A REALITY TOUR: 2003-2004

AUGUST 19th 2003 - JUNE 25th 2004

 

Musicians:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Stylophone, Harmonica

  • Gerry Leonard: Guitar, Vocals

  • Earl Slick: Guitar

  • Gail Ann Dorsey: Bass, Vocals

  • Mike Garson: Keyboards

  • Sterling Campbell: Drums, Vocals

  • Catherine Russell: Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals, Percussion, Mandolin

Repertoire:

New Killer Star | Pablo Picasso | Never Get Old | The Loneliest Guy | Looking For Water | She'll Drive The Big Car | Days | Fall Dog Bombs The Moon | Try Some, Buy Some | Reality | Bring Me The Disco King | Modern Love | Cactus | Battle For Britain (The Letter) | Afraid | Sister Midnight | I'm Afraid Of Americans | Suffragette City | Fantastic Voyage | The Man Who Sold The World | Rebel Rebel | Hang On To Yourself | Heathen (The Rays) | A New Career In A New Town | Hallo Spaceboy | Fame | Breaking Glass | Changes | Under Pressure | Sunday | Ashes To Ashes | "Heroes" | Slip Away | Let's Dance | Ziggy Stardust | Loving The Alien | China Girl | White Light/White Heat | The Motel | 5.15 The Angels Have Gone | The Jean Genie | Fashion | All The Young Dudes | I've Been Waiting For You | Sound And Vision | Be My Wife | Always Crashing In The Same Car | Five Years | Life On Mars? | Starman | Panic In Detroit | Blue Jean | Quicksand | The Supermen | Station To Station | The Bewlay Brothers | Queen Bitch | Diamond Dogs | Liza Jane

David Bowie - A Reality Tour 2003/2004
David Bowie - A Reality Tour 2003/2004 Montage

During the Area: 2 tour in the summer of 2002, Bowie had let slip to journalist Dean Kuipers that he was contemplating the possibility of not undertaking any more solo tours. Whether this was an idle fancy, a momentary declaration of solidarity with the mixed-bill festival circuit, or a deliberate piece of mischief remains uncertain, but there is no doubt that by the end of the year the story was very different. The success of October 2002's landmark Hammersmith gig and the subsequent "New York Marathon" dates had replenished Bowie's appetite for touring to a degree that surpassed even the enthusiasm he had displayed during the Earthling period. "I was very, very happy with how we were on stage and what we sounded like, and how we were able to interpret the material," he said in 2003 of the Heathen tour. "And I really wanted to go back out this year, so I was highly motivated to have an album that represented the band." The result would be reflected not only in Reality, written and recorded with a specific view to its live potential, but also in the staggering scale of the ensuing tour. Originally touted as Bowie's most extensive live outing since the mid-1990s, A Reality Tour would soon eclipse any such comparison, outstripping even Sound + Vision, Glass Spider and Serious Moonlight to become, in terms of individual dates, the longest tour of his career.

Officially announced on June 16th 2003, the new show was dubbed "A Reality Tour", the indefinite article emphasising the album's dalliance with the notion that there can be no absolute definition of reality. "Last year's shows were such a tremendous high and the audiences so responsive," Bowie told Billboard. "My band is playing at the top of its form right now, and it would be foolish not to play a tour this year while we're in such good spirits about the live-show aspects of our work." Initial bookings were spectacularly healthy (one night in Dublin sold out in five minutes), leading to the swift addition of second dates at many of the European venues, including Paris, Dublin, Birmingham and London. Ever the innovator, Bowie endorsed a newfangled "Virtual Ticket" scheme designed to attract custom to BowieNet, whereby every ticket sold for A Reality Tour contained an access code entitling the ticket holder to follow the tour online via snippets of exclusive audio and video footage.

Rehearsals began in New York in July 2003. The band was identical to that of the Heathen tour but for the absence of Mark Plati, who had departed after the Reality sessions to become musical director of Robbie Williams's "Weekends Of Mass Distraction" tour, playing at the star's sold-out Knebworth concerts among others. In his absence, Gerry Leonard was promoted to the role of bandleader. "The songs on this album are fantastic live," Bowie enthused. "I was so excited about how they feel. They were the first things that we learned when we went into rehearsals, and they are truly going to be great stage songs."

August 19th saw the first live date, a low-key warm-up gig for BowieNet members at the 500-capacity Chance Theater, a former picture house in the upstate New York town of Poughkeepsie. The short set gave a tantalising indication of the delights to come on the tour: in addition to six Reality songs and a smattering of Heathen numbers, the set-list included the live debut of "Fantastic Voyage", the surprise resurrection of "Sister Midnight" for the first time at a Bowie gig since 1976, and a pair of Ziggy Stardust numbers - "Hang On To Yourself" and "Suffragette City" - that hadn't been heard in many years. Neither had "Modern Love", which became the last of the trio of Let's Dance hits to find its way back into Bowie's post-Sound + Vision repertoire.

September saw the pre-tour publicity machine swing into action as Reality's release date approached. On September 1st Bowie appeared on the German radio station EINS, selecting an hour's worth of his favourite records, while September 4th found him recording a two-hour TV special for the France 2 channel, featuring interviews and a seven-song performance which included a duet of "Fashion" with Blur's Damon Albarn. Bowie had already spent much of 2003 praising Blur in general and their latest album Think Tank in particular; during tour rehearsals in July, David and members of his band had attended a Blur gig at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, and he related how "back at the studio the next day we tried to fit 'Song 2' onto everything we played" - a running gag that would continue to resurface during A Reality Tour. Other guests on the France 2 show included French artists Air and Francoise Hardy (who delighted David by revealing that 1.Outside was her favourite of his albums), while there were satellite contributions from Moby, Mick Rock and The Dandy Warhols, who were once again preparing to support Bowie on tour. Since their appearances together in 2002 David had continued to champion The Dandy Warhols, whose May 2003 album Welcome To The Monkey House had been co-produced by Tony Visconti and featured Nile Rodgers among its guest musicians. "We were approaching it as if it was a Bowie collection," guitarist Pete Holmstrom would later say of the album's recording process. One track, "I Am A Scientist", used a sample from "Fashion", while drummer Brent DeBoer pointed out that "I Am Sound" was heavily influenced by "Ashes To Ashes": "It has that great, pumping bassline - when Bowie heard it he said, 'That's one of mine!'" Bowie had even expressed a wish to play saxophone on the T Rex-style "Hit Rock Bottom", but his 2002 touring commitments had made it impossible. Following The Dandy Warhol's support on the initial European leg of A Reality Tour, the slot would be filled by Macy Gray on the first US leg, various local artists in the Pacific countries,and, on Bowie's return to America in the spring of 2004 by The Polyphonic Spree and Stereophonics.

The biggest pre-tour publicity event came on September 8th, when the band performed before an intimate audience of BowieNet members and celebrities at London's Riverside Studios in an unusual and highly publicised stunt designed to launch both album and tour. Billed as "the world's first live and interactive music event", the performance was beamed live to 86 cinemas in 22 countries worldwide, including Brazil, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, France, Norway, Canada, Australia, America and Britain, reaching an audience totalling some 50,000. Owing to time delays, Asia, Japan and Australia received the show the following day, while the US, Canada and South America held cinema screenings a week later on September 15th. It wasn't actually the first live cinema syndication of a rock concert (Korn, for one, had staged a similar event across America in 2002), but it was by far the largest and most elaborate yet attempted, the first to be broadcast in 5.1 surround sound, and the first to boast an "interactive" element with the participating cinemas.

Prior to the satellite link-up Bowie treated the Riverside Studios audience to a warm-up consisting of "A New Career In A New Town" and snatches of Blur's "Song 2" and Link Wray's "Rumble". As the concert went live to cinemas around the world, the band launched into a spirited rendition of the entire Reality album. Tony Visconti was on hand at Riverside to mix the performance in DTS 5.1 sound, although apparently not every receiving cinema technician proved equal to the challenge, and a few began screening the show minus the lead singer's audio input. "I was disheartened to read some cinema attendees could not hear David's voice clearly or not at all, in some cases," Visconti remarked the following day. "I can assure you that the sound in the recording truck was amazing as we were monitoring in 5.1 surround sound the entire time." After the performance of Reality, there followed a question-and-answer session hosted by Jonathan Ross, during which various pre-selected cinema-goers were invited to pose questions to David via satellite. Despite a few technical hitches the event was considered a great success, and the evening concluded with an encore of six oldies and a final rerun of "New Killer Star". The main Reality segment was later included as a bonus DVD with the so-called "Tour Edition" of the album released in November 2003.

The roster of pre-tour appearances continued with a return visit to BBC1's Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, recorded on September 11th and transmitted the following day. The band performed "New Killer Star", "Modern Love" and "Never Get Old", although only the first two were broadcast. September 18th found Bowie performing the same three songs at New York's Rockefeller Plaza for the 2003 Toyota Summer Concert series on NBC's The Today Show, while a day earlier he taped "New Killer Star", "Never Get Old" and "Hang On To Yourself" for Last Call With Carson Daly. "New Killer Star" popped up again for CBS's The Late Show With David Letterman on September 22nd. The following day saw David and the band recording a five-song session for AOL online; for  a week from October 10th, AOL's Broadband subscribers could access the exclusive performances of "New Killer Star", "I'm Afraid Of Americans", "Rebel Rebel", "Days" and an unusual acoustic version of "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon". Thereafter, the songs were offered via AOL Music one at a time for six months, "New Killer Star" later appearing for sale on iTunes.

Following the extensive round of publicity appearances and TV shows, the band moved to Brussels at the end of September for a final week of production rehearsals on the tour set, which had been conceived by Bowie in collaboration with designer Therese Deprez and visual director Laura Frank. "I'm not really very keen to put on much of a theatrical show, in terms of big sets and elephants and fireworks and things like that," he remarked in 2003. "Of course, it doesn't mean that I won't go back on my word, because that's part and parcel of what I do for you - part of my entertaining factor is lying to you!" A year earlier he had told Billboard that "I got pretty sick with touring in the 1980s", describing shows like Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider as "major, major undertakings" which were "huge and unwieldy".

Even so, the tour that opened in Copenhagen on October 7th would prove to be Bowie's most visually arresting endeavour since Sound + Vision, and in some respects it was even more theatrical. The stage was dominated by the backdrop of a giant LED screen, raised several feet above stage level, at the base of which a raised catwalk ran the width of the stage before debouching into two platforms thrusting out into the audience on either side of the playing area. Staircases led down from the rear catwalk to the stage, while hanging above the platforms were clusters of huge, bleached white tree branches, dangling gracefully to either side of the stage. High above the downstage area loomed another bank of LED screens, faceted in a giant semi-circle to convey the on-stage action to the farthest reaches of each venue.

David Bowie: A Reality Tour Stage 2003/2004
David Bowie: A Reality Tour Stage 2003/2004

The countdown to curtain-up began as the piped pre-show music moved into the Reality bonus track "Queen Of All The Tarts (Overture)", followed by a bluesy work-out as the lights slowly began to dim. After 25 seconds or so the music petered to a halt, whereupon Bowie's amplified voice was heard saying, "No, let's keep that going, that was good - Gerry, pick that up again!" Naturally this caused great excitement among the crowd, and as the music struck up once again the lights dimmed to blackout and the giant screens began showing a garish cartoon of the band in rehearsal, fronted by Bowie on harmonica. Echoing the comic-strip-versus-real-life imagery of the Reality packaging, the cartoon image on the screen was slowly wiped across by a genuine piece of film of the band in rehearsal, followed by shots of New York City's streets and skyscrapers pulling out to planet earth spinning through space, whereupon the musicians began to appear on the rear catwalk, silhouetted against the projections as they walked down the stairs to take their places (a tricky business for some: in November the UK Mirror published a tour diary by Gail Ann Dorsey, in which she confessed to suffering from vertigo on the raised platforms). Bowie himself was the last to arrive, surreptitiously taking his place centre-stage in the dark while all eyes were on the screen, ensuring a moment of real impact as he was revealed in a blaze of spotlights amid the opening strains of "New Killer Star". It was one of the most theatrically effective of all Bowie's stage entrances, its teasing step-by-step nature recalling the elaborate preamble of the Glass Spider show while deftly avoiding its bombast.

As in his pre-tour appearances, Bowie adhered to an adaptable but instantly recognisable visual image for A Reality Tour. In the place of the shiny suits and silk shirts of the 2002 concerts came a collection of artfully thrown-together outfits that suggested a raggle-taggle image of post-punk chic: tattered black jeans, baseball boots and pumps, tight-fitting T-shirts and waistcoats, neckerchiefs and scarves, and a succession of denim jackets and distressed tail-coats which were usually discarded after the first couple of numbers.

David Bowie's 'A Reality Tour' stage outfit 2003/2004
David Bowie's 'A Reality Tour' stage outfit 2003/2004
David Bowie's 'A Reality Tour' stage outfit 2003/2004
David Bowie's 'A Reality Tour' stage outfit 2003/2004

The staging of individual songs was very simple, although the lighting and screen effects ensured that the show remained big, broad and theatrically effective. Bowie delivered most numbers in a straightforward centre-stage style, although there were a few choreographed moments, including an athletic rendering of "Hallo Spaceboy" in which he ran the length of the rear catwalk, framed by psychedelic pulses of light, careering out onto the stage-left platform to loom over the audience and falling to his hands and knees as he stretched out to the crowd imploringly. "Bring Me The Disco King", which opened many of the encores during the initial leg of the tour, found him sitting on the upstage catwalk beside Mike Garson's piano before prowling onto the stage-right platform, picking his way between the dangling branches before finally reaching the audience.

Many songs, Like "Sunday" and "Reality", were backed by abstract animated swirls and patterns on the giant screens, mixed with live footage of the band relayed from on-stage cameras; others were accompanied by pre-filmed material. "The Motel" was played against a slowly shifting backdrop of quasi-Hitchcockian images of suburban America, gradually giving way to flames and explosions as the song reached its climax. "The Loneliest Guy" saw Bowie's face gliding mournfully among the trees in a wintry forest. Perhaps most strikingly of all, "I'm Afraid Of Americans" was accompanied by a disturbing high-energy animation in which a couple's physical interaction moved from dancing to violence to sex and back again, while all around them images of American capitalism - big cars, cola bottles and a suspiciously familiar-looking cartoon mouse - danced, vibrated and spun angrily.

David Bowie - A Reality Tour 2003/2004 performing onstage

A real show-stopper was "Slip Away", which began with a clip of Oogie and Uncle Floyd from The Uncle Floyd Show beamed onto the screens, while the chorus featured a "follow the bouncing ball" sequence as Oogie's head, against a backdrop of stars, bobbed along the scrolling lyrics, prompting the audience into a mass singalong (on the opening night in Copenhagen there was a short-lived speaker failure during "Slip Away", and what might have been disastrous during another song became a positive triumph as the crowd carried the number until the sound was restored). "Sunday", which often came midway through the main set, was augmented by a lengthy guitar solo from Earl Slick while David left the stage for a breather and a change of shirt. "Heathen (The Rays)" ended the main set on many of the early dates, allowing David and Gail Ann Dorsey to reprise the "blind" exit routine they had perfected on the previous tour; in later shows the song was often moved elsewhere in the set as "Heroes" became a more common choice to conclude the main section.

Bowie's ease and confidence on stage were palpable from the opening moments of the show, and although the video and lighting effects were certainly impressive, the real theatricality resided in its star performer. "The more confident I get, the less and less I use on stage," David declared in 2003. "These days I'm just wearing a suit, and that's about it. That's my full theatricality and I'm really enjoying it, especially as an interpreter of songs. I tell you, the thing that's been inspiring for me getting older is that it feels and seems my writing is staying buoyant. It feels strong and the songs have a real resonance, and it makes me very confident now about plunging back and doing old stuff as well. I really steered away from that during the early nineties, because I wasn't at all confident about what I was writing then and I just didn't know if it stood up to the old stuff. So, I kind of cleared the decks just to get back on my feet as a writer and to not feel too much comparison being thrown at myself, even if it was self-inflicted. Now, however, I can take anything from the past and put it alongside what I'm currently doing, and I feel, 'Hey, this is a really good chronological show'. It dips into every period and I feel that everything is as strong as the one that it's played against."

The growing sense that Bowie no longer felt intimidated by his own back catalogue was certainly borne out by the set-lists for A Reality Tour, which continued the Heathen shows' policy of relaxing David's formerly guarded attitude to the more populist numbers, finding a happy medium midway between the confrontational no-hits policy of the Outside tour and the predictable golden oldies package of Sound + Vision. The result was a repertoire that laid appropriate and justified emphasis on Bowie's recent material, but also paid considerably more than lip-service to his classics and even revived some obscure nuggets, managing to please both the hardcore fan and the casual concert-goer. Thus the chilly atmospherics of "The Motel" and "The Loneliest Guy" rubbed shoulders with crowd-pleasers as mainstream as "Rebel Rebel", a glut of Ziggy Stardust numbers, and even the three Let's Dance singles (although "Modern Love", a frequent choice during the preliminary TV appearances, disappeared from the tour after just two outings and didn't resurface again until the Toronto gig in April 2004.

The most interesting choices not only delighted the faithful but also appeared to suggest a pleasingly subversive agenda: alongside the bleak pessimism of much of the Heathen material and the cloaked political anger of "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" came a succession of revivals which combined to suggest a calculated stance regarding the unhappy state of affairs on the world stage at the time of the tour, which coincided with the prosecution of the Iraq War: making its first ever live outing was 1979's anti-war parable "Fantastic Voyage", while a delicate acoustic reworking of "Loving The Alien" laid bare the song's implicit plea for communication and tolerance between faiths. When, during the week of George W Bush's behind-closed-doors "state visit" to the UK in November 2003, Bowie dedicated a particularly blistering rendition of "I'm Afraid Of Americans" to "our visitor this week", he won a hearty response from the Birmingham NEC audience.

In pre-tour interviews David revealed that the band had rehearsed 50 different songs, enabling him to alter the set-lists radically over time and serve up different treats in venues where he was due to perform more than one show. He was true to his word: although the average length of each show hung at around 25 or 26 songs, by the beginning of 2004 the band had performed more than 50 different numbers during the tour, and while previous years had tended to see an initially varied repertoire gradually whittled down to an increasingly predictable set, A Reality Tour found Bowie chopping and changing throughout, dropping some numbers for weeks on end before unexpectedly reinstating them, introducing surprise new additions, moving encores into the main set and vice versa. Each night's set-list was drawn up at the soundcheck, but such was the band's proficiency that Bowie was even able to make changes mid-show: "I leave gaps in the set-list where I can just call out for a song," he explained, "depending how the audience is reacting." It was a far cry from the days of Glass Spider or Sound + Vision when, barring the occasional encore, the repertoire was pre-ordained months in advance.

As well as delighting the audiences, this arrangement did much to obviate the perennial problem of Bowie himself getting bored on tour. "See, some songs are great, but if you play them over and over again they don't have that much in them," he told one interviewer. "It just becomes singalong time, and it's not much fun for us as musicians. Like "Starman" - it's a nice song, and we'll do that occasionally, but to do that every night, it really doesn't draw upon your prowess. I can't do a full evening's worth of those because I'll go barmy. You really become a karaoke machine. It's great to be able to do "The Motel" and "5.15 The Angels Have Gone" and things like that, because they really push you as a performer and a musician."

Even the all-important opening number was open to experimentation. For the first seven shows the night began with "New Killer Star", but this was demoted to second place at Frankfurt in favour of "The Jean Genie" ("That was the catalyst for an unexpectedly brilliant show," wrote Gail Ann Dorsey in her Mirror diary). From Milan onwards "Rebel Rebel" became the customary curtain-raiser and would remain so for the rest of the tour, although there was still room for manoeuvre: unusually, the Amneville set opened with "The Loneliest Guy" and "Days" before resuming a more familiar playing order, while one show in Las Vegas opened with "Hang On To Yourself". By contrast, the final song of the set remained "Ziggy Stardust" throughout the tour, the screens flashing a giant "BOWIE" over the final chord.

"Sister Midnight" was an infrequent treat; after its appearance at the Poughkeepsie warm-up gig it didn't surface again until Munich, and only rarely thereafter. Of the Reality songs, "Try Some, Buy Some" only notched up eight performances; by contrast, "New Killer Star" was included in every show. One of the most exciting late additions was "Five Years", which appeared towards the end of an epic-length concert at Berlin's Max Schmelling Halle and remained a strong contender in the increasingly Ziggy-dominated encores thereafter. Its addition had been instigated by Sterling Campbell busking the opening drumbeat during the Vienna soundcheck a few days earlier, prompting David to revive the number for the first time in 25 years.

The fluid approach to the repertoire undoubtedly paid off. "I'm having a ball," Bowie told an Australian interviewer in February 2004. "We're five months into it and I'm not even vaguely bored. I'm having just a super time. Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I've done the right thing. I think I've chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows." In addition to the ever-changing set-lists, David was in his usual playful mood between songs; as well as regular bursts of Blur's "Song 2" and the occasional foray into Link Wray's "Rumble", the gigs brought other unexpected interludes. In Vienna David played a snippet of Frank Zappa's "It Can't Happen Here", while at several concerts he teased the crowd after "Slip Away" by launching into a snatch of "Space Oddity" on his Stylophone. There were other unscheduled excursions into songs as diverse as "Golden Years", "Win", "Do You Know The Way To San José?", "YMCA", "Get It On", "Here Comes The Sun", "A Hard Day's Night" and even "Puppet On A String". In Cologne on October 31st David marked Halloween by acting out scenes from The Birds between numbers, culminating in Catherine Russell and Gail Ann Dorsey launching into the spooky song sung by the children in the Hitchcock movie. "I suppose you would have to be a big fan of The Birds to get it," Dorsey wrote in her diary. "It went right over the audience's head."

A Reality Tour would have presented a punishing schedule for a man half Bowie's age, but he was as fit as ever. He sparred regularly in the boxing ring and was accompanied on tour by a personal trainer. "I'm a fairly disciplined man," he said in 2003. "I don't cut corners. And I can see that it really pays dividends to have put in a fair amount of training before going on tour. I mean, at 56 it's not as easy as when you're twentysomething." Bowie's physical fitness was apparent not only in the remarkable athleticism with which he threw himself around the stage, but also in the magnificent condition of his voice. The touring schedule made concessions to his family life too, as Iman and Lexi accompanied him on several of the legs: "What we tend to do is get a house somewhere in the vicinity of the area that we are working," David explained, "and then I kind of fly back there each night."

David Bowie on screen at the Royal Albert Hall beamed live from his Rotterdam concert for Fashion Rocks October 15th 2003
David Bowie & Iman - Tommy Hilfiger photo shoot in Amsterdam's Amstel Hotel 2003

On October 15th, while Bowie played Rotterdam, a pre-recorded live performance was beamed to the Royal Albert Hall during an event called Fashion Rocks For The Prince's Trust. Billed as "the largest fashion-music performance ever staged", the evening involved a host of the world's leading designers showing elements of their autumn and winter collections to the live accompaniment of various bands and singers, all in aid of The Prince's Trust. Those performing at the Albert Hall included Robbie Williams, Bryan Ferry and Elton John, while Bowie's performance of (naturally) "Fashion" appeared on a giant screen behind the stage during the finale. The show was transmitted on Channel 4 on October 19th, although Bowie's segment was largely obscured by the closing credits and edited highlights of the evening. October 17th saw David pay a return visit to German TV's Die Harald Schmidt Show to play "Never Get Old" and "New Killer Star". Also during the European leg, David and Iman found time to undertake a photo session for Tommy Hilfiger; shot in Amsterdam's Amstel Hotel, the pictures received widespread exposure during the designer's spring 2004 campaign.

Having played some remarkably long sets during the European leg, David's voice began to suffer in mid-November. Throat problems forced the Nice gig to be curtailed to an unusually short 20 numbers, and when David's condition was officially diagnosed as laryngitis, the Toulouse concert scheduled for November 12th was cancelled, marking only the second such incident in Bowie's live career (the first had been the cancellation of a BowieNet gig in June 2000). Happily he bounced back again in Marseille two days later, even adding the notoriously challenging "Life On Mars?" to the repertoire for the first time, seemingly in defiance of his throat problems. As ever the song was rapturously received, and it remained a pillar of the set-list thereafter.

In Birmingham on November 20th, David followed "Under Pressure" with an impromptu performance of "Happy Birthday" for Gail Ann Dorsey. The two Dublin shows, of which the second broke the tour's records with a mammoth 35 numbers, were filmed and recorded for the A Reality Tour DVD and album. "Starman" was added to the set at the second of two shows at Wembley Arena, where the celebrity concert-goers included Paul Merton, Eddie Izzard, Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Jack Dee, Beverley Knight and Ricky Gervais, whose award-winning comedy series The Office had made mischief with perceptions of "Reality TV" in a style not dissimilar to Bowie's own interest in the area ("I've turned on so many Americans to that series," David said in 2003. "They don't get it immediately, you know - they're not sure if this is supposed to be like the 'reality' thing or whatever, but once they do - the whole band love it now"). At a BowieNet after-show party on November 25th, fans were treated to a live set by Heathen veteran and Bowie collaborator Kristeen Young, with soundboard duties being taken by Tony Visconti, who was in London to produce Tim and Neil Finn's new album.

 

On November 27th David recorded his second appearance in a little over a year on BBC1's Parkinson, playing "Ziggy Stardust" and "The Loneliest Guy". As the initial European leg concluded in Glasgow the following night, reports began to emerge that the tour would be extended into the summer of 2004. Bowie informed the delighted Glasgow crowd that the band would be returning to Scotland for the T In The Park festival in July, and a clutch of other European summer festival dates were announced shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, the first North American leg of the tour got off to a difficult start when David was unexpectedly beset by further health problems. The laryngitis that had afflicted him a month earlier paled by comparison with the bout of influenza that laid him low for several days in early December, and no fewer than five gigs in the US and Canada were cancelled and hastily rescheduled for 2004 before the North American leg got off to a belated start in Montreal on December 13th. This left only two more shows on the itinerary before the Christmas break, although there was a further concert at Paradise Island in the Bahamas on December 20th. This one-off show was not billed as part of A Reality Tour proper, tickets being available only via a series of promotions and competitions. A 90-minute segment of the Bahamas gig was broadcast live by a number of US radio stations. While in the Bahamas, David visited Compass Point Studios to record his vocal for the Shrek 2 soundtrack version of "Changes".

December 21st saw Bowie's name linked to a story that caused a sensation in the British press for a few days, when the Sunday Times published a secret list of celebrities who had turned down civil honours at various times in the past. The story had been kick-started some weeks earlier when the poet Benjamin Zephaniah broke with the customary protocol of polite silence and went public with the fact that he had refused an honour on ethical grounds. The Sunday Times's subsequent acquisition of a leaked list of "refuseniks" proved to be a major embarrassment to the establishment, sparking a media debate about the relevance of the 700-year-old honours system. It was revealed that among the famous names who had turned down honours in recent years were Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Bennett, John Cleese, Honor Blackman, George Melly and Helen Mirren (although, having declined a CBE in 1996, Ms Mirren had deigned to become a dame shortly before the story broke). David Bowie, it transpired, had turned down a CBE in 2000 - hardly a surprising revelation given Tony Blair's solicitousness towards him in the 1990s. Asked some months earlier to comment on Mick Jagger's acceptance of a knighthood, David had told The Sun that "I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don't know what it's for. It's not what I spent my life working for. It's not my place to make a judgement on Jagger, it's his decision, but it's just not for me." Pressed on a similar question by Jonathan Ross a year earlier, David had wryly remarked, "I would suggest that they give it to somebody who would give a damn...I'm not sure what I'd do with it. I'd lose it or break it, or put it in a drawer and lose the key."

Following the Christmas break, the US tour resumed on January 7th 2004 in the traditional Bowie stronghold of Cleveland. Two days later a lengthy gig in the Motor City saw the appropriate rendition of "Panic In Detroit", which remained a regular feature of the set-list during the US leg. A more unusual new arrival was "Blue Jean", which made an unexpected appearance during the last of three shows at Chicago's Rosemont Theatre.

The first leg of the US tour concluded in Los Angeles on February 7th, whereafter the band flew to the Southern hemisphere for Bowie's first Australasian concerts since the Glass Spider tour 17 years earlier. The Pacific leg began in Wellington, New Zealand on February 14th at the open-air Westpac Stadium. Heavy rain necessitated the abandoning of the thrust platforms, and Bowie even donned a hooded top and anorak as the downpour continued. From New Zealand the tour moved to Australia, where the second of two concerts at the Sydney Entertainment Centre saw the surprise addition of "Quicksand" to the repertoire. The Adelaide show a couple of days later heralded an unexpected change of outfit, as for the first time on the tour David abandoned the denim look in favour of a grey zoot-suit and trilby reminiscent of his Serious Moonlight image. "No reason for the change," he remarked afterwards, "just felt like it." On February 24th the band played "The Man Who Sold The World" and "New Killer Star" on the Australian TV char show Rove Live.

From Australia the tour moved to Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong before returning for a mammoth second leg in the US and Canada which lasted from later March to early June. In Kelowna on April 11th, the band included a medley of Broadway numbers towards the end of the show, while in Berkeley five days later Bowie added "The Supermen" to the set-list. During the encores at the same show he was joined on stage by The Polyphonic Spree for "Slip Away", an innovation which resurfaced on several subsequent dates.

On May 3rd the band performed nine numbers at the Audi and Condé Nast "Never Follow" Awards at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom; Bowie was among the "innovators" honoured at the ceremony. Three days later the Miami show was struck by tragedy when a local lighting technician fell to his death in front of the crowd during the refit following Stereophonics' support slot, and the concert was immediately cancelled.

David Bowie in Zoot-Suit & Trilby at Sydney's Entertainment Centre February 20th/21st 2004
David Bowie at Sydney's Entertainment Centre Review - February 20th/21st 2004

In Kansas City on May 11th "Station To Station" was added to the repertoire, while at Buffalo on May 25th two more numbers appeared: the rare treat of "The Bewlay Brothers", unheard since its handful of live outings in 2002 (and destined for just one more performance hereafter), and "Queen Bitch", back in the repertoire for the first time since 1997. So, too, was "Diamond Dogs", added in Atlantic City on May 29th. Undoubtedly the most curious addition, bringing to a remarkable 59 the total number of songs on A Reality Tour's set-list, was the one-off performance that popped up at Holmdel on June 5th. It was the final American concert of the tour, and coincidentally the 40th anniversary of Davie Jones's first single release. The band obligingly played a truncated "Liza Jane", after which David laughed, "Now I don't have to do that again for the next 40 years."

From America the band returned to Europe to play a string of dates on the summer festival circuit, commencing with a warm-up at Amsterdam's ArenA followed by a headliner at the UK's Isle Of Wight Festival, topping a bill that included The Charlatans, Snow Patrol and Suzanne Vega (but not The Libertines, whose eleventh-hour cancellation heralded the band's fragmentation and the commencement of the Pete Doherty soap opera that would entrance the British press for years to come). Further tabloid inches were generated when, three numbers into the Oslo gig on June 18th, Bowie sustained a direct hit in the eye by a lollipop thrown from the crowd, necessitating an interruption of the show. "Lucky you hit the bad one," he quipped before regaining his composure and continuing.

It was not long, however, before the tour was overshadowed by more serious health problems. Two gigs later, in Prague on June 23rd, David was forced to leave the stage after just nine songs to receive medical assistance for an excruciating pain across his chest, caused by what was believed to be a trapped nerve in his shoulder. During his absence the band played "A New Career In A New Town" and "Be My Wife", Catherine Russell taking lead vocal on the latter. David then returned to the stage but managed only another couple of songs before excusing himself once again. His second reappearance lasted another two numbers - "Station To Station" and "The Man Who Sold The World" - before he finally admitted defeat and the show was drawn to a premature close.

The next gig, the Hurricane Festival in Scheebel, Germany, went ahead as planned two days later and there was every sign that David was back on form, but over the following days his scheduled headliners at various festivals were called off one by one, until on June 30th it was finally announced that, on strict medical advice, the remainder of the concerts - 14 in all - had been cancelled. The Hurricane Festival was destined to be the final date of A Reality Tour.

A week later came the public revelation that David's troubles had been considerably graver than the supposed trap nerve. On July 8th it was confirmed that he had undergone an emergency heart operation in St Georg Hospital in Hamburg on June 26th, the day after the Hurricane Festival. Angioplasty is a serious but comparatively routine procedure which involves inserting a stent to relieve arterial blockage - this, not a mere trapped nerve, being the diagnosis that had emerged from a check-up in the wake of the Hurricane Festival show. In a statement, Bowie said "I'm so pissed off because the last ten months of this tour have been so fucking fantastic. Can't wait to be fully recovered and get back to work again. I tell you what, though, I won't be writing a song about this one." A fortnight after the operation David was discharged from hospital and returned home to New York, there to begin the slow process of convalescence.

But A Reality Tour deserves to be remembered for happier reasons than its unexpectedly dramatic curtailment. Even taking into account the various cancellations it was by far the longest tour of Bowie's career, and wherever it went the press reaction was seldom short of ecstatic; review after review remarked not only upon the band and the staging, but on the unprecedented strength and beauty of Bowie's vocal performance. The Manchester Evening News reported that the opening UK show served up "gem after gem" and declared it "genius", while The Times considered the show "breathtaking" and "sublime", noting that "Bowie performed with complete authority but also a strange kind of charm - as if the battles with his myth and the baggage of his past were now resolved." The extent to which the Reality material wowed the critics can be summed up by The Guardian's comment that "The swaggering "New Killer Star" has the indescribable but unmistakable feel of a Bowie classic. In fact, there aren't nearly enough new songs aired. "Changes", "Under Pressure" and the rest are delivered to perfection." The Birmingham Post observed that "Bowie himself looked remarkably fresh faced, far younger and healthier than anyone with his past dare hope for. A decorative stage set and excellent lighting set the scene, but with the singer in top form vocally, little was needed in the way of props."

Reviewing the first Dublin show, The Irish Independent opined that "the Thin White Duke can still lay claim to the title of Rock'n'Roll's greatest showman. And what a show...The accompanying light and visual spectacle was a sight to behold, but never threatened to outshine the real star of the show...Bowie still manages to project more charisma during one song than most modern-day stars manage in a career." The Sun judged the Glasgow gig "stunning...Bowie at his best", while The Scotsman announced that "Now is a good time to be David Bowie, and a good time to be a fan of David Bowie. The Thin White Duke looked more dazzling than ever, his voice is in supple shape and, thanks to his wonderful intuitive band, everything else sounds great too...In 2003, this ultra-cool 50-something has wired back into the spirit, the strut and the stance that makes him peerless still."

Le Monde reported that Bowie was "in fantastic vocal form. Moving from arrogant glamour to affectedness, one minute a haughty crooner, the next a vulnerable troubadour, his music surpasses that of all the rockers of his generation." The Hamburger Morgenpost hailed "a fabulous show, that took your breath away and left you drained of emotion...It can't get much better than this."

In America the news was just as good. "Never has Bowie seemed as comfortable in his own skin as he does now," reported Billboard. "At a sold out Madison Square Garden in New York, he confidently held court in his adopted home like he had nothing to prove, as sure of the strength of his latest material as he was of his versatile backing band. Fit and laid-back, the constantly grinning Bowie looked as giddy as a school kid, belying his nearly sixty years. His voice also sounded as unique and powerful as ever...new songs like "New Killer Star" and "Reality" revealed how vibrant a songwriter and performer Bowie remains...Don't call it a comeback, since Bowie never went away. But artists new and old could stand to learn from Bowie's smiling, hip-swivelling, gregarious example, even if few could match his energy and enthusiasm."

The topical content of the show was not lost on the critics; in Chicago the Daily Herald remarked that "The most relevant coupling - "I'm Afraid Of Americans" and "Heroes" - did not need explaining. When the grinding guitars, paranoid chorus and Christ-like postures of the first met the swooning optimism of the second, Bowie expressed more about the state of world affairs over the past few years than most political pundits ever could."​

The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg

The Complete David Bowie

by Nicholas Pegg

New Edition: Expanded and Updated

"This is the best Bowie reference book one could ever hope for"

Tony Visconti

Quite besides the thrilling proficiency of one of the finest live bands he had ever assembled, the sheer verve with which Bowie attacked the often epic-length concerts was both exciting and touching to behold. As the live DVD culled from the Dublin concerts bore witness, seldom if ever had he displayed such constant and infectious enthusiasm on stage. And, as both David and the critics agreed, the new material more than matched up to the golden oldies: songs like "New Killer Star", "The Loneliest Guy", "Never Get Old", "Slip Away" and "Bring Me The Disco King" were integral and immensely popular ingredients in the show, drawing as much respect and admiration as the classics. David Bowie's final tour was not only the longest of his career, but also one of the greatest.