New York Times OCTOBER 15, 1997 - by Ann Powers


David Bowie, science-fiction fan, transported himself into an alternate reality on Monday night at the Supper Club, emerging as the leader of a dance band at the edge of time. Pop's master of artifice pulled a grand illusion by mixing his classics with material from his modestly successful new album, Earthling, and refusing to make the slightest distinctions. Mr. Bowie, who hasn't had a genuine hit in over a decade, might be expected to rest on his plastic laurels, but instead he mocked that role, erasing history's ups and downs by acting as if every song he performed were a chart-topping smash right now.

At first, when Mr. Bowie strolled onstage strumming an acoustic guitar, it seemed that the evening would be a far simpler nostalgia trip. Chuckling while he crooned Quicksand, from 1971, Mr. Bowie seemed ready for memory lane. His band - Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, Mike Garson on keyboard and Zachary Alford on drums - assembled and began Always Crashing In The Same Car, one of Mr. Bowie's prescient late-1970's ambient-music collaborations with Brian Eno. Though interrupted by I Can't Read, from the soundtrack for the current film The Ice Storm, Mr. Bowie's glam-rock-era hit Jean Genie and The Velvet Underground's Waiting For My Man set a pleasantly retrospective mood.

Then, in the echo of the audience's screams for Jean Genie, Mr. Garson keyed up the synthetic beats of I'm Afraid of Americans, the single released this week in remixed versions by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and the fashionable techno artist Photek. The volume soared and the screen behind the stage lit up with warped images as Mr. Bowie ridiculed decadent consumerism over a tight drum-and-bass groove. Crashing from that song into 1979's grandiose Look Back In Anger and then slinking into the mock exotic Seven Years In Tibet, from Earthling, Mr. Bowie and his band pushed the evening toward a fever pitch.

Though rambunctious reworkings of older songs prevailed, several highlights were newer, including Little Wonder, from Earthling, which stood up next to the innovations that once made Mr. Bowie the first electronically charged rock star. Ms. Dorsey's swooping vocals enlivened a new take on Mr. Bowie's 1982 duet with Queen, Under Pressure. And her supercharged basslines, in league with Mr. Alford's drumming, motivated Battle For Britain (The Letter), from Earthling, which also featured fractured keyboard flourishes from Mr. Garson, recalling his mood enhancements for Aladdin Sane.

Yet Mr. Bowie, who is to perform and receive an award from GQ magazine as a man of the year tonight at Radio City Music Hall, is no longer the shocking groundbreaker he was in the 1970's. He is a supremely ambitious, often self-important artist saved by his love of playing the trickster - a man who still does mime onstage, but makes sure he performs it with a sneer. Mr. Bowie's current writing partner, Mr. Gabrels, hardly matches his late collaborator Mick Ronson in intelligence or chops. Mr. Bowie, however, obviously loves this band, and he pushes them to their limit.

As the two-hours-plus evening catapulted to its end, a quirky cover of Laurie Anderson's O Superman giving way to the cryogenically preserved anthem All The Young Dudes, it was easy to imagine Mr. Bowie's very organs regenerating under the force of his will to be relevant. "Don't wanna stay alive when you're twenty-five," he sang, aping the recklessness of his youth. But his cat-like grin made it clear that staying alive is exactly the point when you're fifty.