“He’ll be remembered like Beethoven, in a hundred years’ time,” longtime producer Tony Visconti said of David Bowie recently, and, five years on from the artist’s death, his colossal influence still resonates across all manner of art forms. The latest incarnations range from the new Harry Styles single to a children’s relaxation app that features “Ziggy’s hunky dory sleepy story”.
The weekend that would have marked the singer’s 74th birthday brought a flurry of activity, not least this epic livestreamed tribute. Pianist Mike Garson, Bowie’s longest-serving musician, curated a lineup of singers and six-decades worth of Bowie alumni – almost 100 musicians – for three hours of sound and vision. The 40 songs ranged from obvious classics to lesser-known gems such as Strangers When We Meet and Conversation Piece. Despite a hiccup (blaming technical issues and Covid) meaning a 24-hour postponement, the event finally got off to a strong start with Duran Duran’s homage to Five Years, Bowie’s enormous shadow looming fondly over their coiffured hair and tailored suits.
The pandemic might have precluded a traditional concert with an audience, but the upside was a technical masterclass, which reflected and revelled in Bowie’s love of performance art and theatre. Some artists were filmed live in a building, others Zoomed in to levitating screens from distant studios, their own homes or the street, with much use of computer graphics. Perry Farrell and pals brought theatrics, camp and a Phantom of the Opera mask to The Man Who Sold the World, while Billy Corgan’s disembodied head sang Space Oddity against breathtaking imagery of the Earth from space. Gary Barlow – of all people – turned in a very respectable Fame, while Lena Hall and Lzzy Hale’s Moonage Daydream cracked with the freakish electricity of the Ziggy Stardust era.
It was refreshing to hear so many women sing his words, with Anna Calvi’s eerie jazz Bring Me the Disco King and Judith Hill’s soulful Lady Stardust and Under Pressure (with Andra Day) among highlights. Longstanding Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey brought personal intimacy to Can You Hear Me – “don’t talk of heartaches, I remember them all”. At times, the emotion and sense of loss was almost overpowering, with Taylor Momsen’s spellbinding, eyes-closed Quicksand among many lump-in-throat moments.
Bowie’s lifelong love of black music was strongly represented, with Corey Glover (Young Americans) and Bernard Fowler (Sweet Thing) giving Bowie’s “plastic soul” the emotion it hardly lacked. The setlist careened from curveballs – actor Gary Oldman’s powerfully crooned I Can’t Read – to faithful recreations. Joe Elliott and old Bowie schoolmate Peter Frampton nailed Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City respectively. Original pianist Rick Wakeman joined young Doncaster star Yungblud for a note-perfect Life on Mars; Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor (who was influenced by and influenced Bowie) brought industrial edge to Fantastic Voyage and Fashion.
As a general rule, the greater Bowie’s influence had been on the star, the more they put into honouring him. Ian Hunter tore into All the Young Dudes, the song Bowie generously gave to his band Mott the Hoople. Bowie-inspired androgyne Boy George delivered a lovely Aladdin Sane medley, while Adam Lambert caked on the makeup for a triumphant Starman, which suggested he is the closest thing to a living Ziggy.
There was a nice touch when Garson reflected on today’s difficult times and dedicated Heroes to “a better future, that was what David was all about”. All that was missing was the star himself and the global audience, who were surely out there, singing in their homes.
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