Toronto Star - April 2nd 2004

Bowie flashes his gold

Toronto audience revels in smash hits from his songbook Singer also pleases with newer gems, writes Ben Rayner

Let Mick Jagger and Bono tussle over who's got the biggest band in the world. David Bowie is the quintessential "thinking man's" rock star and that, at the end of the day, is a far more enviable position in which to be.

We've been conditioned to expect the unexpected from Bowie, so the surprise was palpable during the old smoothie's sold-out visit to the Air Canada Centre last night when it briefly appeared rock 'n' roll's most famous shapeshifter had adopted the guise of Bowie the Populist for his current Reality tour.

Topping his set list with some of the purest pop hits in his catalogue - a boisterous "Rebel Rebel" was offered as crowd-pleasing opener, followed swiftly by the guilty '80s pleasure "Modern Love" and "China Girl" and a camp swagger through "All The Young Dudes" - proved a savvy first move in a night-long game of give-and-take with an audience that, for the most part, hasn't paid much attention to Bowie's new material since "Let's Dance."

It's their loss, really. Last year's Reality and its brooding 2002 predecessor, Heathen - the best record to bear the 57-year-old Bowie's name in 20 years - have contained some of his most direct, accessible and self-referential material in years, and it was clear from the extensive stage time given to songs from those albums that Bowie is the rare artist of his vintage committed to where he is now, not yesterday.

The blaring Reality track "New Killer Star" was an early winner, as was Bowie and his crack band's increasingly (quite pleasingly) dirty version of "Cactus" by the Pixies. "Never Get Old" proved a more convincing statement in concert than on record, while the deliberate, long-simmering Heathen bookends "Sunday" and "Heathen (The Rays)" were transporting mood pieces that stood nearly level with their Scary Monsters-era cousin, "Ashes To Ashes."

Paying homage to obscure children's entertainer Uncle Floyd ("Slip Away") and playing to the ladies with the new softies "The Loneliest Guy" and "Days" may have cost him a bit of momentum, but Bowie bounced back by trotting out some less-than-obvious chestnuts on the way to "Heroes" and the encore.

It was during this stretch, when a raw, off-kilter kick at Ziggy Stardust's "Hang On To Yourself" gave way to Hunky Dory's acid-folk epic "Quicksand" and "I'm Afraid Of Americans," that one was struck by the creative breadth of Bowie's vast songbook. And how, despite some divisive moments, he's always given the impression he believes in whatever it is he's doing. For that reason, we still believe, too.