by Herman Grech / Tune-In
It took me an estimated two and a half seconds to get on the phone line to Air Malta when I found out that my all-time favourite rock icon was playing at my top holiday destination.
Bowie was to play in Lucca in what was his pen-ultimate leg of his mini-European tour of small venues and how could I let this potentially phenomenal experience slip me by.
Just to put the record straight. I have heard, read, adored and soaked in anything to do with Bowie since I was 14. While my schoolmates used to headbang to Ozzy Osbourne or coo to Duran Duran, I used to sit on the playground steps listening in awe to songs like ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘China Girl’, and etch ‘BOWIE’ across my school-desk with my pointed compass.
Eighteen years on I still share the same affection, and though I might not be scribbling his name on walls I admit to reading every single Bowie review over the Internet.
Bowie is an artist who has defied time and changed his tunes and style in chameleon-like fashion. While many of today’s so-called rock stars would, at his age, probably be sprawled on a deckchair or doing the crossword, Bowie is still churning out five-star albums and putting up live shows which made him famous in the first place.
Accompanied by three other Bowie aficionados, we made our journey to Lucca, and sadly things did not look promising. On arrival to the walled town we were greeted with the news that the supporting band, Travis, had dropped out after their drummer was injured.
My spirits were further dampened, when we woke up on July 15, the day, to the sound of torrential rain. The prospect of seeing Bowie sing “Heroes” through a sea of umbrellas was not exactly my idea of a rocking night out.
Thankfully, by the time the Italian backing band strode on stage, the torrential rain had stopped and the clouds had parted.
Though Bowie is not treated in god-like fashion in neighbouring Italy, some of those who started dotting the concert venue at Piazza Napoleone by three in afternoon started to make me look like the most amateur of fans.
Some modeled the traditional lightning bolt make-up strewn across their faces while others sported the red mullet haircut reminiscent of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust days or donned worn-out T-shirts dating back to the early 70s.
The venue was unnaturally small for a concert by such an icon, yet this was a blessing as we managed to squeeze our way to about ten metres away from stage.
Bowie’s global appeal was evident from the widely mixed audience in the square – from 16 years old screaming out in ecstasy, to aging rockers with balding hair and a ponytail, mouthing all the lyrics.
Looking unnaturally good for a 55-year-old, Bowie strode on stage wearing an elegant black three-piece suit with a blue tie casually slung around his neck and silver fob chain. He immediately whipped the crowd into frenzy, delivering what is, for many of his fans, his finest masterpiece – ‘Life on Mars’.
He swiftly changed tempo to steer into ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and by the second song Bowie had reduced his audience to a trembling mass of hero worship.
Backed by a remarkably tight band that included long-time bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and keyboardist Mike Garson – things couldn’t really go wrong.
Bowie effortlessly dipped into a set creaking with his hits – a snapshot of his albums that have withstood the test of time. From crowd-pleasers like ‘Changes’ to a bluesy version of ‘Let’s Dance’ via a spine-tingling version of “Heroes”, Bowie had the estimated 10,000 crowd on the palms of his hands.
In the meantime, he interspersed the oldies with songs from his new album ‘Heathen’, which has been hailed by critics as a true return to form.
Bowie was once known as one of the greatest showmen, a title that has slowly whittled away during the last decade or so. Instead what he is now presenting is a back to basics, no-frills set, where the music does the talking.
However, the artist formerly known as the Thin White Duke has not lost his charisma and it takes little effort for him to wow the crowd.
Looking relaxed and incredibly confident, Bowie played his part-time job of actor to a T, pulling faces, and cracking jokes about some uncle who used to live across the square of Lucca and whose dog he used to walk.
In the meantime, the Italians were particularly insistent on hurling some of their garments at their idol.
What is so special about a Bowie concert though is the voice – that indispensable sound which ricocheted against the square’s walls like some operatic singer.
An hour and a half into the set, Bowie and his band walked off the set to thunderous applause following an impeccable version of the title track from his latest album.
As the Italians chanted “Devid, Devid…” Bowie strolled back on stage to render his encore, starting from ‘A New Career In a New Town’, a simple instrumental tune from his awesome album, ‘Low’.
The tune which however really rocked Lucca’s main square from its medieval foundations was ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, the song which boasts thundery drums far louder than the ones we had heard coming from the sky that afternoon.
But the cherry on the cake was reserved for the end when Bowie belted out a fantastic version of his anthem ‘Ziggy Stardust’, leaving the crowds crying out for more, minutes after the lights, signaling the end of the concert, came back on.
The concert put to rest the ghost of The Glass Spider Tour which I had watched way back in 1987 in the rather unfriendly surroundings of Wembley Stadium and in which Bowie was rather obtuse towards his fans by refraining from playing his best tunes.
But this time, it was as good as it gets. And the thought of scribbling his name on Lucca’s walls for old times’ sake was very tempting!