On stage in summer 2000, Bowie broke his Sound + Vision tour pact and flung open the catalog. His first gig at the Roseland in New York, a near three-hour set on 16 June 2000, began with “Wild Is the Wind” and went on through “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. In Britain he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup by this point). Two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.
He’d last played it in 1971, when it was Glastonbury Fayre, one of the free festivals then cropping up around Britain (its pyramid-shaped stage was built on a ley line). In 2000, Glastonbury was now £87 tickets and 100,000-strong crowds. Wearing a glam bishop’s vestments, his hair at Hunky Dory length, Bowie made the rest of the bill look second-rate. For an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The UK press genuflected: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star” (the Times), “a level beyond and above anyone else at this festival” (NME). All was forgiven. In the prophecy year 2000, he rode in on the past.
After a decade of (relative) experimentation, Bowie at last gave his audiences what they wanted, or at least what his critics had said they wanted: the hits, performed with vigor, command, and humor. For much of the Nineties, roughly post-Tin Machine, he’d been an object of mockery and pity, even a source of irritation, for some in the UK press. “For God’s sake, man…play the old stuff and stop trying so hard,” as per an Observer review of a 1997 Bowie “drum ‘n’ bass” set.
“As of 1990, I got through the rest of the 20th century without having to do a big hits show. Yes, yes, I know I did four or five hits on the later shows but I held out pretty well I thought…[but] big, well known songs will litter the field at Glastonbury this year,” as Bowie told Time Out.
The band was developing into what would be his last touring group, with the rhythm section of Gail Ann Dorsey and Sterling Campbell, Earl Slick on guitar, and Mike Garson. Eventually departing were Mark Plati (guitar, bass, keyboards) and a vocal section—Emm Gryner and Holly Palmer. This was the band that, a few weeks afterward in New York, cut much of Bowie’s as-yet-released Toy.
He’d gotten laryngitis during his Roseland shows, having had to cancel one performance, and he was still hoarse at Glastonbury. And he was worried about how he’d be received. “I remember how nervous he was at Glastonbury,” Hanif Kureishi told Dylan Jones. “His voice was failing, he had to do a gig the next day at the BBC, and he was really worried…As soon as it was finished, he rushed offstage, grabbed Duncan, and then got in the car and went straight to bed. He hated it….I’d never seen so many people in my life as I did that night in Glastonbury. It was incredible to me that someone could be so nervous and yet still have the balls to go out there and make it all work.”
It was one of the crowning moments of his performing life. He’d been adamant that the BBC could only show the first songs of the set and an encore song or two, which seemed perverse to the viewers at home—why cut away from the great comeback? But as BBC producer Mark Cooper wrote recently, “I think Bowie knew exactly what he was doing on the night of 25 June 2000. He wasn’t about to give away his peak performance or his catalogue for nothing. He hoarded that night so that one day it could be shown in all its glory as his legacy, the culmination of his golden years and surely his greatest concert since he buried Ziggy Stardust at Hammersmith in July 1973. It’s a time capsule of his life.”
If you’ve never heard the concert before, I’m curious as to what you think of it.
(Over 700 pages more of stuff like this in Ashes to Ashes, coming soon to your favorite bookstore.)
Setlist above from “Georgi,” a Bowie fan on the now-shuttered (?) Teenage Wildlife website, who paid a hard price for it. “Had great time at Glasto but I’m afraid my fandom had a bad consequence. My two front teeth were knocked almost completely out by being pushed against the bar at the front line. I was at the very front!!! Woohoo! Anyway, ended up getting dragged to the med. centre behind stage and pleaded with the security guards to put me back at the centre front where I’d been since 9am. They eventually agreed and after a fantastic show one gave me the set list.”