David Bowie spent much of the Nineties in a state of shivering insecurity. The creative brinkmanship that let him shed identities and styles with matchless skill in the Seventies had finally been thwarted, leaving him nervously searching for directions. Once rock's most brilliant chameleon, Bowie's attempts to camouflage himself with modern musical trends made him look like an ageing dandy, chasing fashions he once defined. The relaxed, sophisticated, middle-aged millionaire he now presents himself as may be as fake as Ziggy's makeup, but he has at least given up chasing the modern world. Bowie's current revival has been about him and his audience finally accepting that his glories are in the past. The new albums Heathen and Reality, produced by Tony Visconti, have been successful because they sound like Bowie used to - not like the future.
The first few minutes of this latest UK tour at least attempt to shock with the new, as a cartoon Bowie band play on the big screen while the real musicians file on, and the real Bowie strikes a pose on the lip of the stage. When he kicks into "Rebel, Rebel'', the old-time hooligan's stomp, the crowd roar, reassured that they'll be getting the nostalgic good time they paid for. In reality, though, the night takes a long while to slip into gear. Whether it's the soundless, sheep-pen nature of the 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 curiously 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 flamboyance. Then, for Reality's "The Loneliest Guy'', he clutches his head in mock agony, bemoaning his alienation like a space-age Sinatra. For the mid-Nineties glam- revival "Hallo Spaceboy'' he kneels on a gantry above the crowd miming, eyes fixed on one dancing fan. His attempts at intimacy reach their peak when he begins "Life on Mars'' as a spot-lit silhouette, a torch singer backed only by keyboardist Mike Garson. The skeletal melody and mysteriously beautiful lyrics of one of his best-loved songs work their 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.
David Bowie plays the NEC, Birmingham (0121-780 4141) tonight and tomorrow; Wembley Arena, London (020-8902 8833) on 25 & 26 Nov; and SECC, Glasgow (0141-248 3000) on 28 Nov