The Straits Times - 5th March 2004

The man who stole the show

David Bowie's concert on Thursday was a treasure chest of jewels, containing everything from flashy sparklers to the rarest gems

By Ong Sor Fern

IN CHANGES, one of David Bowie's most famous songs, the British rocker sings: 'Look out, you rock 'n' rollers/Pretty soon now, you're gonna get older.'

Well, the Thin White Duke is now 57 - much older than most people in the business, except perhaps The Rolling Stones. But his two-hour set at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Thursday night was certainly worthy of a man half his age.

It was blistering, masterful and combined enough of the old and the new, the rock stuff and the slow songs, the hits and the obscure tracks, to make everyone in the audience happy.

Bowie himself, the consummate charmer, was beaming the whole night, bantering with the audience as if they were old chums and even calling them, at one point, 'my new few thousand friends'.

For those who came to know him through his angst-ridden and, yes, depressing songs in the 1970s and 1980s, it was almost disconcerting.

The man was positively chatty. He even puckered his lips and gave the crowd a 'muah'.

'We've got old songs. We've got new songs. It takes all kinds,' he said early in the evening, like a polished carnival barker hawking his wares.

But he didn't have to do much of a hard sell, really, as his huge body of work proved to be an embarrassment of riches.

The night got off to a roaring start at 9pm with an oldie, Rebel Rebel, which immediately had the 4,000-strong crowd - aged anywhere between their 20s and 50s - up on its feet, screaming and clapping.

This was followed by a giant 30-year leap forward to New Killer Star, off his current Reality album.

The rest of the night followed this format, whizzing giddily between old numbers and new ones, and giving his fans a serious case of memory whiplash.

While Bowie was undoubtedly the (prettiest) star, much credit goes also to his superlative backing band - arguably the best in the business today.

Guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, keyboardist Mike Garson, percussionist Catherine Russell and drummer Sterling Campbell were so tight they sounded like one big divine instrument.

Light as a feather on quiet numbers like Days, they cranked up the decibels on rockers like Suffragette City and I'm Afraid Of Americans.

The latter track, from 1997's Earthling, is one of Bowie's recent best. It certainly translated brilliantly live, with its phalanx of corrosive guitars coming forth like a wall of anger.

Musicianship was definitely the order of the night, proof of which was the sight of roadies constantly coming on and off the stage to hand over new guitars and take away existing ones.

But while the rock numbers were out of this world and hits like Heroes, Changes, Ziggy Stardust, Ashes To Ashes, Under Pressure and Life On Mars made the crowd go wild, the strongest moment came in the most unexpected song.

Quicksand, a long-forgotten number from 1971's Hunky Dory, had only recently been added to the set list, said Bowie.

But what an inspired addition. With its plaintive melody brought vividly to life by Bowie on his guitar, its lyrics of spiritual disenchantment pierced the night like a broken arrow.

While some may quibble that his voice, still a remarkable instrument, was not as limber as it used to be, Thursday night's concert was nevertheless a magnificent affair.

If nothing else, it drove home the fact that there is no performer quite like Bowie.

At his age and with his current level of fame, he could easily get by doing nostalgia tours, lazily cranking out the hits from the good ol' days. But he has never been known to do that in his career, choosing instead to experiment with new sounds and ideas.

While not all of them have worked (anyone remember his songs from the '90s? Didn't think so), they have always been noble failures.

In Quicksand, he sings: 'I'm not a prophet or a stone age man/Just a mortal with the potential of a superman.'

And within those lines lies the essence of the man - he will always possess the dignity of one who dares to dream immortal thoughts, no matter how old he is.

On Thursday night, he definitely touched us with a bit of that immortality, making us feel like we could live forever, just as long as we had him along for the journey.