David Bowie spent much of the Nineties in a state of shivering insecurity. The creative brinkmanship that let him shed identities and styles with much less skill in the Seventies had thwarted him, leaving him nervously searching for directions.
Once rock's most brilliant chameleon, his attempts to camouflage himself with modern musical trends made him look like an ageing dandy, chasing fashions he once defined. His only convincing recent role has been as David Bowie Limited, the first pop star to sell shares in himself - a dizzying distance from Ziggy Stardust's Day-Glo gutter glamour.
The relaxed, sophisticated middle-aged millionaire he now presents himself as may be as fake as Ziggy's make-up, but it has at least let him give up chasing the modern world. Bowie's relative revival in the 21st century has been about him and his audience accepting his glories are in the past. His new albumsHeathen andReality, produced by Tony Visconti who worked with him in the Seventies, have been successful because they sound like Bowie used to, not the future.
The first few minutes of this latest UK tour at least attempt to shock with the new as a cartoon Bowie band plays on the big screen, as the real musicians file on, and the real Bowie strikes a pose on the stage's lip.
When he kicks into "Rebel, Rebel", the old-time hooligan's stonk, the crowd roar, reassured they'll be getting the nostalgic good time they paid for. Really, though, the night takes a long while to slip into gear. Whether it's the soundless, sheep-pen nature of this huge arena, the dull, Tin Machine-like rock tendencies of the band (despite it including two Seventies Bowie veterans), the ageing audience, or Bowie's own clumsy stage movements, atmosphere and engagement are hard to find.
It's only when Bowie stops trying to rock, and starts to croon, that he finds some poise. "China Girl" is sung with vaulting voiced flamboyance. Then, in Reality's "The Loneliest Guy", he clutches his head, bemoaning his alienation like a space-age Sinatra. For the mid-Nineties glam-reviver "Hallo Spaceboy", he marches on to a gantry above the crowd, kneeling and miming, eyes fixed on one dancing fan. Attempts at intimacy reach their peak when he begins "Life on Mars" as a spot-lit silhouette, backed only by his keyboardist, Mike Garson.
The skeletal melody and mysteriously beautiful lyrics of one of his best-loved songs work their own magic, and for a moment, the past can almost be touched. Soon, though, those disconnections from the strange soul who wrote it are obvious once more. The magic is gone.
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