All the gigs of my life: Gig 78 – David Bowie, Wednesday, November 19, 2003, NEC, Birmingham

My second show of the A Reality tour, and an overwhelmingly emotional night.

As you can see from the photo above, my diary entry for this gig begins like this:

Oh my god (as ever, literally) if words failed about Monday, then over last night they have spontaneously combusted.

It was my second Bowie gig of the week, and a night of fun and thrills and intense emotion was ahead of me. As this was my first visit to Birmingham, I felt a little more anxious than I’d been on Monday in familiar Manchester.I was a bit wary about getting to the venue and back, being completely new to this city as I am, and not knowing the ins and outs of its transport system and whether one was likely to get murdered on the walk back to one’s hotel at midnight. It wasn’t helped by the odd annoying stomach pains that’ve been plaguing me since I got to Birmingham.’ (As a life long IBS and endometriosis sufferer, this was neither the first nor last time I’d fend off stomach gremlins in order to make my way to a gig!)

But all these are trivial concerns when there’s a Bowie gig to go to! And as it turned out, I got to the venue with very little difficulty. ‘It was about a ten minute train journey to Birmingham International, then a long and winding walkway round the convention centre to actually get to the arena. then a decade or so in the queue for the ladies, and you’re in! Very happy with my seat again. A bit further back – 9th row – but in the centre this time so even better view, though of course I was plotting frontward mobility from the start.’

Once again I thoroughly enjoyed the support set from the Dandy Warhols.

‘The Dandies came on and were fantastic again, with a somewhat more enthusiastic crowd than on Monday. An added bonus was that because of where I was sitting it appeared that Courtney was staring straight at me for much of the gig, especially during “You were the last high” as I sang the words right back at him. Well it’s nice to think so anyway.’

Then it was time to get tactical and plan my move towards the front. I saw many of the same people from Monday’s gig making a move to the barrier and of course I followed them.

‘We did all crowd against the barrier – for a few tantalising moments. I was second row centre – but we were all sent back to our seats. However! All was not lost as just before the band were due on, the first three rows were allowed to the front. So the rows behind all shifted forwards too, and I ended up squeezed into the third row of seats, slightly to the right of centre. It was, in fact, an even better position than Monday’s second row left. My view of the man was incredible. The Man!’

The gig started in the same way as Monday’s had, with “Rebel Rebel”, “New Killer Star”, “Reality”. But things were in a higher gear from the start. ‘Manchester had taken a while to completely liven up, but the Birmingham crew were storming from the start.

It was at this point that I discovered something interesting about David’s outfit that night. ‘He wore, as far as I could tell, exactly the same outfit as for Riverside, and it was during “Reality” that I noticed an extra accessory in his pocket – a harmonica! I couldn’t think of when he’d used one on Monday, so I figured a change of setlist was imminent, and I was right! For the very next tune they did was “Jean Genie”! And it was, in fact, the first of five extra songs they played last night. ‘Twas storming, naturally.’

Much fun ensued, with ‘further japery’ around “China Girl” similar to Monday night, ‘with the band striking up “China Girl” only for David to stop them and start “Afraid” only to stop them again and do “China Girl”!‘ And then, thrillingly, another song I hadn’t heard live before.

What do you know? It was “Fashion”!! My god, what a great tune live, all stomping and chanting and “beep beep”! So much fun!

From the tour programme

The set then continued as for Monday, with all its attendant thrills, but things felt a bit different this night.

‘It all seemed more intense somehow, and even more thrilling. Words cannot express how thrilling “Hallo Spaceboy” is live, enhanced by David’s prowl of the catwalk. Truly the point where the gig shifts into high gear, or whatever the driving metaphor is. And he does this amusing thing with the mic, passing it back and forwards in front of his mouth as he sings to create an oscillating effect which sounds silly but actually fits the song very well.’

“Sunday” was ‘huge and resounding‘, and then in the band intros just before “Under Pressure”, David introduced Gail Ann Dorsey as ‘his favourite American‘. “Under Pressure” was, as before, incredible. ‘What a joyous tune, singing along with that rousing, rising final section “…cos love’s such and old-fashioned word…” etc.

Then there was a tiny moment of apparent connection: ‘in the second half of “Life On Mars”, he appeared to be staring straight at me. Yeah I know it’s just a trick of perspective but I don’t care!’

I can’t help but grin as I read this, knowing that something even more thrilling would happen the following night… but that’s a story for my next post!

David was clearly in a mischievous mood that night, engaging in much banter with the crowd.

“The Motel” saw hundreds of hands thrust into the air for “me exploding you!” “That would have been a new song for a lot of you”, he said, to protests from the front. “Yeah, well, I know, not for you, Janice” he continued randomly. Then he took a letter from a fan who’d been holding it out to him for the past few songs. “It’s in Russian!” he proclaimed, before trying to give it back, which was a bit mean. Rightfully, the fan refused to take it, so he put it on the floor as he sang the glorious “Loving The Alien”. ‘

During “I’m Afraid Of Americans” David made a comment about a “certain visitor” the UK had at the time – George W Bush. I didn’t note what he said in my diary, though I’m sure it was not favourable. Staring back at that moment from 17 years on however, it really makes me long for that innocent time when Bush seemed like the worst world leader possible. How little we could have predicted the state we’d be in now.

“Americans” was ‘another astounding live track, punching the air to that driving chorus‘, but as with the previous gig, it was “Heroes” that did me in. ‘Just overwhelming, to be standing in front of this man, singing that song back at him, as he sings it so movingly to us. And during that second’s pause, knowing that it was all about to burst to life again for that glorious, glorious coda, well, my heart just gave way. It moved me to tears.’

The band were off and I gathered myself for the final blast. ‘More surprises! Mike Garson roams back on and strikes up “Bring Me The Disco King”! David sings from the right-hand catwalk, the first time I’d seen him up there, sneaking through these great white upturned branches that adorn either side of the stage. It was utterly beautiful yet provided a slight relief from all the intensity. “Slip Away”, however, chucked us right back in it. There he was, kneeling at the front of the stage, directly in front of me, as we follow the lyrics of the poignant refrain on the screen behind. “We were dumb, but you were fun boy!” I swear, he looked directly at me again. Ah it was wonderful.’

Another page from the programme!

Then “Heathen (The Rays)” was ‘all dark and steely with the crowd clapping along to its metronomic rhythm. At its end David covered his eyes and was led off stage clinging to Gail’s shoulder as though blind – was that not a trick from Glass Spider? I feel I’ve seen it somewhere before.‘ There’s certainly something a bit similar to what I describe here in the “Time Will Crawl” video!

I wondered if this might be the final song, but no! He was soon back with his acoustic guitar for “Five Years” which was, like “Heroes”, overwhelming. ‘Again, I was in tears at its end. But no time to weep! For “Suffragette City” was upon us with its raucous energy, and of course we all got to holler “aaaaaaH WHAM BAM THANK YOU MAAM!!!” which was lots of fun. And “Ziggy Stardust”, those crunching chords crashing through your skull, the final exultant “Ziggy played guitaaaaaaaar!!!”, arms outstretched, his in a crucifix pose, ours towards him.

There were no grouped bows this night, just a wave and they were off. And so was I, off and away on the absolute, life-altering power that only a David Bowie gig could bring.

‘My god, I was shattered, but in a wonderful way, sounds silly to write it now, but I felt I was on another plane, transported even. Felt altered. Walked halfway to the train station with just my “Aladdin Sane” sleeveless top, baring my arms to the winter night without noticing.’

Luckily for me however I didn’t catch my death of flu. For although i’d already had two incredible experiences on my Bowie odyssey so far, the best was absolutely yet to come.

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