The Globe and Mail - April 3 2004

Old duke, new tricks

By Simon Beck

David Bowie at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Thursday

Between the burnout in front of me chugging on a doobie, the jocular dancing chubby guys in front of him who won't sit down even during the slow bits and the geezer behind me yelling "Give us some hits, Davy," there's a lot for grownups to see at a Bowie concert these days.

Judging by the crowd, Bowie's audience seems largely to have grown old with him, although unlike most of us, he has more than mastered the art of growing old gracefully. He can pose with his wife in glossy Tommy Hilfiger ads and not seem like a sellout; he can play in front of a big video wall and make it seem as if he was the first one to think of it; and not for him those execrable wireless mouthpieces - Bowie's mike is even connected to a cable, God bless him.

Forget for a moment the inexplicable early-midlife crisis that was Tin Machine: Bowie has always been cool. He was already cool in his South London high-school photos. He was cool even when singing about gnomes or sporting dodgy leotards. He was painfully cool during his Berlin period. And I wager that he may well be the coolest 57-year-old man on the planet.

Because of Bowie's capacity to change and adapt, he's earned a lot of respect, even from the generation born long after Ziggy played guitar. But what he doesn't get is a lot of sales, or radio play. And therein lies the creative tension that drives his current live show.

Concerts of veteran rock acts tend to be cut from the same clichéd cloth: They will do an obligatory detour through the back streets of their latest material before churning out the old hits their fans really came to hear. In Bowie's case, one senses an undertow that pulls him in the opposite direction.

In recent album releases such as Heathen and his latest, Reality, there's the sound of an artist determined to stay contemporary - in fact, in a retro-obsessed market that samples the past to death, he's almost too contemporary for his own good. His frustration was not hidden at the ACC; he openly admonished Clear Channel (the corporate behemoth that owns a huge slice of North American radio and is promoting the Bowie tour) for playing crappy music on its airwaves. (Needless to say, when you do hear a Bowie tune, it's going to be Let's Dance, not New Killer Star.)

Thus it is that Bowie remains a huge live concert attraction largely on the nostalgia factor. And thus it was that he opened his set with a storming Rebel Rebel and kept it buzzing early on with an anthemic All the Young Dudes and a slightly anemic Fame.

He ditched a pair of dandyish outer jackets and, clad in a modest (presumably not modestly priced) black T-shirt, bantered with the crowd and seemed to be having a genuinely good time.

But this was not the greatest-hits show it was hyped up to be. And not for nothing. During every new song the audience patiently sat through while waiting for Major Tom to reorbit, it was clear Bowie was most in his element. His energy level seemed to surge in reverse relation to the crowd's familiarity with the songs. His band, too - including Earl Slick, the guitarist who's almost as close to his retirement pension as Bowie but who should know better than to dress like Keith Richards - were noticeably sharper on the new stuff.

I have to declare an old fart's bias and opine that Bowie has not written a classic since Heroes. But while his material of the past 10 years relies more on ambience and soundscaping than good old-fashioned penmanship, some of the new songs he performed, especially the springy Never Get Old and delicate Days, were hard-earned highlights.

And that voice. It's always been a trademark, but never a source of critical acclaim. Heard live, especially on I'm Afraid of Americans, it was a reminder that Bowie's pipes are as good as anyone's. If Ryan Malcolm is truly an Idol, then it seems to me Generation Y is worshipping at the wrong altar.

Bowie's slight reluctance when it came to sating the collective thirst for oldies became apparent in those he did opt to play. There was no Space Oddity, Life on Mars or Young Americans. Granted, there was an Under Pressure (not his finest moment), but the oldies that truly inspired were the ones that came out of left field, not least a blistering Hang on to Yourself (from Ziggy Stardust) and a moving Quicksand (Hunky Dory). In other words, purist oldies. The theme continued with The Man Who Sold the World and, as a perfect closer, the always-sublime Heroes. For his encore, Bowie kindly raided three more from the Ziggy Stardust pantry: Five Years, Suffragette City and the title track.

It's been 32 years since the young David posed wistfully under the gas lamp on that iconic album cover. Of the LP, Nancy Erlich wrote in The New York Times: "The day will come when David Bowie is a star and the crushed remains of his melodies are broadcast from Muzak boxes in every elevator and hotel lobby." On the first count, she was prophetic. On the second, she was mercifully way off target, and for that we can thank the man himself.

Bowie plays Quebec City tomorrow, Winnipeg Wednesday, Edmonton Friday and Kelowna, B.C., next Sunday.