AUGUST 23rd - DECEMBER 12th 1999
David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar
Page Hamilton: Guitar (September onwards)
Reeves Gabrels: Guitar (August only)
Mike Garson: Keyboards
Gail Ann Dorsey: Bass
Mark Plati: Acoustic Guitar
Sterling Campbell: Drums
Holly Palmer: Backing Vocals
Lani Groves: Backing Vocals (August only)
Emm Gryner: Backing Vocals (September onwards)
Life On Mars? | Thursday's Child | Can't Help Thinking About Me | Seven | China Girl | Rebel Rebel | Survive | Word On A Wing | Drive-In Saturday | I Can't Read | Always Crashing In The Same Car | If I'm Dreaming My Life | The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell | Repetition | Changes | Something In The Air | Stay | Cracked Actor | Ashes To Ashes | I'm Afraid Of Americans
Bowie's first live appearance of 1999 came at the Brit Awards on February 16th, when he joined Placebo for a duet of Marc Bolan's "20th Century Boy". The performance was reprised at a Placebo gig in New York a month later, when David also joined the band for "Without You I'm Nothing". On May 8th he appeared at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston to receive an honorary degree from Berklee College of Music, from which Reeves Gabrels had graduated in 1981.
Three months later, On August 23rd, Bowie performed his first full-length set since the end of the Earthling tour, in an exclusive session at Manhattan Center Studios for VH1's Storytellers. First broadcast in edited form on October 18th, the show provided a taster for the forthcoming album 'hours...'. David was joined by co-producer Mark Plati and most of the Earthling band - the only absentee was Zachary Alford, replaced by 1.Outside and 'hours...' drummer Sterling Campbell. In hooded top and trainers, his hair now longer than at any time since 1971, David unveiled a handful of new numbers and some jaw-dropping archive selections. Alongside unexpectedly mainstream revivals like "China Girl" and "Rebel Rebel", there were rare treats in the form of "Word On A Wing" and "Drive-In Saturday", not performed since 1976 and 1974 respectively. But the biggest surprise was the resuscitation of the 1966 single "Can't Help Thinking About Me": unheard for 33 years, its revival marked the first time since 1970 that David had performed any of his pre-Space Oddity material. The performance of "China Girl" later appeared on 2000's Various Artists VH1 Storytellers compilation, while the complete Storytellers concert would be released on DVD and CD in 2009. During rehearsals for the show, the band also taped "Thursday's Child", "Survive" and "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell" for the BBC's Top Of The Pops and TOTP2.
It had been announced the previous spring that Bowie was to headline a massive "Millennium Concert" at Gisborne in New Zealand, becoming the first singer to perform as the sun rose on the year 2000. In August, however, the Gisborne concert was cancelled owing to poor sales. Instead, on the heels of the Storytellers performance, Bowie announced an autumn promotional tour to accompany the release of 'hours...'. Although there would be only eight concerts, there would also be studio performances for well over a dozen television shows in the USA, Canada and Europe.
In September Bowie announced that "Page Hamilton, ex-Helmet founder member, will stand in on lead guitar for Reeves Gabrels on these shows. Reeves will finish off two projects that have impending deadlines in October." Rumours of a tiff with Reeves Gabrels was rapidly denied. "We didn't have a falling out," Gabrels informed fans over the internet on the same day as Bowie's announcement. "It was obvious to me that I needed to get on with my own thing. My album [Ulysses (della notte)] will be out in mid-October and I'm really into that...It is all amicable and we plan on reuniting for the next studio project." A few months later the story appeared to have changed, as the guitarist admitted that he and Bowie had "drifted apart." In an interview for Guitar World in 2001, Gabrels confessed that the parting of the ways had been his own fault. "Over time, I started thinking of David as the singer in my band - how twisted is that?" he laughed. "That was why I was getting frustrated with him near the end; I wanted the music to go one way and he wanted it to go another way. And when push came to shove, I had to remember whose name was on those albums, and I didn't. I lost perspective." The VH1 Storytellers show would be the guitarist's final work with Bowie.
Late September saw the beginning of an intensive round of television spots to promote 'hours...'. By the time Bowie appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman on October 4th, he was looking a little peaky. The following day, an acoustic set at New York's Virgin Megastore and an appearance on The Howard Stern Show were both cancelled when he succumbed to a bout of gastro-enteritis. Having flown to Britain on October 8th, a fully recovered and ebullient David gave a hysterical interview to Chris Evans on Channel 4's TFI Friday. For the band's performance on this show, an indisposed Sterling Campbell was replaced for one night only by drummer Neil Conti, who had last played for Bowie at Live Aid.
The following night saw David's six-song set at the all-star NetAid concert at Wembley Stadium. Coordinated by Bono, NetAid was a major initiative to raise awareness of global poverty and launch a website to pool charity resources. Other artists at Wembley included The Corrs, Eurythmics, George Michael, Stereophonics, Catatonia and Robbie Williams, while the linked events in Geneva and New Jersey featured Bono, Pete Townshend, Bryan Ferry, Texas, Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page. By the standards of previous charity extravaganzas NetAid was not a resounding success (post-mortems spoke of a lack of clear charity goals translating into a half-empty stadium in New Jersey), but nonetheless the event raised $12 million.
On October 10th Bowie played an invitation-only gig at the Dublin HQ, sponsored by Guinness, who had staged promotional competitions to win tickets. It was the first full-length show since the Storytellers gig, with a broadly similar set-list bolstered by more shock resurrections in the shape of "Changes" and "Repetition". Thereafter the tour moved to the Continent, where "Something In The Air" was added to the set at the 1000-seater Elysée Montmartre in Paris. The gig expanded to almost twice its scheduled length when Bowie opted for an extended encore. "I was only supposed to play 45 minutes," he told the delighted crowd, "but Paris is a special city for me. It's here that I got engaged." Three live tracks from the concert later appeared on the CD single of "Survive". While in Paris, Bowie was presented with the prestigious order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French cultural minister Catherine Trautman.
The Vienna gig on October 17th included a rare performance of "If I'm Dreaming My Life", otherwise included only in the Storytellers set but cut from its transmission. This show, which coincided with the launching of BowieNet Europe, was available as a live webcast. In between the full-length gigs October saw a host of television appearances on the Continent. Back in London on October 25th Bowie played a live session for Radio 1's Mark Radcliffe Show, before returning to America - his departure from Heathrow later appeared on BBC1's docusoap Airport.
In Las Vegas on October 28th, Bowie received the inaugural "Legend" award at Warner Brothers' first WB Radio Music Awards. November 16th saw "Thursday's Child" and another new revival, "Cracked Actor", performed on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, plus a humorous version of "What's Really Happening?" with lyrics submitted by the host. The first full-scale gig for a month was at New York's Kit Kat Club on November 19th, where "Stay", "Ashes To Ashes" and "I'm Afraid Of Americans" were added to the set. The show was broadcast on the SFX radio network and given a live webcast by the American Express Blue Concert series; tracks from the gig would later be included on formats of the "Seven" single. Three days later Bowie played a ten-song session for the Canadian TV station Musique Plus, before once again crossing the Atlantic. Back in London he recorded a set for BBC2's Later...With Jools Holland, gave an interview to a clearly besotted Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, and played a gig at the London Astoria. "We were all so nervous because there was all these famous people in the audience," Mike Garson later recalled. "Mick Jagger was there and Pete Townshend and they all went backstage. David was great in that show."
The final two gigs followed the same week in Milan and Copenhagen, where backing vocalists Emm Gryner and Holly Palmer performed a last-night ditty called "Shrinking Jimmy", inspired by an incident earlier in the week when one of the crew had accidentally shrunk Bowie's purple pullover. David entered into the party spirit with a self-parodying announcement that "Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it's the last show - of the millennium!" The Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet described the gig as "possibly the greatest music event on Danish soil ever," and an hour-long compilation was shown on Danish television the following May.
The day after the Copenhagen gig the band travelled to Gothenburg to record appearances on Swedish television. Bowie's final public appearance of 1999 was on the December 30th edition of Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, in which he gamely swapped places with the boom operator, donned an apron to help out in the kitchen, and played baseball with a collection of Christmas toys. It was the parting shot in a hectic promotional tour which had found David apparently happier and more relaxed than ever before. His breathlessly anecdotal interview style was pure stand-up, exemplified by the deliriously rambling account on TFI Friday of his Indonesian holiday in 1983. Better still was the music itself, sparklingly performed by a superb band. Bowie was in his finest voice for many years and, perhaps inspired by Mike Garson's sumptuous makeover of "Life On Mars?", he was effortlessly rediscovering high notes long presumed dead. The potentially alarming revival of stadium crowd-pleaser "China Girl" turned out to be a triumph, retooling the number with the darkness and attack of Iggy Pop's original, and even "Rebel Rebel" successfully shed the predictability of its 1980s appearances. "Can't Help Thinking About Me" proved a positive revelation rather than a comic novelty, while "Drive-In Saturday" and "Word On A Wing" were simply majestic. Best of all, the 'hours...' material was delivered with grace, conviction and flair. Once again, and true to form, the new songs stole the show.
by Nicholas Pegg
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