Area2 is no haven for Bowie or Moby

August 10, 2002


Launched last year, Moby’s Area: One was not only the highlight of the summer concert season. It was the most inspired, ambitious, and diverse day-long music festival since the early years of Lollapalooza.

Unfortunately, Area2, which pulled into the Tweeter Center on Thursday, was a different story.

Part of the problem with the festival’s encore was the booking. The first tour gave us a procession of first-rate draws on the main stage (including the Roots, Outkast, Incubus, and Nelly Furtado, in addition to Moby), and critical and commercial giants in the corporate-sponsored “rave” tent (among them Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold, and the Orb).

The main-stage openers this year were decidedly lackluster (Ash, Blue Man Group, and Busta Rhymes), and the only “name” DJ was the unremarkable John Digweed. What was left was a conventional summer shed bill--Moby and David Bowie flipped a coin each night to determine who headlined--and while the two sets had moments of excitement, neither artist was at his peak.

Bowie lost the toss on Thursday and wound up taking the stage before a half-filled arena while the sun was still shining and countless fans were mired in traffic on Route 57. Talking about the tour in the late spring, Moby had promised that his idol would deliver a greatest hits set--though Bowie, who has retired, returned, and retooled more times than the Who, vowed several years ago that he would never do that again.

In fact, rock’s most celebrated chameleon interspersed his classics with a hefty sampling of tunes from his new album, “Heathen.” Oozing a sort of Las Vegas smarm throughout the set, he bragged at one point of “slipping in” five new songs that he boasted were as good as his signature anthems.

Sorry, David, but not quite.

In the hands of an eight-piece band led by his frequent six-string sidekick Earl Slick, some of the new tunes improved in concert over the recorded versions--notably “Slow Burn,” his surreal tribute to the New Jersey children’s television legend, Uncle Floyd. But other numbers were flat, static, and lacking in hooks or drama. These included the song Bowie described as the band’s favorite, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone,” and the title track, “Heathen (The Rays).”

While some of Bowie’s signature tunes were inspired choices (among them three cuts from “Low,” part of the groundbreaking electronic “Berlin trio” that was a huge influence on Moby), others got a perfunctory reading worthy of a Bowie cover band, including the usually brilliant “Heroes,” the set-closing “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Let’s Dance,” which was rebuilt as an odd mix of electronica and flamenco.

I’ll give this to Bowie, however: He took more chances than Moby.

Supporting the slow-building triumph of his breakthrough album “Play,” Moby must have performed the same or a very similar set in Chicago four or five times. By the time he got to the Tweeter Center last year, the familiar show was the celebratory capping off of his rise from a cult hero to an arena act, so fans were willing to forgive the fact that they’d already seen the act.

But after a year off--and given that he’s returning to support a strong new album, “18,” that skeptics are calling “Re-Play”--it would have been nice to see Moby do something different this time through. Alas, it was de ja vu all over again.

Though the artist ran around the stage with his usual tireless enthusiasm, Moby and his eight-piece band offered few twists and turns on familiar hits such as “Go,” “Honey,” and “Porcelain.” And with the exception of the beautiful single “We Are All Made of Stars,” the new songs sounded more than ever like leftovers from “Play.”

Even the jokes were old. We’ve all seen Moby stand onstage with his guitar, goofing on classic-rock riffs. In the past, done once or twice over the course of an 80-minute set, the gag underscored what an unlikely superstar Richard Melville Hall really is, and it endeared him to us all the more.

But on Thursday, done continuously over the course of a performance that felt like we’d seen it many times before, the “New Jersey cover band” routine simply proved that Moby had nothing new to say. Area2 would have been much stronger if he’d waited to return to the road after he’d been graced with fresh inspiration. Hopefully there will be an Area3 for him to redeem himself, but the attendance seemed to say otherwise.