Billboard - 15th December 2003

Live reviews: David Bowie, Macy Gray / New York (Madison Square Garden)

By Joshua Klein

Always one of rock's most restless performers, David Bowie has marked his career with several peaks and valleys, mostly of his own devising. At the height of his popularity he's changed gears and gone experimental, but he has also eagerly courted the mainstream just when people got used to his weirdest, wildest material.

For Bowie, change is essential. It keeps the music interesting, not just for his fans but also for himself, the parade of "new" Bowies over the decades documenting one artist's struggle to remain vital and exciting where many of his peers simply grew placid and predictable.

Yet never has Bowie seemed as comfortable in his own skin as he does now. At a sold out Madison Square Garden Monday (Dec. 15) in New York, he confidently held court in his adopted home like he had nothing to prove, as sure of the strength of his latest material as he was of his versatile backing band.

Fit and laid-back, the constantly grinning Bowie looked as giddy as a school kid, belying his nearly 60 years. His voice also sounded as unique and powerful as ever, surprising not only considering his age, but particularly due to his recent bout of the flu which forced the cancellation of five shows, making this the second night of the North American tour.

But what's really buoyed Bowie over the past few years is that the singer has at last made peace with his back catalog, if only because much of his past works are clearly of a piece with the music of recent releases "Heathen" and "Reality," albums that also reunited him with longtime producer Tony Visconti. Opening with "Rebel Rebel" certainly got the crowd's attention, but following it with new songs like "New Killer Star" and "Reality" revealed how vibrant a songwriter and performer Bowie remains.

Indeed, given how many decades of hits and iconic songs from which Bowie had to choose, it's amazing his New York set managed to offer a balanced selection from each stage of his career without ever coming across as clunky nostalgia. Fans ate up every offering, from the discordant disco of "Fashion" to the throbbing, abusive pulse of "Hallo Spaceboy" to the Pixies cover "Cactus." Bowie introduced "The Man Who Sold The World" as the first song of his he ever heard on American radio, but later took time to express pride in the relative obscurity "Motel," from the "Outside" album, which he joked only two hundred people in the audience had ever heard.

Oddly enough, despite the obvious appeal of songs like "China Girl" and a stripped down "Life On Mars?," it was two songs generally associated with other artists that drew the most energetic and emotional response from the fans. The first was "All the Young Dudes," the anthem Bowie penned for friend Ian Hunter, which transcended the usual clichéd sing-along conventions and actually elicited a genuine outpouring of passion from Bowie and crowd alike.

Queen's "Under Pressure," on the other hand, simply and forcefully transcended everything, and for the duration of song the world outside the arena went away. With powerhouse bassist Gail Ann Dorsey matching Freddie Mercury's virtuoso singing, even Bowie looked bemused by but no less appreciative of the song's lasting power.

Beaming ear to ear, he briefly basked in the fans' roaring approval before redirecting that applause to Dorsey, the tiny lynchpin of his current band, which includes Bowie vets Mike Garson on keyboards and Earl Slick on guitar alongside relatively recent additions Sterling Campbell (drums), Gerry Leonard (guitar) and multi-instrumentalist Catherine Russell.

The crowd-pleasing Bowie favorites gave the singer the cache to play more abstract and unfamiliar material, like the spooky "The Loneliest Guy" or "Afraid," and he linked the newer "I'm Afraid Of Americans" and the ever-stirring "Heroes" as a sort of point/counterpoint take on current affairs.

Yet it was the redoubtable Ziggy-era pair of "Suffragette City" and "Ziggy Stardust" that ended the show, not simply as a sop to older fans but because, nearly 30 years after "killing" the Ziggy character, Bowie still clearly enjoys performing those songs.

Don't call it a comeback, since Bowie never went away. But artists new and old could stand to learn from Bowie's smiling, hip-swiveling, gregarious example, even if few could match his energy and enthusiasm.

Compared to Bowie opener Macy Gray didn't stand a chance, and her set faded from memory halfway through the headliner's first song. Gray's self-consciously eccentric soul has always felt gimmicky, which - given her larger than life persona and even larger Afro wig - Gray doesn't really need. The nearly empty Garden had mostly filled up by the time she wrapped up her set, but tracks like "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" and "Sexual Revolution" never overcame the trappings of novelty.