by Maddy Costa / Guardian
1st July 2002
This hasn’t been a vintage year for Meltdown: in fact, it has felt less like an illuminatingly unconventional festival than an elaborate ruse to get David Bowie to play the relatively small Festival Hall (conveniently in the same month that he has a new album to promote). But, just as the festival has been redeemed by some striking individual performances, so Bowie’s closing gig feels like an extraordinary event.
Thirty years on from Ziggy Stardust, Bowie looks more like an alien being than ever. It’s not his clothes – in fact, his luxurious white shirt and unknotted tie give him the air of a debauched dandy. It’s the way he seems so ageless, flashing a toothy grin as he snakes his lithe, angular body about the stage. His vocals are as spine-shivering as ever. When he clambers over the line “Don’t you wonder sometimes” in Sound and Vision, or quivers through the chorus to I Would Be Your Slave, his voice appears to emerge from a part of the body the rest of us didn’t know existed.
The set comprises two complete albums, 1977’s Low and June’s Heathen. They go together remarkably well, not least because parts of Heathen reflect Low’s mysterious, otherworldly beauty. This is particularly true of the fluid, subtle I Would Be Your Slave and 5.15 The Angels Have Gone, where synthesised heavenly chants and a lilting riff slide thrillingly into wild, lurching dissonance. Sunday and I’ve Been Waiting for You veer dangerously close to anodyne stadium rock by comparison; someone in the audience even raises a lighter for Slip Away, although Bowie does a marvellous job of countering the song’s absurd melodrama by blithely quoting from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Whereas Heathen is played in order, Low’s songs are juggled so that the instrumentals are scattered among the songs. You wonder why Bowie didn’t release the album that way: Warszawa, Art Decade and Weeping Wall make far more impact when they don’t melt into one ponderous, droning dirge, and provide an even more startling contrast to the invigorating buoyancy of Sound and Vision and Speed of Life. Each song contains something remarkable: the swarming, bee-like whirrs of Breaking Glass, the skin-slicingly sharp guitar of Always Crashing in the Same Car, and his impassioned vocal on Be My Wife. This album is 25 years old, but the songs could have been written 25 days ago.
It is past 11pm by the time Bowie returns for an encore. He launches into White Light/White Heat, as his powerhouse, seven-piece band is joined on stage by the Dandy Warhols to create a rock behemoth, and dances amused ‘through Ziggy Stardust, then inflicts 1997’s I’m Afraid of Americans on a grumbling crowd. He should have simply played the Ziggy Stardust album in its entirety. Not a soul would have complained.
· At Old Trafford, Manchester, on July 10. Box office: 0161-832 1111.