At Tuesday night’s "Celebrating David Bowie" show at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, where the massive band was comprised largely of alumni of Bowie’s touring units, the players were the stars. Up to a point, anyway -- that point being the five-pointed Blackstar, one of two songs from Bowie’s swan song sung by Sting, who helped turn the evening from a very efficient tribute concert into something more spellbinding and incantatory.
Sting also returned during the encore portion of the 3-hour, 25-minute show to perform “Lazarus,” marking a pause in the otherwise celebratory proceedings for a spooky detour into borderline-channeling, given the “Look up here, I’m in heaven” lyrics of the final single Bowie released during his lifetime. The song’s proximity to the grave demands more than a little gravitas, with Sting clearly well suited for the solemnity of delivering a message in a bottle from the afterworld.
Perry Farrell, Bush’s Gavin Rossdale and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott also turned up as the celebrity lead vocalists on this stop for a very limited five-city international mini-tour. But for Bowie die-hards, the main appeal was experiencing one degree of musical separation from the master, thanks to a massive, rotating group of players led by host Mike Garson, a pianist who started with Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour and played and recorded with him on and off through the 2000s. Other familiar figures in Bowie-dom included guitarists Adrian Belew and Earl Slick and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, bigger draws for liner-note buffs than some of the singers who fronted them early in the evening.
This was the second time in less than a year that a Bowie tribute band led by actual Bowie collaborators breezed through the Wiltern. The previous one, last spring, was Holy Holy, formed by producer/bassist Tony Visconti and Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey, with Heaven 17’s former singer, Glenn Gregory, as frontman. Watching one of that band’s shows, it quickly became clear how difficult it is for any singer to cover Bowie in any remotely interesting or rewarding way for more than a couple of minutes. Getting any white guy to step into the shoes of the Thin White Duke is a losing gambit, so why not go for someone who embodies the things Bowie often seemed to wish he could -- i.e., a female and/or soul singer?
“Celebrating David Bowie” went a long way toward realizing the wisdom of casting women and singers of color, not just coloratura, in that role -- although the show had its own array of wan white guys. (No offense to the likes of Farrell, Elliott, Rossdale, Mr Hudson and Joe Sumner, who were fine, if hardly electrifying, as surrogates.) Among the rotating cast of singers, not altogether surprisingly, the three with arguably the greatest presence were Dorsey, Bernard Fowler and Angelo Moore. In two different sets of full makeup, Moore -- who cheekily introduced himself as “N---a Stardust” -- was a particularly wiry and riveting revelation, for those of us who haven’t thought about his band, Fishbone, for a minute.
Dorsey, who played bass as well as sang with Bowie in his later touring years, did “Young Americans” with a 16-piece choir, but had her real standout moment with a more balladic “Aladdin Sane,” leading into Garson re-creating one of rock’s most memorable free-jazz '70s piano solos with even more Gershwin-goes-discordant flair.
Fowler, best known as The Rolling Stones’ longtime backup singer, finally got to be Mick Jagger for a night. This was most apparent on “Diamond Dogs,” with Earl Slick playing Keith to his Mick, as it suddenly became glaringly apparent that this was Bowie’s attempt in ’74 to do a Stones song, and winding up with something that sounded like a very good It’s Only Rock 'n' Roll outtake.
It’s hard to think of two guitarists with more distinctly different styles than Belew and Slick -- both of whom had their moments emulating the style of a third distinctive guitarist, the late Mick Ronson -- so buffs had great fun seeing their worlds collide at the Wiltern, even if they only appeared to end up playing together on the climactic “Heroes.” Belew’s standout moment came when he got to re-create his nutso playing on “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging,” combined into a medley (which he also sang, managing to sound a bit like Bowie, with the help of a mountain of vocal reverb). Slick’s was on one of Bowie’s most underrated singles, “Stay,” surrounding Fowler’s vocal with extended soloing just as he did on tour in the mid-'70s.
As reserved as Sting was in singing the Blackstar material, that’s how bouncy Rossdale was in putting across “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a disturbed '90s rocker that may feel more apt now than when Bowie recorded it. Elliott, who also appeared at the London opening for “Celebrating David Bowie,” prefaced “Suffragette City” with the memory that it was one of the first songs Def Leppard ever played together.
You can’t help but want at least a bit of real star power in the service of the Starman, and Sting brought it not with a re-enactment of something from the eternal songbook, but honoring Bowie’s memory eternal by invoking him at his last -- and still best. (The morning after the show, it was announced that Blackstar topped this year’s Village Voice critics’ poll, giving it an honor that the Grammys unfortunately skimped on.) Even in as un-intimate and un-occult a setting as a crowded stage with dozens of musicians and singers and an eight-piece string section, it felt like the creator of Ten Summoner’s Tales was doing actual summoning.
“Celebrating David Bowie” plays again at the Wiltern on Wednesday night, minus Sting; Garson has promised to live-stream the show on his Facebook page. From there, most of the cast moves on to shows in Sydney on Sunday and Tokyo on Feb. 2.
Piano medley — Mike Garson
Rebel Rebel — Bernard Fowler
Lady Grinning Soul — Holly Palmer
Sorrow — Donovan Leitch and Joe Sumner
Five Years — Gaby Moreno
The Man Who Sold the World — Jeremy Little
Changes — Mr Hudson
Life on Mars? — Sumner
Sound and Vision — Adrian Belew
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide — Moreno
Where Are We Now? — Palmer
Starman — Mr Hudson
Space Oddity — Gail Ann Dorsey
DJ/Boys Keep Swinging — Belew
The Jean Genie — Fowler
Suffragette City — Joe Elliott
I’m Afraid of Americans — Gavin Rossdale
Wild is the Wind — Moreno
Ashes to Ashes — Angelo Moore
Young Americans — Dorsey
Win — Fowler
Diamond Dogs — Fowler
Fame — Belew
Fashion — Alex Painter
Golden Years — Perry Farrell
Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) — Dorsey
Stay — Fowler
Moonage Daydream — Moore
Blackstar — Sting
Ziggy Stardust — Brett Hool
Heroes — Fowler
Dead Man Walking — Dorsey
Lazarus — Sting
All the Young Dudes — Elliott
Under Pressure — Palmer and Sumner
(c) Billboard by Chris Willman