Celebrating David Bowie
Opera House, January 29
This was not, absolutely not, don’t even think of using the term, a “tribute” – ooh, spit it out right now – show. That’s what we were told in the pre-tour media blitz, essentially as a matter of pride.
These were not just any old musicians getting up for a jam on a golden catalogue, an upmarket version of the shows which fill mid-size venues every weekend with tributes to Zeppelin, or the Beatles, Adele or Queen before audiences who just want classic hits radio/Smooth FM with beer on tap.
No, these were people who had played with Bowie, in several cases for decades, and they wanted to honour the shared legacy with a celebration.
Names such as Mike Garson, who on this night reproduced, with bells on, his fabulous solo from Aladdin Sane; drummer Sterling Campbell, who was with Garson on the last Bowie tour in 2003 and is a force of power; Mark Platti, who was on bass through good portions of the ‘90s, and quietly starred here’ and Earl Slick, who looked like a decadent rock cliché come to life as much as he was a link to Bowie’s 1974 band come to life but, once his guitar was turned up, did some jagged, bluesy contributions.
In practise of course, the line between tribute and celebration was not always clear and the show was not always on the “right” side of that line of honour, especially when yet another talented but generalised backing singer stepped forward to lead a song.
There’s a reason why not every technically gifted singer is a frontwoman/man: taking a song beyond the notes is a matter of personality and presence and some element of uniqueness. These were missing in Fashion, Golden Years and Where Are We Now?, which were pleasant but bland, and underwhelming in Five Years and Wild Is The Wind.
It’s one reason why, perhaps to the surprise of them as much as us, it was local singers who are imperfect but individual presences - Sarah Blasko (Life On Mars, in particular), Paul Dempsey (very good on Man Who Sold The World; a bit of a revelation in Suffragette City) and Bernard Fanning (most surprisingly with Space Oddity and Under Pressure) - who marked their place in this company.
Their quality can be show by the fact they weren’t totally outshone by another proper frontman, the vivid, almost lurid, painted-and-costumed Angelo Moore, from Fishbone, who gave tracks such as Moonage Daydream exactly the kind of individual flair needed, while staying in touch with the attitude of the original.
That said, there were two words to sum up why the show was not just a tribute show: Adrian Belew. The guitarist and singer, a veteran of not just Bowie, Zappa and Talking Heads but King Crimson and an eclectic solo career, was electrifying every time he stepped on stage.
He may look – and dance – like your dweebish uncle, but his ability to bend or fire notes as needed, to snake and dive and cut through (or to create a delicate piece of beauty in the classical guitar intro to Life On Mars) was the clearest link to not just the sound but the thinking of the original recordings and performances.
He made Sound And Vision, I Am A DJ/Boys Keep Swinging and Fame highly entertaining, and wasn’t a bad singing alternative either, even if his lower register couldn’t make the same impact as his upper register, or his playing.
While those were the additions, in a show which was never less than fun and sometimes reached exciting with high quality playing in every corner, it was an absence which jarred most.
There was only one song from Bowie’s penultimate album, The Next Day, and nothing from his final album, Black Star, when two songs from Black Star were performed in the version of this concert performed in Los Angeles for example – by Sting no less – and both albums are brilliant.
With the more difficult period between 1985 and 2015 essentially wiped from the record in a show wholly dominated by the 1970s, a proper recognition of the significance of not just Bowie’s broader career, and his final works, went begging.
That sounds a bit more like the thinking for a regular, hits-heavy, tribute show don’t you think? Something which this show, whatever its faults, was better than.