By Mark Guarino
David Bowie made his entrance in the dark Tuesday at the Rosemont Theatre. With only his silhouette illuminated, the 57-year-old sang the opening lines of “Rebel Rebel” before the lights came up, exposing his surfer hair, Converse sneakers, tattered tuxedo tails and porcelain white smile.
For an innovator whose shifting personas in his early career earned him a reputation as the original rock chameleon, Bowie is at a stage where his most effective mask is eternal youth. Even more than his physical vibrancy, Bowie sounded mightier than his frail, lower-keyed presence on recent albums. His 24-song, two-hour and ten-minute show was not the jukebox of hits it could have been, either. Instead, it was a regeneration of what makes Bowie’s multi-faceted career still palatable. Free of the unwieldy theatrical concepts of old, the first Chicago date of his current theatre tour (he plays its third night Friday) cleanly juxtaposed older songs with new, making distinct links to demonstrate that the obsessions that fueled his early songs remain current.
He also slyly tweaked arrangements of familiar hits (“Fame” adopted a casual bounce) to give a sense he wasn’t simply going through the paces. Poking fun at himself, Bowie re-arranged the flash of his 1972 song “Changes” to feature a clunky barroom piano. “Time may change me/but I can’t trace time,” he sang wearily. When he realized he forgot a verse of “All the Young Dudes,” he instructed the band to re-play a snippet to make sure he got it right.
Bowie’s six-member band included guitarist Earl Slick and keyboardist Mike Garson who have played with him on and off since the ‘70s. Along with guitarist Gerry Leonard, they spiked the songs with fresh potency. The standout was bassist-singer Gail Ann Dorsey. In the role of Freddie Mercury, she scatted and sang her way through the Bowie-Mercury duet “Under Pressure” in a way that made it her own.
Bowie drew heavily from his ‘90s albums, including “Heathen” and “Reality” (ISO/Columbia), and set them against the gloom, paranoia and grandeur of his earlier work. The ambitious mixing and matching made clear his older catalog still had a purpose and his newer songs shared a rich pedigree. “The Man Who Sold the World” from 1970 preceded a stroll atop high platforms during “Hallo Spaceboy” from 1995, both songs dealing with space age chaos. 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.