Same cheeks, new tunes

by Tobias Hill / Daily Telegraph

23rd August 1997

HALFWAY through the electro-drum and bass of Little Wonder from the 1997 album Earthling, and a pair of gigantic eyeball balloons are rolled out over the crowd. As they billow and goggle towards the balconies, the colours of the irises become clear in the strobe lighting. One blue, one green, they are the trademark changeling eyes of David Bowie, an artist who has been through almost as many changes as he has released albums. Like something out of The Prisoner, the giant eyes stare down at the crowd, then roll back up towards the singer.

It’s Changes that comes over the sound system before Bowie walks out on to the stage, alone, and does a quick acoustic selection from Hunky Dory and Changes 1. He looks exactly the same as he has for decades – the lupine cheeks, the Jurassic Park teeth. But the music is different, even when he’s playing the same songs. There is a blues version of Jean Genie and a percussive take on The Man Who Sold the World, where almost nothing of the original backing survives beside the guitar riff repopularised by Nirvana. Bowie’s voice is so familiar they could nail a blue plaque to it – powerful but whiny, with the carefully preserved hint of a Sarf London accent. The crowd loves it.

“Do you know what? I love you. I mean that sincerely, from the bottom of my ‘art,” says Bowie, and starts in on I’m Afraid of Americans, the only song from Earthling with input from Brian Eno.

Apart from anything else, Bowie is interesting to see because of the range of artists he has worked with, from Eno and Lennon to Goldie via Tina Turner and other big-deal rock. For many of the people in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire tonight, Bowie is a cultural icon, even if the new songs are no longer 100 per cent Bowie – Reeves Gabrels, on lead guitar and wearing a kilt, is his current co-writer. On keyboards, Michael Garson is hitting a bass note so deep it makes the supports in the balconies shudder.

All in all, the backing band look like creatures recently fallen to earth. Bass player Gail Ann Dorsey has horns in her Tank Girl haircut, and huge demonic hooves which she stamps through Fame, Scary Monsters and Seven Years in Tibet, the new single.

By general standards the new album has been successful; it is only when you start comparing it with the best of Bowie – Low or Hunky Dory – that the recent songs start to pale a bit. They’re certainly better than anything Bowie has done for a while, and live on the night he puts on an excellent show. The Empire must be a change from the large summer festivals he has been doing, but right now David Bowie just looks like he’s enjoying himself. He gives himself a shake now and then, wriggling in his skin, getting in a last dance.

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