BBC Bowie at the Proms

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John Cale (skirt) and Andre Rider (bow) mid concert

I was, and am, a huge David Bowie fan. I caught the sound of  Mick Ronson ’s guitar solo on “Moonage Daydream” drifting from my friend’s bedroom window in the summer of 73, had to find out who it was, and was hooked. Subsequently I have acquired pretty much everything he recorded.

Bowie’s recorded output spans six decades, that is a lot of chunks of teenage years. I am always struck how fandom can take different forms depending on the age the fan was when the music was first heard, and what stage of career was accessed. For me Bowie WAS Ziggy when I discovered him, Hunky Dory seemed a bit of a patchwork, The Man Who Sold The World was  inaccessible, Space Oddity, apart from the title track, was lightweight, and the Deram Years could have been recorded by another artist. How those assessments have changed over the years!

Immediately after an artist’s death hyperbole is in overdrive. Inevitably some assessments are overblown. Everything he touched did not turn to gold. The 70’s were an astonishing blast of diverse musical delight. “Let’s Dance” was a commercial cross over monster which broadened his appeal, but blunted his critical edge. Beyond that his output was patchy, some strong songs and albums  (Thursdays Child, Heathen), a lot of ordinariness. Live, his shows reflected that. Patches of brilliance counterbalanced by moments of odd curiosity. That was Bowie. He liked to unsettle and provide the unexpected.

When I heard that the BBC proms were featuring a concert of his music I was delighted. His songs are strong. They bear reinterpretation, and re-evaluation. An orchestra was the ideal mechanism to deconstruct, and reconstruct. We were not being offered a greatest hits concert, nor a host of stars to cover them. Listen to Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” and Bowie’s cover. Listen to “China Girl” on “The Idiot” juxtaposed with the “Let’s Dance” version. That revisiting was the spirit of this prom.

So how did it go?

Warszawa – already an instrumental, quasi instrumental piece, a safe, and pretty faithful to the original opening. As a first bite of the sandwich it offered a satisfying taste.

Station to Station– the staccato first movement worked very well, the rock out second movement less so, its exuberance lost. Neil Hannon sang well, but could not inject the energy required to lift it. “Drink, drink raise your glass raise your glass high” he exhorted, as if to someone who on their ninetieth birthday was already having a snooze.

The Man Who Sold The World – Connor O’Brien sang beautifully and sensitively  to a familiar accompaniment, perhaps a little twee, stripped of menace.

This is not America – Neil Hannon was strangely tentative against an arrangement which was simply slowed down. Not one of Bowie’s finest – why?

Life on Mars – this should have marked lift off point for the evening. Instead it was a car crash. Marc Almond is a fine singer who sings Bowie well. But the arrangement was awful, Almonds singing was hesitant and uncertain with some of the early lyrics, as the changed timing tripped him , and some of the orchestra, up. Despite Marc’s big finishes, nothing could save it. It was as if he had strapped on a musical suicide vest and conductor Andre Ridder detonated it onstage.

Lady Grinning Soul – from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Calvi Bischoff sang a dramatically rearranged reading, less the Spanish guitar, but with fluttering strings and woodwind, driving the song to a thunderous climax. The highlight of the night.

 

Ashes to Ashes – a beautiful arrangement, pleasingly sung by Paul Buchanan, but stripped of all of its melancholia.

Fame – Laura Mvula provided a spirited and jaunty version.

Girl Loves Me, I Cant Give Everything Away, Blackstar– a trilogy from Bowie’s last album. Competent enough, but the songs are too recent to breathe new life into.

 Heroes  – Amanda Palmer struggled with a re-arrangement, bereft of romance, which the audience desperately wanted to join in with. A strong string refrain gave the song the tempo of an Irish Jig. Worthy. Odd.

   Always Crashing in the same car – Astonishing reimagining  with Classical soprano Philippe Jarousski. Very left field.

Starman – with Marc Almond again. A better arrangement, and performance from Marc, but again arranged in a slow tempo which prevented the sing a long everyone wanted.

Rebel Rebel– unrecognisable instrumental

Valentine’s Day/ Sorrow/ Space Oddity – John Cale, odd obviously. Valentines day was a bit routine with touches of Roxy Music’s “Chance Meeting”, Sorrow, a cover anyway, was unnecessary while being enjoyable in the style of Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up”. Space Oddity was mad, and great fun, a vamped up dirge, I loved it. Amanda Palmer bringing on her toddler for the finale past midnight was bizarre- everyone silently yelled” That child should be in bed”.

Let’s Dance – instrumental outro, lots of fun, generating the first real sing a long. The only time the audience really had fun, rather than enjoyment.

In summary, a stimulating, worthy and worthwhile exercise with a fair few hits ( Lady Grinning Soul) a few turkeys ( Life on Mars) and some glorious oddities ( Always Crashing and Space Oddity). The night never really took off, but neither did it fail, a one off, worth doing, always engaging, never boring.

 

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