When tribute bands first started to form, I was scornful. I began to watch a few, some were good, some were not. Then a friend pointed out that you don’t go along to a Beethoven concert and report: ” It was rubbish, Beethoven didn’t play.” It’s about the music, not the names of the people who play it.
As time has passed, and the musical giants of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s have either died, retired or seldom play, so tribute bands have come of age. The best are now better than those that inspired them, the scions more able to keep the memories alive and fresh.
Of course tonight’s band is not really a tribute band, but it is potentially a trailblazer for a new hybrid. The set list comprises the Bowie album “The Man Who Sold the World” ,and Bowie’s greatest hits on which Woody Woodmansey played drums. More intriguingly it also features Tony Visconti who produced the album, on bass.
Visconti is a seminal figure in contemporary music spanning some five decades. The band is his, and Woodmansey’s, creation, although clearly Visconti is the musical director. As such it offers a new phenomena, a live remix of songs orchestrated by the original producer.
The success of the project hinged on their choice of vocalist, and in Glenn Gregory, Visconti chose well. I first saw him in 1978 as part of the Human League, supporting Siouxsie and the Banshees. He sang “You’ve lost that loving feeling” before a febrile, hostile crowd, and won. As the evening unfolds his maturity, stagecraft and voice flourish. Never does he offer an imitation of Bowie’s vocal, instead he offers his own interpretation.
“The Width of a Circle” opens proceedings and is a hugely impressive statement of intent. The ten piece band produces a big panoramic sound under Visconti’s tutelage and never looks back. “After All”, sung by Marc Almond, the eponymous title track, ”Supermen” and “She Shook Me Cold” are all fabulous re-imaginings of the original recordings.
Thereafter we race through a joyous, joyful, and riotous run through early Bowie when Woody drummed. “Five Years”, “Moonage Daydream” ” Rock n Roll Suicide” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” “Dudes” “Pretty Things” “Changes” “Watch That Man” “Time” Suffragette City” “ Life On Mars” “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City” were all simply wonderful. Three members of the late Mick Ronson’s family, and Visonti’s daughter were in the band, Lisa Ronson’s solo rendition of “Lady Stardust” shone.
It was a perfect evening for any Bowie fan, and for anyone who enjoys live music. Visconti was responsible for producing and helping to arrange not only several of Bowie’s finest albums, but also did the same for numerous rock luminaries over the decades. His biography is fascinating. On stage he cut a slightly frail, diminutive figure, but his joy at playing live and creating such magic on stage was palpable. The band, bigger than Bowie ever toured with, not only offered a richness in sound, it also gave Visconti maximum scope to arrange the songs just as he wished, which turned out to be rather splendid.
On vinyl, I was never that impressed by Woodmansey, and on the four occasions when I caught Bowie live, Bowie had “had to break up the band”. But live, he was excellent ,his wiry frame squeezing a sound out of all proportion.
Visconti did name check Mick Ronson and Bowie, but curiously no mention was made of ex Spider bassist the late Trevor Bolder. The rest of the band comprised; James Stevenson (Generation X, The Cult, Scott Walker), guitar;Paul Cuddeford (Ian Hunter, Bob Geldof), guitar ;Terry Edwards (Gallon Drunk, PJ Harvey, The Blockheads, Yoko Ono);saxophones, 12-string guitar, percussion ;Rod Melvin (Brian Eno, Ian Dury), piano ;Berenice Scott (Heaven 17), synthesiser ;Hannah Berridge Ronson (Colin Lloyd Tucker), keyboard, recorder, backing vocals;Lisa Ronson (The Secret History), vocals, as well as Suzy Ronson, Visconti’s daughter, Jessica Lee Morgan and Marc Almond.
I last saw James Stevenson playing with Chelsea when they were support on The Jam’s first tour, little did I know that forty years later instead of grinding out “Right to Work” he would be playing the ethereal guitar solo on “Moonage Daydream“. As for Marc Almond, he is one of the finest singers this country has ever produced, with a stage presence to match. he made the dark melancholia of “After All” his own, refreshed “Freecloud/ Dudes/Pretty things” and quite clearly revelled in a storming “Watch that man” duet with Gregory.
The band now disappear on a world tour which can only replicate the success they have enjoyed on home soil. What struck me was how much all on stage were enjoying themselves, enjoying performing, and enjoying the music. No sullen rock egos stalked the stage here. Gregory’s, Almond’s ( and Ronson’s) ability to reinterpret Bowie’s catalogue impressed. That catalogue is packed full of wonderful songs and in some respects hearing the interpretaations was better than hearing Bowie himself sing them. Their status as Bowie songs is already assured, their status as standards only just emerging.