David Bowie, the most provocatively fashion-conscious rock star of the Seventies, has mellowed into a subtle, warm entertainer. Now healthy and friendly rather than remotely decadent, he was close to his best at the 2000-capacity Astoria in his last British concert of the century.
This was Bowie at his least theatrical and most musical. Smart but casual in a V-necked fuchsia jumper, he seemed very comfortable onstage, sang remarkably well despite being bunged up with flu, and constructed a varied and exciting set of old and new songs from his 23-album career.
He kicked off with Life On Mars, with just piano backing, then the sevenpiece band played Word on a Wing, from 1976, followed by an excellent Thursday’s Child, from the new album. Ashes to Ashes was messy but Survive was solid, and Can’t Keep Thinking About Me, an uptempo tune reminsicent of the Who, recalled 1966.
The distinctive keyboard intro for China Girl transported fans into ecstasies, Always Crash The Same Car featured wailing wah-wah guitar, and while Something In The Air was a shade tedious, and he enlivened a swinging Drive-In Saturday by camping gently with a feather boa.
Stay, from Station To Station, was staccato funk with a nicely mechanical beat, while Seven, a new ballad in the space-folk mode, was masterful, the finest performance of the night.Changes and Rebel Rebel created pogo mayhem to end the set after 65 minutes.
The first encore, Repetition, was from Lodger, Pretty Things Are Going To Hell was another guitar work-out, and the band then stormed through Cracked Actor before finishing with a superheavy drum ‘n’ bass version of I’m Afraid of Americans. As the grunting, burping music grew ever more thunderously menacing, and the strobe lights flickered, the still-boyish star, 52, stood to attention and gave us a droll salute. He regained his sense of humour after giving up cocaine.
I saw his first good band in 1971, then saw the Rainbow in 1972 and Tin Machine in 1989.
But this was the only David Bowie concert I have ever really enjoyed, maybe because all the posers have finally grown up. The band was a little under-rehearsed, starting each song tentatively, but the rhythm section and backing vocalists were outstanding. It’s been a strange and sometimes controversial road from Beckenham Arts Laboratory to davidbowie.com but at this gig it all seemed to make sense. Bowie says he likes the internet because it allows him to enjoy dialogue while staying just out of reach.
The Astoria suited his warmer new persona and the whole evening felt like a special event.
Before the show the street was awash with touts and distressed Japanese girls without tickets, and afterwards, as a car drove away, there was a big ripple among fans outside the stage door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall,” said a young brunette, smiling as she hugged her boyfriend.
I asked Jeff, a former Mod, what colour Bowie’s sweater was. With stage lighting, it’s hard to tell. He wasn’t sure, so he emailed his pal David to find out. For me, fuchsia is a colour that looks good on girls. And my wife. Not a colour I would wear. But it looked marvellous on Bowie.