VH1 Storytellers

David Bowie

EMI, 2009


REVIEW BY: Mark Millan


I’m still not sure what to make of David Bowie’s VH1 Storytellers set. I know I watched it on cable during its original run, but I remember almost nothing about it. So now ten years after it aired, EMI has released this CD/DVD set of the original program, as well as some bonus tracks (on the DVD only) that were cut from the broadcast.  Bowie’s new album at the time, Hours…, was one of those records that attracted the dreaded “return to form” and “his best since” taglines, which would also attach themselves to his next two releases.  I have always quite liked Hours…, and Bowie debuted a few tracks here that were well-received at the time.

The album is virtually irrelevant, since these shows are obviously filmed for TV so it’s best experienced on screen. Just listening to it really offers nothing more than a few tracks peppered with some charming banter that isn’t always easy to follow.

After the show opens with a very short run-through of “Life On Mars,” Bowie tells the story of how he and Marc Bolan got their start with their manager. He then jumps into a 25-second acoustic blitz of “Rebel Rebel,” which precedes a beautiful rendition of “Thursday’s Child” from Hours… The song is one the album’s best tracks, and it sounds just as ethereal live as it does on the original record. 

Coming up next is a song that Bowie recorded and released in 1965, his first as a solo artist.  “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is a jumpy rocker that fits in well enough, but ends up being pretty forgettable, especially because Bowie continues with some stories about Steve Marriott that have nothing to do with the songs he’s performing. Funny anecdotes aside, the ever-elusive Bowie either can’t recall much about what inspired him to write these songs or he just can’t be bothered telling us. One way or another, it’s fairly annoying, but with a couple of exceptions, the songs he chose to do could hardly be called essential,  so maybe there’s just not much to tell.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Bowie does, however, recall going to Berlin with Iggy Pop and writing plenty of songs together, one of which is presented here in two different styles that really don’t blend at all. “China Girl” is a personal favorite of mine, but after a piano-backed Vegas lounge style intro that is barely recognizable, the band jump in out of nowhere to offer a frenetic blast through the rest of it that fails miserably in doing it any justice whatsoever. 

“Seven” is given a note perfect rendition and joins its fellow newbie as the only real standouts in the whole set – which is odd considering the gems the grand old dame could have dusted off for this special. I believe he was still in his phase of not performing his classics during gigs, and so the bits of the only two he chose for this show (“Life On Mars” and “Rebel Rebel”) were probably obligatory anyway. 

“Drive-In Saturday,” as Bowie explains, was written to be the follow-up single for Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes.” The band, however, gave it back to Bowie and he cut it for his Aladdin Sane album. The version here is faithful to the doo-wop inspired original, and although Bowie is in fine voice here, he just can’t reach for the stars the way he did back then, which is not normally a problem for me, but the song really demands it. 

The closing song, “Word On A Wing,” is taken from Bowie’s iconic ’76 LP, Station To Station.  It’s easily the best of his old songs presented here, and fortunately, it’s the low notes he needs on this one and he hits them with ease.

Of the bonus songs, it’s again a mixed bag.  “Survive” from Hours… is a cool song, but was wisely left off the original broadcast because it’s no match for the other two tracks from the record. “I Can’t Read” originally appeared on Bowie’s much-maligned Tin Machine release; it’s by no means a bad song but has never been a favorite of mine, and after watching this, it still isn’t.

Low gets a look-in with the brilliant “Always Crashing In The Same Car,” which should have been included in the original broadcast, although it probably was cut to make way for the new stuff.  The last of the bonus tracks is also a new song from Hours…, called “If I’m Dreaming My Life,” one of that album’s highlights.  The slow-burning rocker sounds great here, and I gotta say, based on the strength of the new songs, I would have been happy with the whole album played live for the show. It would have made for a great promo if nothing else.

So, I’m still in two minds about this, but one thing is for sure, it translates much better on DVD than on CD, and the bonus songs are worth seeing (save for one). David Bowie, despite being 52 here, was still in fine shape and voice – and dare I say it, sexy enough for rock & roll (in that sly devilish kind of way).  However, if you want a proper live account of Bowie’s awesome talent, then the A Reality Tour DVD is for you, because although in parts this set is pretty good, I’d hardly call it essential due to the criminally chopped up classics and the at times inane banter scattered throughout the set.

Rating: B-

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© 2009 Mark Millan and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of EMI, and is used for informational purposes only.