The Observer - November 23rd 2003


Something old, something new... David Bowie is back on song

David Bowie
MEN Arena, Manchester

By Molloy Woodcraft

The point about Reality, David Bowie's new album, is made early on tonight as a cartoon outline of Bowie and band, projected on to the screen behind the stage as an overture, fades slowly into real video footage; the camera backs off to the New York skyline, then America, the world, space, the universe.

Reality indeed - and yet the term and the Dame don't seem to have much truck with each other. 'Wake up, Manchester, your grandad's here,' he shouts four numbers in and for some of those crowded round his little pontoon in front of the stalls, this may not be such an exaggeration of the gulf between their ages. But age has not bowed Bowie. He looks about 30 - trim and toned, with taut skin and all his own hair.

He's got himself an extraordinary band, too, the best he's taken on the road in years. Who would have believed Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard on guitars? Top that off with Mike Garson and Cat Russell on keys backed by the powerhouse of Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and Sterling Cambell on drums and you know you're on to a winner.

Bowie has said that Reality is 'built to play live', so perhaps it's a shame only four tracks are aired tonight, yet 'New Killer Star' and the title track, following on from the predictable 'Rebel Rebel', really heat up the arena.

The former is classic Bowie rock with close-harmony backings from Dorsey and Russell and a squall of guitars (a reminder of where Suede's Bernard Butler drew most of his inspiration from). The latter builds with booming toms and crashing cymbals to a great climax, topped off with an expertly messy, nasty solo from Slick.

Vocally, Bowie is on his best form in ages. I notice about halfway through that he has a couple of pedals at his feet with which he is controlling the levels on his voice, perhaps to get the full warmth of his lower register or boost his high notes - but he would sound great even without the adjustment.

'Fame', altogether funkier than on the record, is delivered in its full sneery, queenie glory, hand firmly on hip. 'China Girl' requires everything, from deep baritone in the early verses to high bellowing later on, and Bowie hits the peaks and troughs with ease.

He does a wonderful rendition of 'Loneliest Guy', another track from the new album, with a vibrato worthy of Elvis Costello. Equally winning is 'Loving the Alien', where he is accompanied only by Gerry Leonard triggering a looped motif and playing dry guitar. It shines with warmth and intensity.

Standout tracks? Gail Ann Dorsey's lead vocal and bass on 'Under Pressure' are a treat and the cover of the Pixies' pervy 'Cactus' is a nice touch. Bowie may not manage Black Francis's neurotic whine, but with Slick and Leonard on the case, it's like having two Joey Santiagos on stage.

Thankfully, the kitten heels have been ditched for 'Hello Spaceboy': the original muted drum'n'bass backing has been superseded by a banging house beat under overdriven guitars, and the track is transformed from a mid-Nineties frippery (best forgotten) to a high point of the set (hard to dismiss). On his knees in the spotlights atop the gantry which runs round the stage, Bowie glories in the noise.

'I'm Afraid of Americans' is equally forceful, building to an ear-splitting intensity as Cambell delivers a funky workout worthy of Sheila E circa Sign 'O' the Times. And 'Heroes', which closes the first set, is even more intense, rising from weedy guitar in the first verse to a monster sound as Earl Slick fills the air with that distinctive industrial drone.

As for criticisms, Garson's synth solo at the close of 'Ashes to Ashes' is toothache central and the guitars sound very Eighties on occasion. The vocal talents Bowie has regained since quitting smoking are sadly not equal to 'Life on Mars', which suffers so much from compensatory modulation that it's hardly worth the effort. 'Changes' is parodic, which is a shame, given that it's one of his best songs; and 'Five Years', with its ramshackle prognostication (a mix of 'Whiter Shade of Pale' and Bob Dylan's shambolic 'Dream' songs) was wrong, as it turned out, wasn't it? (Bizarrely, annoyingly, everyone else in the place seems to know every single mimsy word.) That said, the back catalogue is the only sign of age about Bowie and the gig is a testament to what looking after your health and looking up a few old mates from time to time can achieve. He closes with a perfect 'Ziggy Stardust'.

- David Bowie plays Wembley Arena (Tue, Wed) and SECC, Glasgow (Fri).