Celebrating David Bowie
Jan. 25, 2017
The prolific work of David Bowie has been begging for a proper musical tribute since he died, and it finally got one with the Celebrating David Bowie tour, featuring an impressive lineup of his former bandmates and various guest singers. Last night at the second L.A. date at the Wiltern, a nonstop procession of powerhouse performances, anchored by Bowie’s longtime pianist Mike Garson, made for a perfect sampler of the iconic artist’s hits and lesser-known numbers.
The Cult’s Ian Astbury, Fishbone’s Angelo Moore, Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, Slipknot and Stone Sour’s Corey Taylor, Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley and Sting (who made a surprise appearance, as he was only officially scheduled for Tuesday night) are just a few of the stars who took the mic to pay Bowie homage in song. Of course some singers captured Bowie’s enigmatic allure better than others, but the shimmering thread that ran through the show was the fervency and reverence for the exquisite compositions he crafted. In life and death, Bowie's androgynous, otherworldly stage presence and sensual style have received the most attention, but when his songs are taken on their own merit and interpreted in different ways, they still hold up. (Which may be why Bowie is one the most covered artists of all time.)
Still, his presence, especially last night, is always there when his music is performed. It was especially felt last night with so many of his more recent collaborators onstage. Unlike Holy Holy, his longtime producer Tony Visconti’s Bowie tribute last year (also held at the Wiltern), this show felt a little more vibrant and momentous, and not just because of the multitude of stellar guests. Holy Holy was a grand show and it did have the last surviving Spider From Mars (Mick Woodmansey) on drums. But Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory and Visconti's daughter Jessica Morgan dominated the vocal duties for that one and Bowie deserved something bigger, bolder and more diverse. Last night he got that and then some.
Garson opened up the show with a Bowie medley on piano that was a peaceful yet promising commencement to the proceedings. There was also a conductor onstage and an orchestral section, a horn section and gospel choir for some songs, along with a band made up mostly of Bowie's former players, including guitarist Earl Slick, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, Adrian Belew, Mark Plati, Sterling Campbell, Holly Palmer, Zack Alford, Carmine Rojas, Blair Sinta, Ron Dziubla, Lyle Workman and the event's co-producer (with Garson and actor Gary Oldman), Angelo “Scrote” Bundini.
Astbury’s dramatic take on “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” was truly “wonderful,” and had hands waving in the air early on. It left me wanting more from him. Fowler — filling in for Perry Farrell, who was scheduled but sick — did a few powerful takes, including the uptempo hits “Rebel Rebel” and “The Jean Genie” (would’ve been a treat to see him do his boss’s duet with DB, “Dancing in the Streets,” though!). Joe Elliott proved formidable on “Suffragette City” and “All the Young Dudes,” and a U.K. singer named Mr Hudson captured Bowie’s British charm, especially on “Changes.” Rossdale’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” wasn’t quite as evocative but still fun, as were Taylor’s “China Girl” and Hadley’s “Let Dance.”
Angelo Moore wins the night when it comes to emulating Bowie’s flamboyant showmanship; he came out, face painted, as a character he called “Nigga Stardust.” His ferocious and subtly funky versions of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Moonage Daydream” were just magnificent. Sting was the big star of the night, of course, serving up two flawless and obviously heartfelt renditions from Bowie’s last recordings, the title track to Blackstar and “Lazarus.” His son, Joe Sumner, was no slouch either, taking on “Life on Mars?”
Gail Ann Dorsey may not be as well known as many of the guest vocalists, but for those of us familiar with Bowie’s touring band and inner circle, the highlights of the night might have been her bass stylings and potent vocals. Bowie’s longtime bassist and friend sang sublime versions of “Space Oddity,” “Young Americans” and “Aladdin Sane.”
It was a dizzying and bittersweet, three-hours-plus experience that surely surpassed the original show it was inspired by (which featured Seal, Gary Oldman and Ewan McGregor) at the Roxy last February. Every hardcore fan should have been there. For this Bowie lover (and many Angelenos), the Wiltern holds extra significance, too, as it was the site of one of his final shows in Los Angeles in 2004. The performance I saw there remains hands-down one of the best live concerts I've ever seen. Ever.
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The reality that our Bowie/Ziggy/Aladdin/Starman/Thin White Duke is really gone hit home more than ever last night. But his mates did everything they could to honor him in all his guises.