Glasgow Barrowland, July 22 1997
Consider this: David Bowie receives an ovation at the Barrowland before he’s even on stage.
It happens toward the end of the warm-up DJ set provided by DJ Pathaan, when he slips an unexpected ‘Changes’ into the decidedly drum-n-bassed-up playlist that had hitherto been slipping by largely unnoticed. An ovation, already. A sudden shower of respectful good time applause. Just because someone played a record. Before he’s even on stage.
Bowie at the Barras though! Who’d have thought it? And who would have thought that it could have felt so suddenly, strangely important, as it did, standing in the queue outside. We’re 1972, we’re 1977, we’re 1981 and, good lord, how has this happened, we’re 1997, all at once. A rare, calm excitement slowly snakes through the line waiting at the doors. Where does it come from?
It shouldn’t feel like this, not at all. And when last he played in the vicinity, at Glasgow’s SECC, it didn’t really feel like this. There was anticipation, sure, but of a muted sort, and then a far-away show designed for the uncomfortable seats we’ve been trained to accept as our lot in life. But in having the Barrowland as his home for the evening, Bowie scores in advance – and the venue does too. Sometimes it can feel as if the Barras is trading on its reputation as Best Gig In The World; but, tonight, the place stirred itself; it was breathing again. An alchemy of sorts.
And there he is: stepping out alone behind an acoustic guitar, and he’s strumming ‘Quicksand,’ cooing supremely to the I-can’t-believe-he’s-doing-this delirium of the crowd. “And I ain’t got the power anymore…” Don’t believe it, everything is going to be alright. Hunky Dory, in fact.
As the band emerge to pick up the tail of the song in true Spiders-style, Bowie switches into what appears to be a formless, thin white plastic blues. He’s singing very quietly, almost to himself, something about being adrift on a ship on an open sea, with no-one to help (the song is “Driftin’,” the laidback Charles Brown tune, later set howling on fire by the great Little Walter, an unexpected glimpse of the young mod Bowie). Things falter, a hum of talk descends at the back of the crowd, builds, until people gradually begin to discern the new half-recognised lyric he’s started sneaking in under the riff…what is that?…It’s…it’s bloody hell… it’s ‘The Jean Genie!’
The band falls into position behind him. The roof of the venue strains visibly.
Bowie’s current junglist flirtation first appears with a revamped ‘Man Who Sold The World’ – presented in a dubby, spacious, quite lovely strange-beat overhaul that is perhaps offered as a guiding hand: a way into the newer material for those scattered tentative souls who have thus far been offering shouts of “Ye-es, that’s the stuff! Fuckyer dance shite!”
And here’s the rub. It’s obvious that, if he chose to, David Bowie could still raze the Barrowland Ballroom to a glittering pile of magic-cold Euro-dust peopled by an audience of wide-eyed and drooling pop-dreamers, simply by neglecting to play anything he’s written since, say, 1984.
This is, in itself, remarkable. And somewhere deep down, maybe that’s what we want him to do – or not so deep down, in many cases.
The thing is, there are other feelings and desires swimming about in the hearts of the Bowie-people, too. The sheer respect he’s due for being so bloody-minded and aggressive in his pursuit of a shiny new metallic noise, still looking, and still heroically unafraid to look ridiculous in the search, if that’s what it takes. The fervent hope that, against the odds, he’ll chance upon something as wondrous again. It’s missing the point, by a very large margin, to ever accuse Bowie of opportunistically jumping on any passing train, of being a musical Nosferatu, sucking from the neck of every virgin young fad. At least, it is if you’ve ever followed him, ever loved and believed in anything the man has done.
Moments tonight of ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,’ seconds from ‘The Battle for Britain,’ ‘Little Wonder’ and ‘Looking for Satellites,’ the drive of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and sundry other tiny glimpses offer the hope that he could be onto something here, that the road is there again ahead. Those times when the music’s tinny clutter opens up and there’s room to move: these are the times when Bowie looks like the only Millennium crooner on the face of the planet, with 30 years of presence and searching behind him, and a raging new thirst. It’s not that he’s trying jungle, it’s that he’s written some nasty new pop grooves and lashed them up with the technology, creating a fascinating monster.
Bowie knows what he’s doing up there, of course, and so those disaffected by the likes of the recent ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ are roundly brought to heel by a pneumatic ‘Fame’ or a pistol-whipped ‘Fashion.’ ‘Under Pressure,’ sung in gorgeous duet with the impeccable bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, is more beautifully dramatic now than it ever was back then. Late on, ‘Stay’ is dusted down and found to still be the gleaming, prowling monster it was at the occult disco heart of Station To Station.
The apex of the night, though, comes with ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),’ grown titanic; just headlong, raging beautiful. There, this singer balanced on the monitors, this sound rushing down and sweeping you halfway to the stars, you know that sometimes there is indeed a God. And he looks amazing for his age.
Originally published in Scotland On Sunday.