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Week 57 | Stage (1978)

“Stage,” is Bowie’s second official live album, and it is a pretty good one.  Perhaps ironically, Bowie live albums have proliferated since his death, but for a while there was only “Stage” and the earlier, “David Live.”  No song appears on both, so taken together, there’s a lot of music.  “Stage” is generally regarded as better than “David Live.”  I don’t know.  I like them both, but neither is my favorite.

My version of “Stage” is a two-CD set released by Rykodisc in 1991.  It reflects the song order that appeared on the original vinyl version, and adds “Alabama Song” at the end.  A later re-release re-orders the songs to reflect the actual order they were played in the concert(s), and adds a few songs that I don’t have.  Although I have never actually heard that version, it strikes me as an improvement.

In my version, one album side (half a disc) is devoted entirely to songs from “Ziggy Stardust,” while another is devoted entirely to instrumentals.  As I have mentioned before, while I like the instrumentals, they are missing Bowie’s voice and lyrics, so I don’t like them nearly as much as the other songs.  Putting them all together is a mistake.  Though they are on the same CD as some vocalized songs, I have to imagine the vinyl album side has to be one of the least-played in Bowie’s catalogue.  

The instrumentals are pretty faithful to the studio versions of the same pieces.  This adds to the mystery of their contribution.  What’s really new about them?  Again, they aren’t bad, but for me the instrumentals are never the highlight of a Bowie album.

The live songs suffer from an almost opposite problem.  They are all different than the studio versions.  The Ziggy songs, for instance, are heavy with synthesizers that Bowie simply did not use when he recorded the original album.  Different, but not better.  Again, not bad, but they invite comparison to the studio versions, especially since they are all together on one album side (CD half).

One more weakness:  “Stage” includes no songs that aren’t available in some version somewhere else.  There are no new covers, and except for the bonus “Alabama Song,” nothing  that didn’t first appear on a Bowie studio album.  The criticism here is not about the songs, but just that there isn’t much new here.

Despite its flaws, “Stage” manages to be a pretty entertaining collection.  Though the live versions are not as good as the studio versions, they are not bad.  Though the instrumentals are not as good as the vocalized songs, they are not bad.  The album’s strength, however is with everything else.

“Stage” was recorded from concerts Bowie was performing while promoting “Heroes.”  Perhaps not surprisingly, he seems to put in his best effort while performing the then-newer songs, especially those reserved for side four (the last half of the second CD).  These include, “Heroes,” “What In the World,” “Blackout” and Beauty and the Beast.”  Side two (the second half of the first CD) includes slightly older songs, “Station to Station” (probably my favorite on the album), “Fame” and “TVC15.”

So the order matters,  It progresses chronologically from Bowie’s glam period this funky period between disco and New Wave, then the instrumentals from “Heroes” and “Low,” and then the payoff of strong performances of new songs. There’s a logic to that order, but I suspect it would have sounded even better mixed up, as originally performed in concert. 

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