The New York Times - 17th December 2003

Matching Familiar Songs With Their New Relatives

Rock Review: David Bowie

By Jon Pareles

David Bowie the rocker took the stage of Madison Square Garden on Monday night. He was wearing sneakers, black jeans, a pinstripe T-shirt and the deconstructed tatters of a tail coat, and he was casually balancing nostalgia against what he can still pull off.

Mr. Bowie has stopped chasing the latest dance beats and returned to the thrust and screech of a band driven by guitars. He has also traded his old choreographed spectacles for a show that's still minutely planned but lets him appear informal rather than calculated. Unlike many other rockers of his generation, Mr. Bowie, 56, made his recent songs sound just as trenchant as the oldies.

Mr. Bowie's most recent albums, this year's "Reality" and 2002's "Heathen" (both on ISO/Columbia), loop back to the sound of his best years, 1976-80. That was when, under the influence of punk, art and drugs, he pulled apart his old glam-rock to make music that was more jagged and incisive. "I've been right and I've been wrong/Now I'm back to where I started from," he sang in "Reality." He has reunited with his 1970's producer, Tony Visconti, and - with an added jolt from Sept. 11 - has returned to contemplating apocalypse and alienation, fear and fame.

Mr. Bowie's music has always been an unlikely confluence of hard rock, 1950's rock, cabaret standards and sonic experiments, and in his less successful stretches he has teetered into bathos or obscurity. This time he had a convincing mix: still and eerie in recent songs like "Sunday" and "The Loneliest Guy," brash in "The Jean Genie," heartfelt in "Life on Mars?" and "Ziggy Stardust."

Mr. Bowie paired old songs with their new relatives; "Rebel Rebel" was followed by "New Killer Star," which contemplates "a great white scar over Battery Park." He triumphantly put across two worthwhile songs, "Hallo Spaceboy" and "The Motel," from his overconceptualized 1995 album "Outside," and he latched on to songs that others have pulled out of his catalog: "The Man Who Sold the World" (which Nirvana revived) and "Under Pressure (which was sampled by Vanilla Ice).

Mr. Bowie's band, including musicians who have been with him since the 1970's - Earl Slick on guitar and Mike Garson on keyboards - played familiar old songs with the original arrangements but pushed them a little further. Mr. Slick and Gerry Leonard on guitars scrabbled and clawed through "Fashion" and "Fame," and brought out the rockabilly in "Hang On to Yourself." Mr. Bowie has sung many of these songs countless times, but with a shifted inflection here and a sly gesture there he made clear that he was still thinking through them, bringing them into the here and now.

Opening the show was Macy Gray, the scratchy-voiced songwriter who draws on 1970's soul for her own slyly multilayered songs of heartbreak and humor. Jokes were tucked into her choreography and arrangements - one tossed in half a dozen television themes - as well as her songs, and she gradually won over an audience that seemed unfamiliar with her superb albums.