David Bowie, the chameleon man, Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the vampish glam rocker, the Thin White Duke. Few performers have tinkered with their persona as much as he has and still sold records. But now the pixie dust may be wearing off.
In a risky move, Bowie has chosen to tour with Nine Inch Nails, a young band popular with the black-lipstick-and-pierced-nose crowd. On the surface, it smells like a good idea: NIN has a hard-core youth following; Bowie, who's not been heard from lately, has an aging fan base. Bowie's early 1980s megahit "Let's Dance" may as well be Mozart, it's, like, so ancient history.
The singer's wave of danceable pop hits crested in '83 with the "Serious Moonlight" tour. Flashy costumes, special effects, and big production numbers all fit into that era of concert showbiz excess.
Now, he's rejected all that. Telling reporters that he'd like to pretend the '80s never happened, Bowie has linked up with Brian Eno, who produced two of the singer's '70s albums, "Low" and "Heroes," in search of a new sound and vision.
On Saturday night, that new sound was taken for a spin at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts near Boston. Bowie was on the second stop of his national tour, promoting the album "Outside" on the Virgin label, which is expected to reach stores Sept. 26.
It took zero effort to figure out who the Nine Inch Nails fans were, and who was there for Bowie. In the mosh pit, spiked hair reigned and wearers of abnormally dark eye shadow gyrated and thrashed and body-surfed to NIN, which played first. Bowie fans stood uncomfortably by their seats, wondering why they had bothered to come so early.
Nine Inch Nails plays rough: The band's industrial sound is powered by a wall of angry guitars, thundering drums, and beyond-alienated lyrics. Lead singer Trent Reznor crawled and cowered in agony, his black-dyed hair streaming down a ghostly white face. The Bowie fans didn't know what hit them.
Herein lies the paradox. By the time that cool, collected, every-hair-in-place Bowie came onstage, the audience couldn't help but compare the two singers. Reznor may not be pretty, but he was so emotionally connected to his music that Bowie looked disengaged by comparison.
Bowie loves high-concept approaches and inventing stories about characters both real and imagined in songs such as "Andy Warhol." He brings a philosophical, intellectual, and art-rock bent to his music. Reznor needs no concept; he is the concept.
And while Bowie's band is a handpicked collection of world-class musicians, all of them probably over 35, Reznor's bandmates are skinny, sweaty, adrenaline-pumped 20-year-olds. They couldn't care less about Andy Warhol. Judging from the lack of activity in the mosh pit during that particular Bowie song, neither could the audience.
Again, the paradox: Bowie is still a consummate man of theater. He can stand and crook his little finger and look dramatic. He doesn't need to gyrate. Next to him, Reznor's demented prancing and prowling looks like overkill.
But finally it comes down to the music. Can Bowie latch onto the strident guitar sounds and youthful Angst that Nine Inch Nails has in spades, and should he want to?
The concert's highlight was a shared number, with Bowie singing the NIN song "Hurt," with Reznor doing backup harmony. The song was slower, more intense, with an almost acoustic-sounding guitar interlude. The words haunt: "Everyone I know goes away in the end/ You could have it all/ my empire of dirt/ I will let you down/ I will make you hurt." The Bowie fans were into it: It was the closest thing to a melody they'd heard all evening. The NIN partisans headed for the exits.
The songs from "Outside" are a mixed bag. "Heart's Dirty Lesson" was unintelligible, but the jungle beat and whispered voice in the background gave it some heft. Keyboard work echoed the piano line in Bowie's brilliant "Aladdin Sane."
Boston-based guitar wizard Reeves Gabrels moved into the spotlight for stratospheric solos in "Deranged" and "Voyeur," but his skill seemed lost on the young crowd. Likewise, other players, including Bowie regular Carlos Alomar, were not fully appreciated.
Ever the futurist, Bowie launched into "Oxford Town," a song-story that was more straight-ahead rock. The audience seemed to revive as the energy picked up, with Bowie repeating "the 20th century dies."
By the 13th song, Bowie was still not perspiring. He sang "The Man Who Sold the World" from a 1970 album, which had some significance to this crowd. The band Nirvana, whose lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide, recorded a version of it on what became their last album.
The irony was complete: Here was Bowie redoing a cover of his own song that Nirvana had revived. Maybe he should be sweating.