Wednesday, 27 January 2010

617 DAVID BOWIE, Birmingham NEC, Thursday 20 November 2003

An NME classified ad - possibly the last thing that rag did for me before I ended 30 years or so of readership - alerted us to this tour, and gave me a chance to finally see a "live" performance from the man who started it all off for me. I remember it as if it was yesterday; sitting at the breakfast table on a family holiday in Guernsey in 1972, my 7 year old mind was diverted by a song playing on the crackly radio, which made me think I could get interested in this music malarkey after all. The song? "Life On Mars"...

So Rachel had the idea and got tickets sorted, and we set off straight after work. A horrid journey in heavy rain and traffic nevertheless got us to the NEC at 8 pm, and we parked up and wandered into the venue just as the support band were ending their last number. As it was The Dandy Warhols, I'd call that perfect timing! Got a programme and took our seats on the main floor, towards the back,stage left, which placed us a good few hundred yards from the stage, but still with a good view at this better-than-I'd-remembered venue.

The lights then dropped and The Thin White Duke himself graced us with his presence. Thence followed a most extraordinary 2 1/4 hours. The band took the stage, as a cartoon backdrop, playing on the stage-wide rear video screen, turned into footage of the actual band themselves. Then the unmistakeable classic opening riff of "Rebel Rebel" started proceedings.

It's hard not to reflect on this performance without reflecting on the man himself. Bowie has been at the forefront of anything and everything alternative, challenging, cutting-edge and downright different in rock, fashion and modern culture for over 30 years. With legitimate claims to have invented or directly inspired Glam Rock, Punk Rock, New Romantic, Synth Pop, Krautrock, Alternative Rock and Goth, no wonder he was recently voted the Most Influential Artist of the 20th Century!

Basically, Bowie has been there, seen it and done it all, and at 56, he doesn't have any need whatsoever to do it again, and absolutely nothing to prove to himself or anyone else. So when he's produced an album - this year's fine "Reality" - that energises him sufficiently to sharpen up the old larynx and play some shows, you've gotta respect that. A clutch of recent numbers and "Reality" tracks followed: "New Killer Star", the funky "Calling Sister Midnight", the spooky and punky "Reality", white funk oldie "Fame", the unexpected Pixies cover of "Cactus", and the introspective "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon". Throughout this segment you realised that at 56 the unmistakable dark, smoky voice is as strong as ever, and the sound, unusual for a big venue, was pindrop-perfect, lacking in the normal echo, accentuating every inflection, every nuance of Bowies' impressive vocal range.

The 80's funk of "China Girl" was followed by a huge "All The Young Dudes", Bowie's 70's glam rock gift for fellow glam-sters Mott The Hoople, which prompted both the first sing-along of the night, and the first of 3 heart-felt, lengthy standing ovations, at which Bowie, humble and self-effacing enough to take a proper bow after each number, seemed genuinely surprised. "Just what you want after that; a slow new one!" the contrary bugger then said, as he introduced the bare "Loneliest Guy" from "Reality", before "The Man Who Sold the World" saw him again plundering the unrivalled early 70's back catalogue. The recent "Hallo Spaceboy", an evil, sinister stomp of a song, saw Bowie hitting the walkway stage right, then "Under Pressure" followed, bassist Gail Dorsey impressively taking the Freddie Mercury vocal line in an utterly marvellous rendition of a song which I've always been a little ambivalent about, until tonight.

Then - the incredible. As a single spotlight picked Bowie out, a piano accompaniment formed the simple, stark background for a reading of "Life On Mars". A wave of emotion crashed through me; I held Rachel's hand as my musical obsession, my whole life even, came full circle. Needless to say, this beautiful rendition received an even longer standing ovation - were it not for Bowie starting up "Ashes To Ashes", I'd probably still be clapping and cheering now!

The set concluded with a quieter interlude, following "Petrol"; the haunting 80's "Loving The Alien" and "Reality"s "Days"; "Never Get Old", a splendid sing-along "Changes", the recent "I'm Afraid Of Americans", before the slow-start of "Heroes", which built to a titanic, absorbing crescendo, bookending the set perfectly. Eight thousand people rose as one for the third lengthy ovation of the night, to acclaim the Master.

Despite a 1 hour 50 minute set which seemed barely half that long, however, Bowie wasn't done. A couple of encores in, he ended with a classic trilogy; the chilling apocalyptic hush of "Five Years", the jolly rockabilly romper stomper of "Hang On To Yourself", then the spine-tingling riffery of "Ziggy Stardust", which ended with a crashing crescendo and the single word "BOWIE" projected across the stage video screens. As if you needed any reminding.

We then filed out and were home within 1 1/2 hours from leaving our seats, in awe and wonder. After 31 1/2 years of musical obsession initiated by David Bowie, it was an honour and a privilege to be in the same place as him, for one of the greatest nights of my life.

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