David Bowie, Manchester Arena

by Dave Simpson / Guardian

18th November 2003

The last time Bowie toured UK arenas – with the 1990s Sound and Vision tour – he made the momentous decision to “retire” his back catalogue. It was the last time, he said, we’d hear him play the hits. The logic was that he felt constrained by his legacy, although it didn’t do ticket sales any harm. Now they’re back. He kicks off with Rebel Rebel, dips into funky Fame, before long there’s The Man Who Sold The World and a moderately earth-shattering Life On Mars.

After two return-to-form albums, 2002’s Heathen and this year’s Reality, presumably the thin white duke at last feels he has new material to hold up against the oldies. And yes, Reality is utterly ferocious. The swaggering New Killer Star has the indescribable but unmistakable feel of a Bowie classic. In fact, there aren’t nearly enough new songs aired.

Changes, Under Pressure and the rest are delivered to perfection. Possibly because Bowie has finally given up smoking, or adopted even tighter trousers, he has reawakened a vocal range that has long lain dormant, even reaching the infamous “vision of swastikas” line in China Girl for the first time since it was recorded. If anyone doubts that Bowie looks fantastic too, five TV screens dazzle with his image. His Low-era haircut has been transplanted onto the body of a 24-year-old, while the creaking jeans reveal the bits that were once hurriedly airbrushed off the sleeve of Diamond Dogs.

What’s been lost, understandably, is any lingering semblance of the psychologically disturbed cocaine and occult crazed madman that delivered his 70s music. Only rarely does Bowie truly connect with these songs. However, when the family man touches on post 9/11 fear in Sunday and gives Five Years a renewed air of apocalypse, he taps into a new kind of disturbance. On the eve of Bush’s visit, the message within I’m Afraid Of Americans is delivered subtly, but devastatingly.

However, after innumerable chameleonic career twists, he’s mostly back on safe ground as a consummate rock star. He grins through Ashes to Ashes, recounts the days shopping in Manchester and manages to locate a fan who’s going to the forthcoming gig in Sydney. Ziggy Stardust completes the air of predictable but glorious entertainment.

· At the Birmingham NEC Wednesday and Thursday. Box office: 0870 909 4133. Then touring.

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