Weren’t we living in a real life Diamond dogs dystopia, the first weeks of the vaccine limbo of January 2021 would have been entirely entrusted to David Bowie. Five years ago, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, he released his latest album Black Star, an avant-garde jazz-rock swan song that makes him a sound adventurer to the end. Two days later, the starman ascended into orbit around the mortal sphere. As with Bowie’s death, it was as if he had planned it as a statement of art, giving his followers a reason to celebrate as much as to cry.
With that in mind, 24 hours later than billed due to Covid restrictions, Mike Garson, longtime Bowie pianist and former Spiders from Mars tour student, gathered remote contributions from an impressive number of guest stars. and accompanying musicians from Bowie, plundering his catalog for this large- reaching a three-hour tribute. From their CGI space cube, Duran Duran did well to get their dark synth Ziggy Stardustapocalyptic opening of “Five Years” first; later and they would have been eclipsed by support groups alone.
Projected in individual windows onto a large screen behind Garson’s stage piano, a true Olympus of demigods Bowie – Tony Visconti, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Levin and other legends – recreated the tracks they had helped forge, while the virtual guest singers enjoyed Bowie karaoke to finish them all. Unlike most tribute shows, A Bowie Celebration certainly didn’t have an issue of authenticity.
While crucial pieces of Bowie’s mercurial career were largely avoided – you hardly know he went to Berlin, and even Trent Reznor didn’t suggest honoring his period of industrial drum’n’bass from the ’90s – Garson’s imaginative visuals and staging combined with new interpretations of his diverse choice of guests to reflect the breadth and scope of Bowie’s work. Perry Farrell, in vampire ringmaster costume and accompanied by a Day of the Dead toreador, added a mariachi threat to “The Man Who Sold the World.” Billy Corgan, appearing on an antique television on Garson’s piano, delivered an austere retouch of “Space Oddity” wrapped in experimental piano and spacewalk visuals. Corey Glover of Living Color fleshed out the plastic soul of “Young Americans” while Reznor paid off his obvious debt to “Fashion” with a fantastic, near-industrial update. Bowie’s chameleon spirit was present and correct.
With Garson a constant presence, like a Jools Holland jazz piano, the fortunes of other patrons varied. Gary Barlow crisscrossed “Fame,” failing to fill a few chunky boots, while Adam Lambert – a scintillating aquamarine vision – half-moved “Starman.” Taylor Momsen of The Pretty Reckless, on the other hand, did an amazing job sounding 1971’s “Quicksand” (“should I kiss the viper’s fang?”) Like Taylor Swift trained in the occult.
Surrender was the key. While Ian Astbury hesitated over an overly respectful and very jazz ‘Lazarus’, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter was naturally in his element on ‘All the Young Dudes’, and Peter Frampton had a wham-bam time with ‘Suffragette City’ . Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and Corey Taylor of Slipknot got it right, showing up in person to spot “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”, “Hang on to Yourself” and “Little Fat Man” (the latter being the Bowie ditty invented in Supplements to describe Ricky Gervais, who also made a cameo video appearance) as if he was rehearsing in their mother’s garage.
The highlights came from unexpected neighborhoods. Gail Ann Dorsey’s honeyed renditions of “Can You Hear Me?” and “Strangers When We Meet”. Gary Oldman’s powerful theatrical performance on “I Can’t Read” by Tin Machine. Rolling Stones backing vocalist Bernard Fowler, apparently possessed by Bowie himself on a heavenly “Heroes” fence. And where you hoped YUNGBLUD could just get through “Life on Mars?” Without licking the mic and shouting ‘damn it!’ He steals all the limelight with a masterful performance that, if it had been the Grammys, would have seen him a superstar at dawn: follow this, the Boy George cabaret Aladdin Sane mixed. Under almost impossible circumstances, Garson pulled off a Herculean task, making Bowie proud, from a distance.