I had procrastinated about attending this gig. I’ve been to a fair few of these “Tribute to” evenings (Here’s the Gil Scott Heron one from 2016) and they can be a mixed bag. You get to hear new interpretations of a favoured artists songs but often they can be under rehearsed, glitchy or just plain, not as good as the original.
I therefore headed down to Brixton with tempered expectations. I am a huge David Bowie fan and this being largely his band put the event on the front foot. The emotional pull of his birthday and being near to the anniversary of his death and the release of “Blackstar” added a deeper resonance. It was clear from the audience that they had taken the organiser and piano man Mike Garson at his word and were treating this as a celebration rather than a wake. I was also aware that the much of the band had only just flown in from the US and therefore rehearsal time with some of their singers and other musicians had been limited.
Garson opened proceedings with a thrilling overture, quoting his greatest pianistic hits (“Wild Is The Wind”, “Bring Me The Disco King”, “Lady Grinning Soul”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Time”) before Gary Oldman joined Mark Plati and Gail Ann Dorsey for an accomplished acoustic “Dead Man Walking”.
It was an epic show lasting over two and half hours. The repertoire was pretty much what would have been expected with the huge bulk of the songs running from 1969 to 1984, from “Space Oddity” to “Loving The Alien”, the exceptions being “Where Are We Now” and “Dead Man Walking”.
The most successful interpretations generally fell into two categories.
The first were those by Bernard Fowler, who has been touring a Bowie show with Earl Slick (see here) and also those by Gail Ann Dorsey. For these numbers, the band were familiar, locked in and confident, as Earl’s set piece at the start of “Stay” showed.
There were a couple of particularly sublime moments, both from “Young Americans”. The version of the unexpected “Win” was just magical, with Fowler treating it respectfully as the Philly soul number that it was conceived to be. Gail Ann Dorsey delivered a hip-swaying version of the title track, helped by the London Community Gospel Choir. Whether it was the excitement of hearing a song Bowie hadn’t performed for many a year or the presence of the choir, but this was the most celebratory of moments. Gail was obviously enjoying herself and took it to the church – my friend Mark commented that apparently she had been bugging Bowie to perform the number for years but to no avail. Well – it was well worth waiting for.
The other successes were those songs where the singer had the confidence and indeed, star quality to own the emotions of the evening, fill the vast stage and add their own interpretation with a little stardust sprinkled on too. Joe Elliott of Def Leppard (a huge glam rock fan) delivered a rabble rousing “All The Young Dudes”, much closer to Ian Hunter’s delivery than Bowie’s. It wasn’t subtle but treating it as a gospel fuelled terrace anthem worked perfectly. Gaby Moreno’s “Five Years” was an early dramatic highlight, her impressive range stretching the fabric of the song.
The performance which took the roof off of the venue for me was “Moonage Daydream”. Enter Angelo Moore, leader of the the Californian band Fishbone that has been producing their blend of ska, punk, funk and any other genre you can shake a stick at since the 80s. Dressed in oversized “Child of Jago” style clothing, he tipped his bowler hat, prowled, pounced and pouted. He went toe to toe with Earl Slick and just kept increasing the drama. A stellar rendition from an unexpected source.
The usual issues for these large ensemble evenings cropped up too. The collective version of “Sorrow” was blighted by unintentional feedback from an acoustic guitar. The best thing you could say about La Roux’s version of “Golden Years” was that she looked the part. Cues were missed, verse to chorus transitions fluffed but this will get better and by the last evening of the tour, I’m sure the show will be much sharper and these bugs will be ironed out.
Tony Hadley’s chicken in a basket version of “Changes” went down a storm but I thought it was cheesy and over-emotive. Adrian Belew’s contributions were a bit hit and miss. His rhythm playing on “Sound and Vision” showed how subtly wonderful a guitarist Carlos Alomar is. A double blast of “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging” was more successful, the angularity suiting his guitar playing. He conjured up a rather beautiful intricate solo acoustic introduction to “Life On Mars”, which led into Tom Chaplin more familiar version.
Without wishing to discredit some very good singers though, it felt that some of the songs vocally were providing a vehicle for the Bowie band to play them and the audience to celebrate them, rather than providing an interpretation in its own right. That in itself was no bad thing though, as spending almost three hours listening to one of the sharpest bands in the world, is three hours well spent.
And there’s the nub of the evening, the one person who wasn’t in the room.
The absence of Bowie just served to emphasise the transformative qualities that he brought to this material. Given that he had not toured for so long, there was a hunger to be part of the communal experience of his sharpest cohorts going through their best quality work. This was great to experience but it left you yearning for the man himself. The version of “Under Pressure” at the end was musically perfect but missed the frisson of his live version with Gail Ann Dorsey or even Annie Lennox. There was no physical contact between the two singers (the talented Catherine Russell and Sting’s son Joe Sumner) and whilst they hit all of the right notes in the right order, you weren’t transported.
In fairness, it may have been a little too raw and emotional for Gail to have sung this with any one but Bowie but it felt like a wee bit of a wasted opportunity otherwise.
On the way home, I was musing on what he would have made of the evening.
He had revisited his material relatively recently in the Lazarus musical. He was constantly going back and reframing his songs, whether it be playing the Ziggy numbers on the “Stage” tour or performing “Low” at the Meltdown Festival. Therefore the concept of performing his back catalogue wouldn’t have been an anathema to him.
In the light of the giant steps of “Blackstar”, the music felt of the last century, literally and metaphorically. This wasn’t a place that Donny McAslin would have felt at home in. It was largely a jazz free zone, aside from Mike Garson’s rumbustious soloing on “Aladdin Sane”. The reproductions were generally faithful and weren’t cognisant of his new direction.
This was also very much centre-field take on Bowie too, not too many edges on show. Given his reputation for inspiring so many musicians, especially in the early 80s, the experimental side was absent, with only the aforementioned Hadley and Simon Le Bon present from that era, neither of whom represent that philosophy. For instance, it would have been interesting for Neil Tennant to have performed “Hallo Spaceboy”, some of the New Wave Bowie acolytes, the electronic artists from the eighties or now or perhaps see a more visual interpretation of Bowie’s stylistic legacy.
In the end though, this wasn’t an event to criticise. On reflection, it wasn’t probably the forum for musical exploration either. I hope that these gigs help the band members find a way of playing such wonderful material on a regular basis. It would be a crying shame if the relationships and the collective experience they provide fall away in Bowie’s absence, as despite its very occasional pitfalls, the evening was a lot of fun.
Bowie was and continues to be a huge part of many people’s lives. At a time when there is scant opportunity to celebrate in the world, let’s take any opportunities we can get.
Here’s a setlist.
Only it isn’t quite:
- “Lady Grinning Soul” did get played, only much later in the set
- “Ziggy Stardust” did get played
- The Joe S noted is Joe Sumner, aka Son of Sting
- GAD is Gail Ann Dorsey, of course