The Star Online - 9th March 2004

Beyond the golden years

The renaissance man that is David Bowie is definitely a pivotal, re-energised touring force these days. DARYL GOH was in Singapore last week to watch the swaggering music legend uproot the stage with glee.

QUITE literally, it's been something of a vintage few months for David Bowie. Against a music backdrop of cynicism, expectation and American Idol, the provocative Bowie seems the unlikeliest candidate to grab and hold everyone's attention - reasserting the faith in his long-time fans, attracting new blood and embracing life-affirming turns at every opportunity. But how we guessed wrong.

His stars look very different today. Ever since Bowie released his latest record Reality and hit the road late last year, his ratings have gone through the roof and, most impressively, he is in a lively, unstoppable mood these days. Sold-out shows galore and great excitement follows whenever a David Bowie concert date is announced (but sadly, in Kuala Lumpur, local promoters/sponsors had cold feet in securing Bowie for a concert here).

Inevitably, the concert trip to Singapore was the next available option and some fortunate Bowie fans in these parts duly obliged.

David Bowie captivated the crowd during the concert, stopping for band introductions or to pull faces or make ironically humorous comments. It was a pleasure to be reminded how good Bowie sounded live.

The 57-year-old Bowie, for the first time in his career, is clearing the decks and learning to enjoy and live with his legend. The guilt-free grins and optimistic tones in magazine spreads have indicated just as much. The sly Bowie is proving that he is finally at ease with the past and present while a bright tomorrow is also shaping up as he slows up a little and soaks the renewed enthusiasm and interest surrounding his myth and music.

Bowie, with his changeling reputation, avant garde edge and all, is reborn again. That was enough impetus to splash the cash for his concert across the causeway. Tellingly, Bowie has been enjoying some of the best concert reviews in years as his A Reality bandwagon goes from station to station. His 63rd tour stop in Singapore last Thursday was an absolute blinder - a two-hour gig, 24-song set that could not have better illustrated the art of having your cake and eating it - with taste and style to spare.

From the 50 tracks rehearsed for this world tour, there were ample old favourites, the obscure cuts and new material to reckon with - trust us, Bowie knew how to mix-up the set-list. Often with his music, Bowie might have created something bigger than himself - but between retro and current Bowie, there were now fresh opportunities to be seized. Rather than a half-hearted effort to cash in on his name, Bowie stayed true to his mission and brought something beyond nostalgia on the road, he brought a future.

Nearly 4,000 fans at the Singapore Indoor Stadium caught Bowie in his element. Over a year ago, The Rolling Stones tore into Singapore with a massive rock 'n' roll circus - complete with inflatable dolls, fireworks and giant screens. But for Bowie, no Ziggy-era theatrics were in sight. He was having none of those distractions - instead it was a spare stage, a scary monster of a band and memorable material from practically every era and alter ego of his career.

From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and beyond, the music held up. For Bowie fans, indeed, this was all you could wish for.

As soon as the lights at the Singapore Indoor Stadium went down at 9pm sharp, there was no letting up. It was a wonderful start as strobe lights illuminated the hall and those all-too-familiar glam guitar riffs resonated through the stadium - you guessed it, the man of the evening was on to a barnstorming start as Rebel Rebel regained its place at the front of the charge - 30 years on! With such an unmistakable stomp, it was hard to keep the stadium in their seats.

Heck, the Bowie buzz was uncontrollable and there was a good vibe going in the stands.

Middle age can be a blast and Bowie didn't waste any time getting the heads bobbing further - the same enthusiasm given for the flat out glam rock (from the Diamond Dog days) was afforded to the explosive Reality single New Killer Star while the celebrity invective from Fame gave the backing group something to feed off and press on with a killer set.

The crowd were clearly alive as Bowie had everyone on their feet and into the music. It was an incredible early burst of energy.

But for all the waving and crowd-pandering (hecklers shouting out for Laughing Gnome!), Bowie proved that he could still be a bit of an acquired taste for some as he jerked a little to the left with the romantic mutilation of Cactus (from The Pixies) - giving only the faintest of clues for those without a copy of Heathen ("this is a tune from a band that broke up but they're back together again.").

In any case, Bowie gambled and won. On stage was a persona that commanded full attention and challenged you to push him further. And beyond the rabid fan, Bowie was still intriguing and competent enough to entice the average concertgoer.

Even if Let's Dance was omitted from the evening; there was so much thrilling charisma in store to drive the show ahead. Any newcomer would have been converted after this show. It was one of those special nights.

Musically, it was a pleasure to be reminded just how good The Man Who Sold The World, Under Pressure, Quicksand, Ashes To Ashes and Life On Mars? sounded live and for the squealing fans, the endless hankering of having the old Bowie back was finally realised. Retrieving the deep currents of the past may sound like hard work, but thankfully; Bowie never sold his legacy short.

These are pivotal times for the singer who hardly has anything left to prove. But it's the music that draws him back. In Singapore, Bowie looked cool and sharp, his singing was par excellence and much credit must be given to the band for the electricity felt during the concert. The crowd interaction on stage also revealed a side of Bowie that wanted to reconnect with his fans - and charming ol' Dave he was!

If Wayne Coyne (of The Flaming Lips) chats too much on stage, then Bowie comes worryingly close. But the Singapore audience were too enraptured to give him a hard time for missing cues and going on a bit. At times, the band had to start a song without him.

Yet there seemed to be more than just aimless banter here. This was David Bowie - glad to be back on stage again and enjoying it. Throughout the evening Bowie continued to captivate the crowd, stopping for band introductions or to pull faces or make ironically humorous comments. The two-way traffic between artiste and audience felt slightly close to the Tom Jones tip.

"Is it too early for a singalong?" he wryly asked later. But the loud roars as the opening bars of All The Young Dudes rung across the hall overwhelmed the sardonic side attached here while the smirky singer did note that the stadium karaoke on China Girl was rather "tragic" - but it didn't sound as outdated as most would have expected of something from the Wham! era.

However, this was no nostalgia exercise. Bowie knew he could experiment at will, but he wasn't unreasonable to the point of frustration. When he strayed from the familiar into weirder territory, it was nice to find Bowie fans taking to the bold material. The drum 'n' bass barrage on Battle For Britain (The Letter), lifted from the underrated Earthling album, offered some contemporary edginess rarely heard from someone past 50. This was no ordinary feat!

Of course, Bowie made some tough calls in getting the accessible and the more challenging sides to click. But never underestimate the supportive following who were all ears. Bowie and company performed a number of recent songs from Heathen and Reality, including the moody mini-marathon of Sunday, Afraid and Heathen (The Rays) to the starkly beautiful The Loneliest Guy and wistful Days. Though virtually unrecognisable to the casual fan, these were good songs worthy of attention, and they fitted in well. Funnily enough, next month the New York-based Bowie will release a children's book (Musical Storyland), but he's hardly gone fluffy around the edges. He might be coming to terms with age, but the restlessness of yesteryear remains.

He could spark a riot if necessary. The Bowie of 2004 is a hungry model, out for a scrap and fired up - it was nearly shades of the Tin Machine years at times. Even if the concert was reaching its last corner, there was Bowie on stage - playing with gritted teeth and intent. Some of those snarly guitars on I'm Afraid of Americans were utterly brutal and the white heat ferocity intense but he assured the crowd that "there's always two sides to the story" as he launched into the emotive staple of every Bowie tour - the concert closer Heroes. That had the audience in total euphoria.

Further highlights? You betcha!

After almost 40 years in the business, Bowie can still show us the menace in the original "young dude" - kicking up a hell of a storm in Singapore. How can we ever take that for granted?

The encores were enough to leave any crowd breathless and spinning with delight as Bowie, with dignity and energy abounding, unleashed the early 1970s with no apologies. There were no firecrackers to round off the concert, but from the full-whack ending of Changes, Five Years, Suffragate City and Ziggy Stardust, you could literally smell the smoke in the air. This was no fleeting flashback of brilliance - this was imperious rock 'n' roll bound for Mars.