Music News & Reviews

‘Blackout’ essential for new and diehard Bowie fans

Five songs into “Welcome to the Blackout,” David Bowie uncorks “The Jean Genie” amid a setlist devoted largely to the icy reserve of his “Low” and “Heroes” albums. Though his vocals sound slightly frayed, the looseness and exuberance of the 1978 performance is astonishing.

Needless to say, the audience at London’s Earls Court responds in kind. This was, after all, a song that represented the Bowie they used to know — the glam rocker that ruled hearts and charts five years earlier. But in Bowie years, that was another lifetime.

This two record manifesto from Bowie’s “Isolar II Tour” represents an artist traveling faster than the speed of his own sound. At the time, he was well entrenched in the famed “Berlin” period of “Heroes” and the denser, darker vibe that came with it. Issued initially as a limited vinyl release last spring but available this summer in CD and digital editions, “Blackout” is a chronicle of Bowie at perhaps the most artistically enriched part of his career. While he tosses in several nuggets from the “Ziggy Stardust”/“Aladdin Sane” era, this is a moodier, more dimly lit Bowie at work with a band of then-present and soon-to-be prog ambassadors that included Todd Rundgren and Utopia keyboardist Roger Powell and Northern Kentucky native Adrian Belew, fresh off of a tenure with Frank Zappa.

The big query facing Bowie fans, though, is that “Blackout” largely recreates the same repertoire that appeared on “Stage,” a cherished 1978 live album pulled from three North American shows given in late April and May of that year. “Blackout” comes from a two- night London stand performed two months after the “Stage” shows. So what we get is the same song selection with a few extras — specifically, seven tunes that were excluded from the original “Stage” record and four from various CD reissues.

So is “Blackout” recommended over “Stage” for novice Bowie fans? Yes.

It’s more complete, for one thing. Aside from the aforementioned “The Jean Genie,” the “Blackout” track list boasts a big Euro beat version of “Sound and Vision” that even Bowie confesses in the intro is new to his stage repertoire, a wall-of-guitar-sound fortified “Suffragette City” and a surprisingly folkish finale reading of “Rebel, Rebel.”

Is the new album worth a purchase for die-hards that already know “Stage” by heart? Absolutely.

The performances on both albums are splendid, but bonus “Blackout” points go to violinist Simon House for adding joyous agitation to “What in the World,” to Belew’s diesel-sounding guitar whine (the “Adrian Train” as fans have long called it) that kicks “Station to Station” into motion and to Bowie’s glorious Weill-ian vigor that fuels a suitably show hall-worthy cover of “Alabama Song.” All give “Blackout” a lustrous and essential glow all its own.