New York Daily News - 16th December 2003


Star weathers the ch-ch-changes and returns with a vital show

By Jim Farber

At David Bowie's first headlining date at Madison Square Garden in seven years, the star had to do more than just prove he could re-enter the world of big-league concerts.

He also had to overcome his status as this season's most famous flu victim.

But Bowie didn't seem rusty or runny-nosed.

Just a few weeks shy of his 57th birthday, Bowie was in burly voice and brisk shape Monday, looking and sounding at least 20 years younger than his actual age.

The odds were against him. He was forced to cancel the first five dates of his "Reality" tour last week while he nursed himself back to health.

That left him in the unenviable position of having to use the massive - and prestigious - Garden as a virtual warm up date for his large arena tour.

But in terms of raw excitement, the show even outperformed Bowie's last New York run, a rare round of shows at small clubs in all five boroughs in 2002.

Normally, Bowie plays smaller gigs at the sort of theaters suited to his role as a long-running cult artist. In the gaping Garden, Bowie had to satisfy two needs: the larger crowd's desire to hear the hits and his own craving to keep moving ahead creatively.

In his two-hour, 25-song Garden performance he chose to weave in nine pieces from recent albums with songs from his golden years. It helped smooth the transitions that the star has lately returned to conventional songs after years of more avant-garde work.

"I'm back where I started from," Bowie sang during the title song of his latest album, "Reality."

And so he is.

His last two albums reunited him with his producer from the '70s, Tony Visconti. Together, they've rekindled Bowie's talent for compelling melodies and hot riffs.

When Bowie tried to balance those urges in the '80s, he wound up sounding like a sellout. Here, a new rocker like "New Killer Star" had the coiled guitar lines of old, while "The Loneliest Guy" proved Bowie can still fashion a graceful ballad.

The famously elliptical star has become clearer in his lyrics, and more interested in mortality. It's an interesting development at a time when he looks more vital than ever. Bowie has also kept up to date in his politics.

He performed a song from his experimental, electronica album, "Earthling," called "I'm Afraid of Americans," which seems more relevant now than when it was written six years ago. Live, the band fractured its funky beat with industrial guitars and keyboards that made its rhythm only more furious and deep.

Bowie tempered the song's message by following it with "Heroes," which he called "the other side of the story."

In listening to the hits, the breadth of Bowie's material especially impressed. He progressed from the fascistic funk of "Fashion" or "Fame," to the glam-rock of "Rebel Rebel" and "Hang on to Yourself," to the theatricality of "Life on Mars" and "The Man Who Sold the World."

The passion of Bowie's performance rescued these pieces from nostalgia.

Here, they sounded like lost cousins to the new songs, connected by his still thriving skill at delivering good work.