David Bowie's Best Live Music Moments in NYC
David Bowie, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Roberta Flack at the 1975 Grammy Awards
Photo © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah
Like thousands of music fans all over the world, David Bowie fell in love with New York because of the Velvet Underground. He would visit the city for the first time in 1971, coming over to do press for Hunky Dory; he insisted on being introduced to both Iggy Pop and Lou Reed immediately. Establishing a habit he'd proceed to keep until he was no longer able, he voraciously consumed live music, making the scene at Max's Kansas City or going to the Mercer Arts Center to see the New York Dolls. Years later, he'd be in the crowd while Iggy hopped onstage to sing "96 Tears" with the Patti Smith Group at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, and he'd visit Max's to catch a set by singer-songwriter Biff Rose, only to become enamored with the opening act, a new talent named Bruce Springsteen.
New York City would be important to his work as well. Bowie rehearsed here, put together bands here, began his theater career here with The Elephant Man, and would both launch tours and end them right here. He celebrated his fiftieth birthday here, and he helped the city heal when it needed it most. His love and affection for New York was visible and palpable and only grew with the passing years.
It only makes sense that David Bowie would wholeheartedly embrace the city that welcomed the weird and the strange and the odd and the questioning with open arms — the same way, as it turned out, that his music and art and very presence on the planet did for so many. In 2003 he told New York magazine, "I'm here most of the year now. I only leave if work demands it. (I've read the rumors about how I have houses elsewhere, but this is it.)" Naturally, he settled downtown, where you might glimpse him eating breakfast or walking around. And like New York's most successful adopted sons, he would merge into city life seamlessly, cheerfully playing for dozens of charities, going to shows, and checking out local bands.
"People here are very decent about their interactions with well-knowns. I get the occasional 'Yo, Bowie,' but that's about it," he'd said in that same interview. "My only rule is to avoid tourist areas. But if I weren't known, I'd still avoid 'em."
That's a true New Yorker right there.
September 28, 1972 | Carnegie Hall: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
On his first American tour, Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to perform before a sold-out Carnegie Hall. This would be his third concert in the States, following gigs in Cleveland and Memphis. The Carnegie marquee read, "Fall in Love With David Bowie" while klieg lights lit up the sky outside the venue. The audience was filled with fans in their Ziggy-esque best, and NYC's best and brightest appeared with their entourages, from the Dolls to Warhol and the Factory crowd. Bowie was sick with the flu, and reports from the show mention that it took the band a while to gather momentum. But by midway through, Cyrinda Foxe (then with David Johansen) and Angie Bowie were dancing in the aisles, and the New Yorker's Ellen Willis was standing on her chair, "enthusiastically applauding." Bowie would tell the audience, "This is like bringing coals to Newcastle!" before launching into his versions of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "White Light/White Heat." "Andy Warhol" would be introduced as a song "for all the blondes in the audience."
July 19–20, 1974 | Madison Square Garden: Diamond Dogs
Ziggy Stardust was dead, and when Bowie returned to town for his first performances at the Garden, it was with the insanely ambitious Diamond Dogs tour, which featured a full theatrical set (including a catwalk and a cherry picker hoisting Bowie over the audience) and choreography (by none other than Toni Basil). Diamond Dogs was meant to be Bowie's vision of Orwell's 1984, having come about after his attempts to create a musical based on the book were blocked by the author's widow. But Bowie's own post-apocalyptic creation was plenty bleak on its own. These MSG shows — the final concerts on this leg — were filmed by Bowie's management for release, but although audio is out there, the video has never surfaced.
October 28, 1974 | Radio City Music Hall: 'Philly Dogs'
While still ostensibly part of the Diamond Dogs tour, this seven-night stand at Radio City Music Hall would present a completely different show, now referred to as "Philly Dogs" to denote the tour's drastic swing from proto-punk apocalyptic nightmare to r&b revue. To the confusion of fans dressed as Ziggy and Aladdin, Bowie had already ditched the tour's original concept — the elaborate set, which hadn't fared well on the first leg, wouldn't get farther than the West Coast — in favor of a band that included Robin Clark, Ava Cherry, and a pre-superstardom Luther Vandross on backing vocals (the backing band also performed a seven-song set of r&b material to open the show). All of Bowie's hits were reinterpreted through this soul-based filter, to varying results; reviews were overwhelmingly not positive. The band was great (with the addition of Carlos Alomar, and David Sanborn's role expanding due to the new arrangements), and the enthusiasm and desire was authentic, but there was just too much bombast. "Young Americans" is introduced as being from the forthcoming album, recorded back in August at Philly's Sigma Sound.
March 26, 1976 | Madison Square Garden: Isolar
Robert Christgau declared this particular Bowie era "the most powerful and innovative arena-scale hard rock since the '73 Stones" in the April 5, 1976, issue of the Village Voice, in a short piece that covered the tour promoting Station to Station. The shows would be prefaced with music from Kraftwerk's Radioactivity before a screening of Un Chien Andalou, the short surrealist film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. The Isolar tour would present Bowie still trying to amalgamate soul music and rock 'n' roll; it was less overblown and more muscular than the "Philly Dogs" tour, for sure, but not quite there yet. Christgau would note that the MSG show wasn't as powerful as the one he'd seen at Nassau Coliseum a week earlier; he also commented, "Finally, there's no reason to believe Bowie appreciates what he's achieved. His taste in David Bowie has never been very trustworthy."
March 18, 1977 | The Palladium: The Idiot
No, this wasn't a David Bowie tour; this was Bowie going out with Iggy Pop to promote the Bowie-produced album The Idiot in order to help keep Iggy on track. His role was unannounced until the first show, after which word spread like wildfire. Bowie hid behind the keyboards over at stage left, laughing and smiling, but you could hear him on backing vocals even if you were legally deaf.
May 7–9, 1978 | Madison Square Garden: Isolar II
The 1978 tour focused on Low and "Heroes" with a healthy dose of Ziggy Stardust to break up the otherwise emotionally grim musical landscape. Today, hearing a food vendor calling, "Hey, pretzels!" during "Warszawa" probably offers some sense of what it was like to see such a rigidly choreographed and sonically punishing performance in a sports arena. The Garden shows would close out the U.S. leg of the tour before Bowie and Co. headed to Europe to finish things off.
September 23, 1980 | Booth Theater: The Elephant Man
After runs in Denver and Chicago, Bowie would arrive for his Broadway debut in his role as John (or is it Joseph?) Merrick, a real-life figure who suffered from a medical condition that caused a severe deformity in his face and overall bone structure. Bowie had seen the play on Broadway at the end of 1979 and was introduced to the director by a mutual friend. Bowie's run in the play was a complete sellout, and he would receive rave reviews for his performance from both the press and his fellow cast members.
July 25–27, 1983 | Madison Square Garden: Serious Moonlight
After being off the road for years while he focused on his career in film and on the stage, Bowie was back. The Let's Dance album was an international smash, he had taken over the fledgling MTV, and there was a run on red high heels in every shoe store in New York City. These performances were triumphant and electric, with another great band in tow despite the loss of Stevie Ray Vaughan just as the tour began (SRV had either been fired or had quit, depending on whose version you believe). The backing singers (the Simms Brothers) were inelegant and overbearing, but the horn section (featuring Stan Harrison, from the Asbury Jukes, and Lenny Pickett, who'd cut his teeth with the Tower of Power) was brilliant. For teenage Bowie fans who had been too young to see Bowie in the Seventies, this was our coming-out party.
June 14, 1989 | The World: Tin Machine
Tin Machine was the next vehicle for Bowie, who'd put together a band — and tried to sell it as just that, a band, and not David Bowie and some backing dudes. Along with Reeves Gabrels, he was joined by Hunt and Tony Sales (whom he met while out on tour with Iggy in 1977); the stripped-down quartet would make two attempts before Bowie admitted defeat. This show at now-defunct club the World was the first tour's warm-up gig, and fans remember its rawness and energy as being part of the charm. No horns, no backup singers, just a four-piece rock 'n' roll group.
January 9, 1997 | Madison Square Garden: Fiftieth Birthday Celebration
Featuring Frank Black, the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, and Lou Reed, the show transcended the usual tribute concert vibe because the guest of honor was just so goddamn stoked about the whole thing. But the best moment had to be watching Bowie singing with Reed on one of Lou's most New York songs, "Dirty Blvd." (Lou, for his part, seemed pretty damn happy about it, too.)
October 13, 1997 | The Supper Club: Earthling
This was a tour you might have ignored unless you were a diehard, an outing to theaters and clubs to support an album you probably didn't pay attention to. Bowie was backed by a tight and capable band including Gail Ann Dorsey, Gabrels, Mike Garson, and Zach Alford and played a career-spanning set that didn't dwell too long in any one place but was brimming with an energy and enthusiasm amped up by the small venue. (Dylan also played here, and the intimacy had much the same effect.)
January 29, 1998 | Hammerstein Ballroom: Howard Stern's Birthday Party
Bowie performed five songs for this event, of which three were broadcast by E! A Bowie fanatic recalls, "It was wonderful to see how all these people who weren't there to see him were cheering for him and loving it. Howard fans are a very tough room."
June 19, 2000 | Roseland: BowieNet Show
Before most artists even had a solid Web presence, Bowie was already on version two of BowieNet, and this show (part of a three-night run at Roseland, a warm-up for his Glastonbury appearance the next week) was for subscribers only. Fans flew in from all corners of the globe, which was why Bowie, not wanting to let anyone down, showed up despite being severely under the weather. The audience full of diehards likely inspired the performance, as David was visibly relaxed, playing air guitar during "Rebel Rebel" and letting an affectionate grin escape when everyone sang, "Hot tramp, I love you so" with especial emphasis. Even ill, he still managed to hit the high notes when it mattered, most notably on the "Wild Is the Wind" opener.
February 26, 2001 | Carnegie Hall: Tibet House Benefit
Bowie took full advantage of the Hall's famous acoustics and let his baritone lift "Heroes" to the rafters, accompanied by Tony Visconti on bass, Moby on guitar, Philip Glass on keyboards, and a four-piece string section. The combo also presented "Silly Boy Blue," and Bowie came out later for the all-star jam on "People Have the Power."
October 20, 2001 | Madison Square Garden: The Concert for New York City
After opening with a plaintive cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "America" (played solo with a synthesizer while sitting on the stage), Bowie got to his feet. "Hi, fellow New Yorkers. I'd particularly like to say hello to the folks from my local ladder — you know where you are," he said before going into a version of "Heroes" that was equal parts tribute, heartbreak, and utter fucking triumph.
February 22, 2002 | Carnegie Hall: Tibet House Benefit
This time around, Bowie performed "I Would Be Your Slave" and "Space Oddity." For the latter, he was backed by Sterling Campbell on drums, Adam Yauch on bass, Glass on piano, and (for good measure) the Kronos Quartet. Once again, Bowie and his accompanists joined the final encore of "People Have the Power."
June 11, 2002 | Roseland Ballroom: Low and Heathen in full
Bowie would kick off the tour to support Heathen with this BowieNet subscriber-only show that began with 1977's Low played start to finish, followed by a costume change and then all of Heathen, too. He even dressed the part for Low, resurrecting a classic Thin White Duke ensemble of white shirt, black vest and trousers, and black tie. Bowie had hinted at the format for the show in pre-tour press, but (quite understandably) not many people actually believed it. Bowie introduced "Be My Wife" by saying, "I'm not even sure my wife has heard this — and it's too late to ask her now." There was a power failure in the middle of "Warszawa": "In 1976 this couldn't have happened," Bowie remarked, "because all of our amplifiers were made of wood, and we were able to suffice with steam. I hate electricity, don't you?"
October 11, 12, 16, 17, and 20, 2002: The New York Marathon Tour
A concert apiece for all five boroughs: Bowie himself dubbed it "The New York Marathon Tour" on BowieNet, stating: "I would like to repay the fans that traveled so far to see me by bringing my show to them. But most importantly, I could get home from all the gigs on roller skates." He would play at the Music Hall at Snug Harbor (Staten Island); St. Ann's Warehouse, alongside the Brooklyn Bridge; Queens College; Jimmy's Bronx Cafe; and the Beacon Theatre. He also did a solid job shaking up the setlist from night to night. It's hard to call a clear winner, but we'll go with Brooklyn, which got everything from "Moonage Daydream" to "The Bewlay Brothers" to "Ashes to Ashes," making the St. Ann's show something special indeed.
May 10, 2002 | Battery Park City: Tribeca Film Festival
Bowie appeared as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's "MTV Rock and Comedy Concert." This wouldn't seem all that notable except for an interview he gave to a local cable crew in which he greeted the interviewer (and audience) with "Hi, I'm your next-door neighbor" and went on to talk earnestly about the efforts to revitalize downtown New York after 9-11. (He also sang a little of "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round," if you needed another reason to look this one up.)
February 28, 2003 | Carnegie Hall: Tibet House Benefit
In Bowie's last appearance for Tibet House, he would perform "Loving the Alien" and "Heathen" in his solo slot, but it was his duet with Ray Davies on the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" that offered one of those amazing, transcendent moments the Tibet House shows could provide. The affection and shared emotion between the two will have you holding your breath.
September 15, 2005 | SummerStage: With Arcade Fire
Bowie had been out of the public eye for a while after being sidelined by a heart attack he suffered onstage in 2004. He wouldn't reemerge until 2005, when he was again spotted around NYC. A week after appearing with Arcade Fire at Radio City for Fashion Rocks, he would appear with the band in Central Park in what was the worst-kept secret/most obvious guest appearance ever. Bowie had been vocal in his adoration for Arcade Fire, stating in an interview on davidbowie.com, "When I was asked to do this event I said I wanted to perform with Arcade Fire, who I love, and it went from there." Obvious or not, the crowd goes bonkers for this very particular type of New York moment, the kind that explains why people live here: because you can go to a concert in Central Park and David Fucking Bowie might walk onstage wearing a lilac suit and a Panama hat.
November 9, 2006 | Hammerstein Ballroom BlackBall Charity Concert
This annual charity event benefits Keep a Child Alive, an organization assisting families affected by HIV in Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and India. Bowie performed "Wild Is the Wind," "Fantastic Voyage," and "Changes," joined on the latter by Alicia Keys. He was gorgeous, dapper, energetic, and every other flowery adjective you'd use to describe David Bowie. This was his last public performance; it will be good to remember him just like this.
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