So much to answer for... the Bard Of Bromley's back in fine forward-looking fettle with a scintillating combination of the old and the new
MEN ARENA, MANCHESTER
Monday November 17, 2003
it’s been a while. Twenty years, to be exact. The last time I saw Bowie?canary zoot-suited, tanned, tousled, booting a Zeppelin-sized inflata-globe from the stage of Milton Keynes Bowl?he was deep into the R&B jump-funk of the Serious Moonlight tour. Looking at him tonight, a foppishly boysome 56-year-old in muscle top, jeans and baseball boots, he hardly looks older. Trim and lean, bouncing and strutting, exuding cool like a casual sweat. Back in ’83, I was infatuated. Bowie?to filch a John Peel idiom?was the reason I listened to music at all. Then it sort of got messy.
Weird how time shifts perspective, though. In the light of recent, invariably brilliant albums Heathen and Reality, the intervening years?often dismissed as creative trough and self-indulgent tosh?now seem to make perfect sense. Tin Machine’s white-noise nihilism was Bowie’s way of razing everything to dust (Glass Bloody Spider to boot), a necessary levelling of ground to begin afresh. And while 2000’s ‘hours…’ was generally lauded as The Great Bounce Back, the truth was the ’90s had already seen Bowie’s most challenging, edgy work since his heyday, beginning with The Buddha Of Suburbia, 1. Outside and Earthling. Like all things Bowie, people need time to catch up. Me included.
Which brings us here: the opening date of the UK tour, during his first world trek in nearly 10 years. As confidence barometer, the simplicity of the set is a giveaway. Besides a couple of capsized silver twigs, like left-overs from a giant production of The Chronicles Of Narnia, it’s just Dave and the band. And what a fucking band. Demon riffster Earl Slick and pianist Mike Garson both go way back to the early ’70s, while drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarist Gerry Leonard (often out-licking Slick), keyboardist Cat Russell and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey are masterful moderns wedding Spiders tautness to the Sales brothers’sonic gristle.
Bowie himself has admitted that the past has sometimes weighed heavy, but the inspired wonder of tonight’s show lies in the scale-levelling parity of the latterday stuff. “Hallo Spaceboy” and an incredible “I’m Afraid Of Americans”are highlights: a blistering ball of molten noise, Bowie charging at it like a rabid rhino. And anyone out there still doubting his standing as one of the great voices in rock history should hear him croon and swoon through the beautiful “Sunday”(Slick’s solo is startling) and goosefleshy “The Loneliest Guy”. Unleashed live, newies “Never Get Old” and “New Killer Star” spit and swagger like the petulant pups they were always meant to be. Only the minimalist throb of “The Motel” falls a little flat.
Elsewhere, the crowd go ape during the “Under Pressure”duet with a dulcet-tongued Dorsey, “The Man Who Sold The World”is prefaced with Bowie playfully baiting his past (“In 1846, England was at war when I put this song out”), “China Girl”proves itself the man’s most underrated vocal triumph, and “Heroes”is just, well, unstoppable. For me, a spotlit Bowie pealing away at “Life On Mars”is a pure slice of heaven tumbling to earth, while the encore?an acoustic “Five Years”, Molotov-cocktail-like “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust”?are enough to make me think I’ve been there. Among his peers, nobody else is out there on a limb like this, forever nuzzling at new frontiers, forever asking questions of himself, clearly revelling in a musical age others seem adrift in. Unlike the rest of his ilk, Bowie’s far too loose-footed, too restless, to vindicate his existence by grounding himself in a rose-tinted past. Still the greatest rock’n’roll star on the planet. Glad I came around again.