The Times - November 18th 2003

All the old dude had, he's still got

MEN, Manchester

By David Sinclair

"C'MON kids, wake up! Your grandad's here," yelled David Bowie soon after taking the stage in Manchester last night as he opened the British leg of his European tour. The singer, who was clearly in a bullish mood, did not look remotely like anyone's grandad that I know of, despite the 56 years he currently has logged on the clock. In his jeans, sneakers and sleeveless shirt, he actually looked like the perennial older brother who is always just that little bit more worldly and cool and mysterious than the other kids.

More to the point, he and his six-piece band sounded just great.

After a dodgy patch in the 1990s, the rehabilitation of Bowie is almost complete. It has taken a couple of decent albums, a landmark performance at Glastonbury and the tireless cheerleading of Jonathan Ross to do it, but you could almost say that Bowie is back to the Zeitgeist-surfing glory of his prime.

Now with his first world tour for a decade under way, the final piece of the picture has fallen into place.

His last such outing, the Glass Spider tour, was an over-ambitious theatrical extravaganza which found Bowie in danger of becoming more of a circus performer than a musician. A Reality Tour, as the current outing is called, takes him back to the performing basics.

The stage was skilfully dressed with a few silver tree branches hanging upside down at either side, lending a ghostly, Blair Witch-type ambience. And every so often a video screen stretching the entire width of the stage flashed into life with virulent bursts of abstract imagery.

But the focus was entirely on Bowie who, together with the band who have played on his last two albums, performed a breathtaking selection of songs from every stage of his career.

From a sublime version of The Man Who Sold The World to the chunky, garage rock of the Pixies song Cactus, from his last but one album, Heathen, Bowie performed with complete authority but also a strange kind of charm - as if the battles with his myth and the baggage of his past were now resolved. It wasn't just the self-deprecating grandad remark; his whole attitude seemed to be more relaxed and purposeful than before. In a splendidly paced set that included Under Pressure, Ashes To Ashes, China Girl and a final string of songs from Ziggy Stardust, it was difficult to pick out the high points.

But there was certainly a moment of rare drama when he belted out Hallo Spaceboy perched on top of a walkway running along the side of the stage. Returning to ground level, he sang an epic Life On Mars that all but raised the roof.

"Well, there's life in Manchester, then," he said, with a smile.