As many of you know, I’m a big fan of David Bowie but, unusually, I generally like his studio work as well or better than the live recordings. I usually think that a good live performance has an immediacy that’s hard to replicate in the studio, but the same traits that make David Bowie exceptional also make his live records less revealing. I’m apparently not the only one who thinks this. By my count he’s released 25 studio albums and 4 live recordings, despite touring regularly.
He’s very actorly as a singer, and has a generally analytical approach; he isn’t spontaneous. The pleasure of an album like Ziggy Stardust is the close attention to detail and the sheer density of creative ideas. He’s adjusting his phrasing and emotional pitch on every line, and sometimes on individual words. It’s wonderfully crafted but in it’s very attention to craft it doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, so the live versions tend to be very close to the originals.
With that background I was impressed by this duet between David Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey on “Under Pressure”.
I hadn’t heard of Gail Ann Dorsey before but, according to wikipedia she’s been the base player for Bowie’s touring band since 1995. That would mean that they’d been working together for about a year at the point of that performance, which makes their evident comfort with each other even more impressive.
That comfort was the first thing that I noticed. They both seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves and appreciating the moment of singing the song together. The second thing that interested me was the way in which Gail Ann Dorsey, broadly speaking, is the yang to David Bowie’s yin. She is careful, and respectful of being a guest on the song, but also emotional, in-the-moment, and willing to push the song for the live performance. While David Bowie is controlled and disciplined. Considering Bowie’s greater stature, it’s impressive that the performance ends up feeling like a collaboration of equals.
It’s really a good performance.
I also think there’s an interesting contrast with several of the other videos of them performing the same song together which are just not quite as good.
Consider this from a year later — note that the sound quality is better, but much quieter, so you’ll have to turn up the volume quite a bit from the previous video to have a fair comparison.
That performance feels like much less of a collaboration, and I suspect that the fact that it’s in a much larger venue (Madison Square Garden) plays a role. Gail Ann Dorsey is more restrained, but I also think it’s interesting to watch the difference in Bowie’s performance. In the MSG video, Bowie looks much more conscious of continuing to be aware of and play to the crowd the entire time. In the moments on the two videos when you can watch Bowie while’s he’s off the mic, in the first one he appears to be listening to Gail Ann Dorsey, while in the second one he looks more like he’s still orchestrating the performance and the center of attention even while he isn’t singing, and it’s harder for Gail Ann Dorsey to create a space for herself in that circumstance. I think that’s a good example of what I was describing in the beginning of David Bowie’s sense of precision getting in the way of spontaneity. It isn’t a bad performance, but it’s not as good.
That said, if you want another example of them looking comfortable performing together I thought this video was very sweet.