Bowie’s ‘Reality’ meets his past

Scott Gordon

If you’ve grown skeptical of David Bowie after watching him rotate through a freakish array of characters and sounds for 30 years, go to one of his shows this year — and you’ll see that he wasn’t screwing around after all.

Bowie played the Rosemont Theatre in Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday and will be playing there again Friday night. His Tuesday set comprised 25 songs, and it might have seemed bizarre coming from any other artist. But it wasn’t at all screwy, for example, when Bowie and his fantastic band followed the morose “Ashes to Ashes” with the warm piano classic “Changes” and then covered the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”

Once Bowie got onstage and started singing the first verse of “Rebel, Rebel,” it was pretty clear that his voice was still strong and that the musicians had found their groove in all of Bowie’s different material.

Bowie performed many old favorites for the crowd, including “Hang on to Yourself,” “Fame” and “All the Young Dudes.” He also performed several songs from his most recent album, Reality. “The Loneliest Guy,” a ballad carried by simple piano and guitar lines, and harder rock songs like “New Killer Star” came through strong on the first listen.

Bowie settled into all of these songs very comfortably. For most of the show, he walked around center stage confidently, posing grandly for numbers like “Life on Mars.”

While on stage, he somehow managed to look great in a sneakers and tight t-shirt outfit a perky teenage girl might wear. The little details that have always distinguished Bowie remain intact as he approaches his late 50s. His voice has retained its beautifully freaky midrange and seductive lows. And Bowie is still skinny with a good head of hair — he hasn’t let himself decay in front of his audience.

After closing the main set with “Heroes,” Bowie encored with a cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” and three songs from his Ziggy Stardust album — “Five Years,” “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.”

Though the Ziggy songs didn’t sound quite as gritty as they used to, they were played with the simple hard-rock savagery for which they’re known. “The Man Who Sold the World” features the same eerie guitar and percussion lines it had when released in 1970. On the tag of the song, Bowie also delivered a wordless vocal melody almost as strong as the one on the original recording.

Bowie’s original arrangements worked decades ago, and they work now and don’t sound like they’re chained to pop music trends. These are solid songs and will remain so, independent of the many phases Bowie has gone through.