Glastonbury 2000 mostly falls short of the show’s legend.
David Bowie’s first time playing the Glastonbury Festival was in June 1971 – only the second year of what was then a free festival held at Worthy Farm near Pilton in Somerset, England, and its first year christened “Glastonbury.” At the time, Bowie had only one hit under his belt: the 1969 moon landing nightmare-cum-novelty single “Space Oddity,” which had launched him to Number 5 on the U.K. charts and earned him an Ivor Novello songwriting award but failed to pave the way for a successful followup. His next charting single, 1972’s “Starman,” was still almost a year away. Performing solo (and no doubt cross-legged) on guitar and keyboard, Bowie ran through a handful of songs from his then-forthcoming album Hunky Dory – including the live debut of what would become his trademark song “Changes” – along with “The Supermen,” the ponderous closing track of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World; a histrionic cover of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam”; and of course, “Memory of a Free Festival,” written after an even more inauspicious 1969 performance at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham.
By the time Bowie returned to Glastonbury almost three decades later, both festival and performer could scarcely have been more changed. Glastonbury was now an annual – and decidedly not free – pop music event; and Bowie was now a headliner with a career’s worth of hits – and some uncomfortably recent misses – behind him. Rather than a short solo set, he played a decades-spanning selection of 22 songs, with accompaniment by a crack band including guitarists Earl Slick and Mark Plati, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Sterling Campbell and keyboardist Mike Garson. About the only thing that hadn’t changed, in fact, was the artist’s hairstyle: give or take some crow’s feet and a middle-aged fullness of the face, he could practically have passed for the same androgynous figure he’d cut in the Hunky Dory era.
The 2000 Glastonbury performance quickly earned a reputation as a triumph for Bowie, which has persisted – particularly among British fans – ever since. Now that it’s been made widely available, however, one gets the sense that you kind of had to be there: not at Glastonbury per se (though that obviously wouldn’t hurt), but in England circa 2000. The past decade and a half had earned Bowie frequent drubbings at the hands of the U.K. press, from the widely-mocked Glass Spider tour to his stint with leaden alt-rockers Tin Machine, to his red-goateed phase in the late ‘90s when he appeared to be trying to keep pace with the Prodigy. There’s a sense of palpable relief to be found in contemporary reactions to the Glastonbury gig: that Bowie had finally stopped chasing trends and frustrating expectations and settled at last into respectable elder statesmanhood.
Divorced from this context, Glastonbury 2000 is merely pleasant. Certainly it’s hard to find fault with the setlist, which pulls together staples from Bowie’s ‘70s canon (“Heroes,” “Ziggy Stardust” and of course the evergreen “Changes”) alongside cherry-picked highlights from the ‘80s (“Absolute Beginners,” “Under Pressure”) and ‘90s (“Hallo Spaceboy,” “I’m Afraid of Americans”). There are even a few curveballs, most notably the set-opening “Wild Is the Wind” from Station to Station, which takes flight after a solo piano rendition by Garson of the English folk song “Greensleeves.” Bowie, despite recovering from a recent case of laryngitis, is in fine voice throughout, even making it through the vocally demanding “Life on Mars?” after imploring the audience to help him out on the chorus.
But the show isn’t without a few (figurative) bum notes. For reasons unknown, the singer still lapses into an offensive “Oriental” accent for the “Oh baby, just you shut your mouth” line in “China Girl”: an ill-advised holdover from 1983’s Serious Moonlight tour and a less politically-correct era. A few of the more recent songs also feel incongruous amidst the parade of evergreen hits – particularly “Little Wonder” from 1997’s drum-and-bass-flavored Earthling – though it’s a testament to the elasticity of the backing band that they can do justice to such a genre-bending wealth of material, from the art-damaged funk-rock of 1976’s “Stay” to the proto-grunge of 1970’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
Mostly, Glastonbury 2000 falls short of the show’s legend simply – and through no fault of its own – because it set the template for so many other latter-day Bowie “greatest hits” sets to come. The concert recording isn’t a far cry from later performances on Bowie’s Reality Tour, which featured similar arrangements and most of the same band members. The novelty of a career-encompassing set from David Bowie, so potent to the Glastonbury crowd after his time in the wilderness, simply doesn’t feel as precious from today’s perspective.
But there is, of course, one way in which Bowie’s Glastonbury performance now feels more precious than ever: simply put, it’s a live performance by David Bowie, the likes of which we’ll sadly never see again. In this respect, Glastonbury 2000 can be a surprisingly poignant listen: simply hearing him, in obviously good spirits, share warm and occasionally self-deprecating stories with the audience is a salve as we approach our fourth year on a now bleakly Bowie-less planet. As the cliché goes, we didn’t know how good we had it; but the crowd at Glastonbury on that night in 2000 at least had an inkling.