David Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden

Bowie is joined onstage by Frank Black, Billy Corgan, Dave Grohl, Lou Reed, Robert Smith and Sonic Youth

On 9 January 1997, David Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday with a special concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He was joined onstage by several special guests including Pixie’s Frank Black, Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, Lou Reed, Robert Smith of The Cure and Sonic Youth.

“I have no idea where I’m going from here, but I promise I won’t bore you,” said Bowie onstage. The sold-out show was also a benefit gig for Save The Children, and came just a few weeks before the February 11 1997 release of Bowie’s new Earthling album on Virgin.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Jim Farber said the show “kept one eye firmly on the future. Instead of serving up dewey-eyed rehashes of sounds from eras dead and gone, Bowie – aided by an ornery mix of musical friends – shook classic numbers to their core. He also devoted roughly one-third of the show to recent and brand new material.”

Also toasting Bowie at the show and a post-concert dinner hosted by his wife Iman at the downtown space of Julian Schnabel – who directed Bowie as Andy Warhol in the film Basquiat – were a wide variety of names including Beck, Moby, Courtney Love, Prince, Charlie Sexton, Fred Schneider; actors Matt Dillon, Matthew Modine, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Walken, and Michael Wincott; and fashion’s Donna Karan and Naomi Campbell.

At the show, Bowie opened up with Earthling’s forthcoming single ‘Little Wonder’, whose “arrangement had the feel and sound of many of his classics,” wrote the New York Post’s Dan Aquilante. From there, Bowie was joined by former Pixies frontman Frank Black for ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Fashion’. Foo Fighters came onstage for Outside’s ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (which featured three drummers including the Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl) and Earthling’s ‘Seven Years in Tibet’.

Next, Robert Smith joined for Earthling’s ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ and the Hunky Dory classic ‘Quicksand’, performed acoustically with both Bowie and Smith on vocals and guitars. Later, feedback heroes Sonic Youth charged into Earthling’s ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’.

Bowie was then joined onstage by Lou Reed, introducing him as “the King of New York”, launching into Hunky Dory’s ‘Queen Bitch’, the Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and ‘White Light / White Heat’ and Reed’s ‘Dirty Boulevard’.

Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins then came on for the Bowie classics ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘The Jean Genie’. Bowie closed the show intimately, singing ‘Space Oddity’ alone, as 14,500 fans cheered him on.

After the show, Billy Corgan told Lisa Robinson of the New York Post, “When I was 10 years old, growing up in the Midwest, I bought David’s Ziggy Stardust album. I really believed he was an alien. I always have been a fan, and still am a fan.”

Uninterested in resting on his previous achievements, David Bowie keeps moving forward. “More than most performers his age, Mr. Bowie has repeatedly staked his career on the new,” noted Jon Pareles in his New York Times review of the show. “In the new songs Mr. Bowie sang, he uses jungle as an overlay of double-time energy and implacable noise, revitalizing what might have been stately arena anthems. With Reeves Gabrels on guitars, who filled spaces with screeches and siren notes, and Mike Garson on keyboards, sprinkling shards of Romantic piano grandeur, the band revamped some old songs – notably “The Man Who Sold The World,” now a haggard dub-reggae confession – and subtly updated others.”

The Boston Globe’s Jim Sullivan observed: “The startling triumph of this set was that Bowie’s new material is his strongest in years. He’s got hyper-fast “Jungle” rhythms snaking in and out of these resplendant melodies, making the music both edgy and immediately accessible.”

Summing up the evening was Dave Ford of the San Francisco Chronicle, calling the show “a volatile musical cocktail: shrieking sonic maelstroms, poignant ancient ballads, deep Jungle grooves, startling duets.”

Set list

  1. Little Wonder
  2. The Heart’s Filthy Lesson
  3. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (With Frank Black)
  4. Fashion (With Frank Black)
  5. Telling Lies
  6. Hallo Spaceboy (With Foo Fighters)
  7. Seven Years In Tibet (With Dave Grohl)
  8. The Man Who Sold The World
  9. The Last Thing You Should Do (With Robert Smith)
  10. Quicksand (With Robert Smith)
  11. Battle For Britain
  12. Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)
  13. I’m Afraid Of Americans (With Sonic Youth)
  14. Looking For Satellites
  15. Under Pressure (With Gail Ann Dorsey)
  16. “Heroes”
  17. Queen Bitch (With Lou Reed)
  18. I’m Waiting For The Man (With Lou Reed)
  19. Dirty Blvd. (With Lou Reed)
  20. White Light / White Heat (With Lou Reed)
  21. Moonage Daydream
  22. Happy Birthday (The Crowd)
  23. All The Young Dudes (With Billy Corgan)
  24. The Jean Genie (With Billy Corgan)
  25. Space Oddity