Local Current Blog

Remembering David Bowie’s Minnesota shows — all six of them

The St. Paul Civic Center in 1975 (Minnesota Historical Society)

When you go to look back on David Bowie’s performances in Minnesota, perhaps the most surprising thing is that there weren’t more of them. In a 50+ year career, Bowie played just five public and ticketed shows in in Minnesota, on four concert tours.

(Bowie’s band Tin Machine also played a short set at Minneapolis’s Marriott Hotel in 1991 as part of a Musicland convention. At a promotional stop in L.A. a few days later, Rolling Stone wrote that “tonight’s gig in fact represents something of a step up from a similar show done for the Musicland chain a few days earlier in Minneapolis that actually saw the group opening up for the Kentucky HeadHunters.”)

Of course, we weren’t alone in wanting more Bowie: so did every other city in the world. The Star Tribune’s Jon Bream, recalling his interviews with Bowie, remembers asking Bowie why he hadn’t visited our state more often. “Oh, hell, I don’t know,” Bream remembers Bowie responding. “Get the chip off. I’m coming.”

Bream has been the Bowie coverage VIP in Minnesota, reviewing all four of Bowie’s tour stops. Revisiting the show reviews by Bream and other writers offers a fascinating look back on the career of one of rock’s most changeable icons — and on local history as well.

Oct. 5, 1974: Diamond Dogs Tour, St. Paul Civic Center

Paging through issues of the Minneapolis Tribune from the time of Bowie’s first local show provides a reminder of just how empowering Bowie’s daring stage shows were. The weekend Bowie appeared, an advertisement in the newspaper asked, “Do you want a law permitting HOMOSEXUALS AND LESBIANS to teach school, be youth activity directors, or serve in any position where they can influence children to become homosexuals and lesbians?”

That didn’t specifically refer to Bowie: he was still just a comparatively minor star stateside. Ads in the paper touted upcoming local appearances for a pre-Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac, and an O’Shaughnessy appearance by comedian Bill Cosby. The Civic Center, where Bowie played (and played again the next time he was in town), was located on what is now the site of the Xcel Energy Center, which replaced it in 2000.

On Oct. 7, the Monday after Bowie’s Saturday night show, Tribune reviewer Michael Anthony reported that the show was “less theatrical, I’m sure, than the 6,700 fans expected.” Still, it was “a powerful, high-energy evening: positive proof of Bowie’s far-reaching, innovative talents.”

Anthony called the Diamond Dogs tour “a much more straightforward musical presentation than that of the elaborately staged and choreographed tour he made last summer.” Bowie’s bandleader Mike Garson and his musicians (including, Chris Riemenschneider notes, a still-unknown Luther Vandross) played for a “vigorous half-hour,” and then after an intermission, Bowie came out in “modified Gatsby and a 1950s coif.”

Bowie’s look — the beginning of the Young Americans era, despite the fact that it was still technically a tour to support Diamond Dogs — was much more conservative, Anthony noted, than “some fans in the audience, who, in homage to the King of Glitter Rock, made do with feathers, sequins, capes and all manner of facial makeup.”

Anthony saw the show as a testament to Bowie’s skill as a musician, not merely as a showman. “Bowie, 27, is not yet the Superstar in the U.S. that he is in his native England,” however. “Proclamations from publicity types and a number of rock critics that he will be the major figure in ’70s rock have yet to be borne out.”

Neglecting to mention any specific songs Bowie actually sang, Anthony carried on to opine that “Bowie is the only pop-culture artist of this decade who has really taken the medium in a new direction. His themes of science-fantasy (and his persona of extraterrestrial rock singer, Ziggy Stardust) serve as metaphors for the drug experience, for teen-age alienation and for the pan-sexuality of some members of his audience.”

And that was just about that. Turning the page, readers were informed that “more than half of the Minnesotans interviewed in the Minneapolis Tribune‘s Minnesota Poll continue to show approval of the job Wendell Anderson is doing as governor.”

Meanwhile, in the Minneapolis Star, Bream wrote that “Bowie has been hailed as the next Elvis, next Dylan and the next Beatles, even though the singer-songwriter has become better known for his flamboyant, style-setting, bisexual image than for his wholly original science-fiction rock and roll.”

Bream, too, seemed disappointed that the performer whose show “has been reputed to be the ultimate in stage histrionics” had opted for a relatively conventional approach, “a show that is as slick as Elvis Presley’s.” (The King himself had played the same venue just three days earlier.) Calling the Garson Orchestra’s opening set “a bland set of faceless pop soul,” Bream decided that Bowie’s new songs, “like Bowie’s new stage show, lacked the distinctiveness and creativity of Bowie’s early work.”

One interesting detail from Bream’s review: the show wasn’t sold out. “The sparse crowd of 7,000 (Bowie usually plays to sold out houses) responded faithfully, though not as frenetically as expected.” Anthony must have been looking at a different section of the crowd than Bream was, too: “Their dress,” wrote Bream about the crowd, “like Bowie’s, was surprisingly short on glitter.”

Oct. 1 and 2, 1987: Glass Spider Tour, St. Paul Civic Center

In October 1987, Minnesota was gripped with World Series fever. As Bowie came to town, an article reported that the seemingly insecure slogan “Minneapolis Metrodome, we like it here,” having been “the target of a week’s worth of razzing on radio station KQRS,” would henceforth be covered by a Twins banner. On Oct. 3, the front-page story reported that the Twins had been scandalously spotted — wait for it — drinking at an airport bar. “Pro athletes,” asked the headline, “Role models off field?”

Still, there on the cover of the Variety section was a Bowie review by Bream, headlined, “Bowie show challenges audience.” It begins, “David Bowie’s ‘Glass Spider’ concert tour is a major challenge to both the performer and his audience.” (Bowie himself, Riemenschneider points out, had originally been scheduled to play the Metrodome; low ticket sales caused the tour stop to be moved across the river for a two-night stand at the Civic Center.)

Bream said the “experience,” a 135-minute show for an audience of 10,000, mixed “avant-garde performance art, modern dance, European theater and rock music.” Noting that the show was a departure from the 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour, Bream wrote that the show was “a dizzying, sometimes dazzling and often distracting display of video-age images ranging from Bowie flying through the air a la Peter Pan to five singer-dancers carrying on like a dada theater troupe.”

In a review that was much more substantive than Anthony’s 1974 blurb — reflecting the vast jump in Bowie’s stardom over the intervening 13 years — Bream called the show “triumphant both musically and artistically,” with Bowie commanding the stage “with a magnetism and dynamism that puts him in the same league as the more athletic Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Mick Jagger.”

While Bowie’s renditions of hits like “Young Americans” and “Rebel, Rebel” were relatively straightforward, wrote Bream, the songs from his current album Never Let Me Down featured heavy dramatics that were at best “innovative psycho-dramas” and at worst “senseless productions with hip group-gymnastics like the Oscars have tried to stage for years.”

In the end, concluded Bream, the show — which took place under “a giant spider with 50-feet legs” — “was rivaled for rock ‘n’ roll spectacle only by Madonna’s recent show.”

In the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Rick Mason agreed that Bowie’s musical performance was “absolutely riveting when his vocal convictions merged with his charismatic delivery and the purposeful rocking of the band, especially guitarist Peter Frampton.” Mason also found the “assorted shenanigans that went on onstage seemed not to have much to do with the music Bowie was singing.”

Saying the show lacked the “the unifying vision” of the Ziggy Stardust era, Mason still applauded the show’s music — particularly Frampton’s guitar work. “Heroes” was “nearly show-stopping,” Bowie was “vocally sharp,” and Frampton’s solos were “near-brilliant.”

Still, those dancers. “The odd characters cavorting about the stage seemed out of Bowie’s apocalyptic visions or a Fellini movie.”

Setlist.fm has sets from both night one and night two of this local stop.

Oct. 18, 1997: Earthling tour, Roy Wilkins Auditorium

Although he’d played a 16-song encore just ten days earlier in Fort Lauderdale, in St. Paul Bowie skipped the encore after playing what Bream called an “often terrific” 95-minute set. It was a set full of deep cuts, starting with “Quicksand” and including “I Can’t Read,” a Tin Machine song Bowie had recently reworked for the movie The Ice Storm. Though he ultimately treated the crowd to hits like “The Jean Genie” and “Fashion,” the concert was heavy with new material from Earthling.

“Beats of the electronic variety are clearly Bowie’s preoccupation,” wrote Bream. “He has updated older numbers, such as ‘Scary Monsters’ as a space-age throb, to fit in with newer pieces, including the melodic techno ‘Little Wonder’ and ‘Hello Spaceboy,’ a megawatt industrial workout that was the night’s high point.”

Jan. 11, 2004: Reality Tour, Target Center

Playing for 5,500 fans, Bowie was “very comfortable in his own skin,” reported Bream. He encouraged the crowd to sing along on “All the Young Dudes” and took a mulligan on the opening of “China Girl.” He was still in great voice — in fact, wrote Bream, “in concert, he is a better singer than on CD/record — more intense, more dynamic, with more range and power. He sang as if the songs mattered to him as much as they obviously did to his fans.”

Bowie played for about 135 minutes, with a set about evenly divided among hits, deep tracks, and new material. Among the numbers he pulled out were the then-new “Reality,” “Life On Mars,” “Suffragette City,” “Fashion,” and “I’m Afraid of Americans,” which had been his calling card at Roy Wilkins seven years prior. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had enough arena-anthem choruses to keep the crowd rocking,” wrote Bream, “and enough genre-expanding experimentation to please the aging hipsters.”

On HowWasTheShow.com, David de Young wrote that it was “unquestionably a great rock show, but not for the reasons commonly cited. Neither the music nor the production were over the top. No new musical ground was broken. Instead, this show stands out because it was such pure David Bowie.”

At Target Center, Bowie also met his entire local audience — at least, in a manner of speaking.

“Saying he didn’t know our names,” wrote de Young, “he asked us to each introduce ourselves starting with the guy in the first seat, first row stage right. As this would have taken a while in a venue that seats up to 15,000, Bowie decided to have us all scream our names at once. Even those of us who might not normally do such things gladly participated, and I must say it was a cathartic as well as proud experience for me to scream, ‘DAVID!!!!!’ at the top of my lungs.”

Read more of our coverage of David Bowie’s life and work.