David Bowie made mutability a muse during his long career. So, it would be hard to imagine an artist better suited to the mercurial changes that define an all-star, pop tribute concert.
The late icon received a salute that was far more sweet than substantive at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Though there have been scores of individual hosannas to Bowie’s pivotal career since his death in January – from Lady Gaga’s garish one at the Grammys, to Lorde’s more tasteful piece at the Brit Awards – the Carnegie show provided the first sustained, and wide-ranging, genuflection.
The well-intentioned artists who honored Bowie on Thursday night – including Michael Stipe, Deborah Harry, Flaming Lips, Pixies, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, and more – will reprise, and augment, their performances with a similar show on Friday at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. That concert will be streamed worldwide at musicofdavidbowie.com, with voluntary donations solicited for charities, including the American Symphony Orchestra and Grammy in the Schools. (Profits from ticket sales for both shows will go to the same charities.)
Originally, Thursday’s concert was meant to salute a living artist. It was just the latest in an annual New York series which, in the past, has toasted ground-breakers from Joni Mitchell to Paul Simon. Organizers say Bowie himself planned to attend that show, but mere hours before tickets went on sale came the shock announcement of his passing. So the promoters morphed the night into a memorial, ballooned it to two shows and added performers – including Mumford and Sons, Esperanza Spalding and Kronos Quartet – for Friday’s presentation.
Both shows cast as their spiritual guide, and house band leader, Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime producer. He brought along the icon’s Ziggy-era bandmate Woody Woodmansey on drums. The cast proved fitting since the largely conservative song choices greatly favored Ziggy, and the entire glam-rock era. All but three of the nearly twenty pieces in the show dated from the 70s. The newest, original number delivered during the two hour show came courtesy of a robust Ann Wilson of Heart, who offered Let’s Dance, from 1982. Like many interpretations this night, it held as reverently to the original takes as possible.
Small wonder the hit-driven set list often upstaged the performances. Yet, early on, it became clear the night had more to do with letting the audience, and the stars, unleash the depth of their Bowie-ardor than with delivering highly polished or individual renditions. To wit: the audience leapt to its feet early and often, while they eagerly let tears flow. Don’t tell anyone, but I shed my own share.
This isn’t to say certain artists didn’t find some quirks and twists along the way. Cyndi Lauper literalized Suffragette City, stressing its feminist possibilities. A solo, acoustic Rickie Lee Jones turned All The Young Dudes from a glam anthem into a hipster piece of folk-jazz poetry. Joseph Arthur went wild with his whammy bar in The Man Who Sold The World, rendering it a psychedelic free-for-all, while both Laurie Anderson and members of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello deepened Bowie’s use of dissonance on the Low album via versions of Always Crashing In The Same Car and Breaking Glass, respectively. “That was crazy – in a good way,” said Visconti when the Gogol guys finished.
Soul singer Bettye Lavette proved an ideal fit for a song both Bowie and she covered separately in 1972, It Ain’t Easy. Lavette found all the bluesy roots Bowie consciously avoided in his take. In another twist on a cover, Pixies performed the song of theirs Bowie had interpreted in 2002: Cactus.
The most successfully radical take, however, belonged to Michael Stipe. He performed Ashes To Ashes with just a piano and backup vocals from model/singer Karen Elson. In an arrangement that suggested a lieder by Franz Schubert, he turned the piece into a psalm for the dead, communicating beautifully with the beyond.
Still, the closing acts offered a corrective, re-stressing the cathartic focus of the night. Flaming Lips performed Life On Mars in full glam regalia (complete with an appearance by Star Wars’ Chewbacca, for maximum absurdity). The final voices were those of the audience, instructed to sing Space Oddity on cue, to an absent hero. Though the lyrics were printed in the program, barely anyone had to glance down for guidance.
Cyndi Lauper – Suffragette City
HoLY HoLY – Width of a Circle
Robyn Hitchcock – Soul Love
Laurie Anderson – Always Crashing In The Same Car
Eugene Hurtz of Gogol Bordello – Breaking Glass
Debbie Harry – Starman
Joseph Arthur – The Man Who Sold The World
The Mountain Goats – Word On A Wing
Bettye LaVette – It Ain’t Easy
J Mascis & Sean Lennon – Quicksand/Whatever’s Cool With Me
Michael Stipe & Karen Olsen – Ashes to Ashes
Perry Farrell – Rebel Rebel
Cat Power – Five Years
Ann Wilson – Let’s Dance
Rickie Lee Jones – All The Young Dudes
Pixies – Cactus
Jakob Dylan – Heroes
The Flaming Lips – Life On Mars
The New York City Children’s Choir and the Carnegie Hall audience – Space Oddity