music and legendary stage charisma would not translate at all well to this open-air concert, or was it a festival? Certainly the inclusion of antipodean band Icehouse (who sound remarkably like middle period Roxy Music) and The Beat in the day's events managed to give that impression. The Beat in particular gave us lively and enthusiastic renderings of such classics as 'Mirror In The Bathroom' and 'Stand Down Margaret' amongst others. The fact that The Beat's music was clearly audible and coherent from most places around the Bowl augured well for what was to come later.
Luckily, the weather was on our side too and the day turned into a truly, enjoyable occasion, with little sign that the event would metamorphose into another farcical 'mud bath', as has been known to transpire in the past.
Just as the sun began to set behind the stage and the refreshing coolness of the evening breezed through the packed crowds, who numbered upwards of 75,000, the band emerged onto the stage. A quick introductory spiel and Bowie was there, both 'live' on stage, as well as projected onto the large overhead screen for the benefit of those further away.
After a tentative, laid-back snippet of 'Jean Genie' the band launched headlong into a thunderous version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Star' with Bowie in fine voice. The most surprising fact was that you could actually hear every word being sung.
'Heroes' followed on quickly, with a stunningly powerful backing from the new band, so tight and full of determination and a sheer delight to experience. Earl Slick proved he could handle the lengthy, sustained Robert Fripp riffs with consummate ease, and without recourse to a battery of effects devices; the only tools available to manipulate his sound being a Marshall stack, Fender Stratocaster and skill!
Bowie, himself was in such magnificent form that you completely forgave the ineffective light show and impersonal nature of the event totally.
Rousing versions of 'Cat People' and 'Let's Dance' were greeted with equal enthusiasm and particularly outstanding was the vocal balance between Bowie and the two backing singers, the Simms brothers, who helped fill the vast expanse of the stage with their skillful choreography.
Carlos Alomar, putting his usual role of band leader and rhythm guitarist behind him, moved stage front to introduce the next song with a flanged guitar solo on his Alembic that led beautifully into the strict tempo of 'Fashion'. The drums pounded away, the PA handling the bass end extremely efficiently, while Alomar's disco/funk rhythm work underpinned the brilliant vocal melodies. The whole effect was stunning, to say the least.
The sound crew deserved total praise for their skill in handling the mix and PA, for the music was relayed to the audience with crystal clarity.
'Breaking Glass' was refreshed by the inclusion of the saxophone backing, while 'Scary Monsters' and 'Red Sails' from the 'Lodger' album were well executed. As a gesture to the crowd Bowie and band gave us a fast, throw-away version of 'Rebel Rebel' which didn't sit too well in the set, side by side with the likes of 'Ashes To Ashes' and 'China Girl' but was enjoyable nevertheless.
The musicianship in the first hour was faultless, with bass player and drummer blending together extremely effectively. Most songs had a funky undercurrent to them, no doubt as a result of the rhythm section.
As the evening wore on and the light faded, the stage lighting began to take effect, complimenting the music well. On 'Life On Mars', Earl Slick played the piano lines of the original on his red Strat, the end result being far superior. Bowie, with acoustic guitar in hand, moved to the front and slowly began strumming the chords that heralded the start of 'Space Oddity' — the undoubted highlight of the evening. Keyboard backing on an Emulator (imitating the original Rick Wakeman Mellotron phrases) filled out the track beautifully.
The odd bit of mime from Bowie brought back memories of the Ziggy Stardust tour, wetting our appetite but never submitting control — the audience loved it.
The smooth, ultra-cool exterior that Bowie presents was never more evident than on the soul-influenced renditions of 'Young Americans', the driving 'TVC15' and the overlong 'Station To Station' — introduced by the Hendrix-like feedback wailings from Earl Slick on guitar, whose solo ideas had been completely drained by this point in the set; the result being cliched, overuse of the tremolo arm that eventually became tedious and obnoxious.
An exceptionally good treatment of the John Lennon/David Bowie composed 'Fame', based around that gorgeously unrelenting riff, brought the set to a climax with Bowie exiting stage left to the echoing 'what's your name?' vocal.
It didn't take much encouraging by the audience for Bowie to return, delivering three energetic and mesmerising performances of 'Stay', 'Jean Genie' (the complete version) and 'Modern Love'. On the latter song the focus of attention shifted, not unnaturally, to the gigantic inflatable half-moon that was being hoisted above the stage, discharging silver balloons over the audience. Looking back at the stage, Bowie had disappeared leaving us with the memory of one of the best performances Milton Keynes had ever witnessed.