by Caroline Sullivan / Guardian
4th June 1997
BOWIE wants to meet his public so he plays a small London club – heaven or what? Some fans paid 100 pounds for a ticket. So why were so many leaving at the interval? Caroline Sullivan has a hunch.
Oi, Bowie! No! That was one’s first reaction to the rumour sweeping the Hanover Grand on Monday that David Bowie would follow his show with a drum & bass set. Though he conducted some brave experiments with the genre on his current album, Earthling, there was something undignified about the idea of him trying to recreate adrenalised beats in front of a bemused crowd of people his own age.
But unlike other rocksters of his era, at least he’s still interested in the world outside his Swiss chalet. His recent back-catalogue deal with EMI, and flotation of himself on the stock market may potentially make him one of rock’s richest stars, but the creative fire is still burning, virtually undimmed by age.
Reaching his half-century in January triggered a flurry of work that resulted in Earthling and, now, a mini-tour of places like the 720-capacity Hanover Grand. He has even adopted Prince’s custom of surprise after-show sets – though, fortunately, not his habit of jamming till dawn.
That Dame David deigned to set foot in a small club at all was something. Your average superstar often bemoans the hangarous arenas he’s forced to perform in, but Bowie put his money where his mouth is. He was literally within spitting distance – not that anyone would have dared sully his red polo-neck and tracksuit bottoms. He was so close you could see the perspiration bedewing his still spectacular bone structure. To get a proper look, though, you had to elbow your way past forty-and fifty-something men more ample-bellied than the maestro would have had time for in his androgynous youth.
So was it worth the £100 touts were extorting? (Most of the tickets had gone to fan club members via the Internet, leaving few for the public). Yes, mostly. Once you’d recovered from the disappointment of realising that the set was to be predominantly based on Earthling, it became quite a little party.
On the Sound & Vision tour a few years ago, the Davester vowed never to play his old hits again, which meant no Suffragette City or Young Americans.
Why the denial of his past? But he hurled himself into the new songs with such vehemence that just his convulsed features were worth the price of admission. And, as a sop to fans like the youngish woman whose flailing limbs continually banged into her tightly-packed neighbours, he threw in one or two oldies.
In fact, he started with one – Quicksand, from Hunky Dory. But he hurried through it, anxious to get to Earthling tracks like Battle For Britain and Little Wonder. As enjoyable as many new ones were, though, few of them cut much ice with the crowd. Bowie couldn’t resist toying with them, announcing ‘Here’s one from way, way back’ then silencing the ecstatic whoops with the opening chords of Little Wonder.
Sir, you are a caution.
His performance was never less than heartfelt – but so, regrettably, was that of guitarist Reeves Gabrels. This survivor of the Dame’s benighted heavy metal band, Tin Machine, saw every number as a chance to wring power-drill noises from his instrument. Mind, he could have been under orders from the boss to prove Dave is ‘down’ with young folks (though any present were probably impatiently awaiting drum & bass celebs, like Goldie, rumoured to be turning up for the second set).
Bowie’s energy saved the day, turning Earthling’s tune deficits and reliance on souped-up drum loops into something highly enjoyable. The man has the charisma of a hogshead of Liams and Jarvises, and once ensnared you simply watched, hooked.
But there is a limit. At the end he confirmed that his ‘little drum & bass set’ would follow the interval – and the audience voted with its feet. Apparently, the notion of Bowie tackling crackhead breakbeats was just too painful.
When the dust cleared the place was substantially emptier, but at least now he knows who his true fans are. Those who left missed something fearfully loud, sweaty and hypnotic. Bowie, honking away on his saxophone, looked more like one of his new jungle buddies than like David Bowie Plc. Which is the way it should be.