The Telegraph - 19th November 2003

Bowie back in love with himself

David Cheal reviews David Bowie at the MEN Arena, Manchester

By David Cheal

What more could you want from a David Bowie concert? The man who for years has turned his back on one of the most illustrious back catalogues in popular music is learning to love his own songs again.

For nearly two hours on the opening night of the UK leg of his world tour, he and his six-piece band trawled the archives and came up with classic after classic - The Man Who Sold the World, Life on Mars, Rebel Rebel, Fame, Changes, Ashes to Ashes, "Heroes", Five Years, Under Pressure, China Girl. Even the new stuff was worth listening to, especially New Killer Star from the current Reality album, and Cactus from last year's Heathen collection.

The stage, featuring dangling white tree branches and a vast panoramic video screen showing mostly abstract animations, was striking. And, to keep things fresh, Bowie and his band are said to have rehearsed 50 songs for this tour, enabling him to re-write the set list every night.

And yet: the night never really caught fire until the very end, when Suffragette City and Ziggy Stardust were dusted down, shaken off and given a good airing and the crowd found their feet and their voices. For long periods, this was a strangely muted affair in which an unresponsive audience sat or stood and gawped while the songs came and went.

The band, whose number included long-time guitarist Earl Slick and keyboard player Mike Garson, who goes back to the Spiders from Mars days, played with warmth and cohesion but seemed less than wholly enthused by their task, stricken perhaps by a case of mid-tour blues. They were a whole lot more animated when I saw them backing Bowie at the Festival Hall a year and a half ago.

Mostly, though, I think the problem was Bowie himself. The man famous for acquiring personae the way the rest of us acquire fridges has finally stripped away all those accumulated layers, and here he stood before us in plain jeans and jerkin simply as himself. And do you know what? He's not terribly interesting. He's affable enough, and quite funny. The Man Who Sold the World was introduced thus: "1846 - England was at war with France, and I released this."

He can still sing like a dream, he's got the songs, he's got the band, he's got the set. But I fear that, as part of that process of stripping away his old selves, he has lost almost in its entirety the one quality on which his whole career has been founded: charisma.