I went to the show as a Bowie devotee. I have seen Bowie live several times, three times in the seventies, I own all of his recorded material, and have been a fan since 1973. When I first heard Mick Ronson’s wailing guitar from “Moonage Daydream”, floating from my neighbours’ bedroom window, I was hooked.
I also went to see Visconti’s “Holy Holy”, with Woodmansey on drums. It had been surprisingly good. Glen Gregory, Marc Almond and Ronson’s daughter were brilliant on vocals. It augured well, the music would stand reinterpretation and revocalsiation. My feelings pre- show were mixed. It was time for another Bowie fix, certainly. I was not interested in a look a like, or sound a like show. That would be pointless. I did want something which captured the spirit of the man and the music. Then there was the matter of song choices. The “Lets Dance” version of “China Girl” is awful, the “Idiot” version sublime. Would he go for a pop presentation, or a more daring dive into Bowie’s back catalogue?
Any Bowie Tribute act has a challenge. Which Bowie? Some, like, myself have followed him from the start, but we are not in the majority. Broadly speaking there are three Bowie sub-tribes. The first will take in anything up to Station to Station, the Ziggy Stardust fans. Then there are those from Low to Scary Monsters. Then from Lets Dance onwards. You can’t be all things to everyone.
The Grand was pretty much sold out on Friday night, which is good, by any measure. A reflection of the enduring popularity of David Bowie, and his music. It was packed with Bowie aficionados and cognoscenti, a big audience, but it was going to be a demanding one too.
I have grown a little blasé about “Space oddity”, his oldest, most enduring, and arguably biggest hit. Opening with it made sense chronologically, and as a crowd pleaser. What surprised me was how good the BE arrangement was. Two female backing vocalists, and multi instrumentalists Emily and Charlotte, flanked the stage. Not only were they easy on the eye, but their vocals beefed up the lead vocal, harmonised, and were to prove a reassuring constant as the show evolved. The full band sound was far richer than the more sparse original recordings and set a standard from which they rarely slipped. They skipped into “Queen Bitch” without pausing for breath, producing one of the several highlights of the evening. The first half was material up to “Aladdin Sane” from which there is so much to go at.
Any judgement of the show, and running order, will be coloured by personal preference. Bowie’s live shows were far from flawless. “Lady Grinning Soul” was a delight to hear, and well done. Bowie never played it live, not because it was not a great song, it is, but because there are three very demanding components. Firstly, Bowie hits a G#5, secondly flamenco guitar, is a specialist skill. Thirdly Garson is one of the finest jazz pianists in the world. On the studio track Bowie is credited with acoustic guitar which I query because his playing was competent, but not exceptional, Ronson was very accomplished and although credited with electric guitar only may have filled in on the recording. How did they do? The keyboards for the show sounded predominantly chord based, wisely no attempt was made to out Garson, Garson. Darren Jones made the best of a very demanding guitar part, but was to emerge as an ebullient set moved on, and Laurence Knight focussed on the spirit of the song rather than trying to hit every note. As the show went on Charlotte Talbot was given increased vocal duties – it would have been interesting to hear her take lead, or shared vocals on this one, as well as “Lady Stardust” which was not played on the night.
On bankers “Ziggy Stardust”, “Suffragette City” and “Moonage Daydream” lead guitarist Tim Wedlake suffered from his guitar being low in the mix, what should have been a sledgehammer became a gentle tap. Yet on “The Man Who Sold the World” the more intricate guitar work found him in his element. One of the many challenges facing any such guitarist playing from Bowie’s entire catalogue is that they are up against Ronson, Alomar, Slick, Fripp, Belew and Frampton – which is quite stiff comparative competition, not least because of the specialism that each brought. “Rebel Rebel” and “Jean Genie” closed off the first set nicely. “Watch that Man” and “Drive in Saturday” would have been welcome additions though.
The second half stretched over a far greater timeline, and while the song choices were good, inevitably some felt discordant against each other. “Diamond Dogs” for me has not worn well, although they opened the second half with it. Oddly they played the album intro, complete with Rod Stewart “hey”, whose live excerpt they lifted for the crowd section, rather than re-record it themselves. “Hallo Spaceboy” was brilliantly played but jarred . “Ashes to Ashes” suffered from the keyboard part being to low in the mix, and the outro shortened and simplified. The closing “Heroes” did not work because the signature guitar motif was absent and again the keyboards were too low in the mix. By contrast “Under Pressure” was an absolute highlight, again courtesy of Charlotte Talbot, as was “Fashion”. I would have added in “Look Back in Anger” and “Thursdays Child” into the second half. The first half of “Station to Station” was a bit of an oddity, “Golden Years” worked brilliantly. But why, with Charlotte and Emily, and the other backing singers amongst the band, were a few more songs from “Young Americans” not played beyond the title track? “Fascination” would have been perfect.
The voice of the people is the voice of God. The BE sold out a medium sized theatre, the feedback from fellow hard core fans at the interval and curtain was positive, crucially, the feedback from the curious and “plus ones” even better. I did feel that at times Laurence was concentrating more on imitating Bowie than capturing the feel of the music, I also thought that the costume changes ended up being an irritation. Good as they were, they were often unnecessary. The unsung heroes were the rhythm section, Paul Gill on drums and Lydia Close on bass. Tucked at the back they were the reliable, essential, engine room of the show. I also enjoyed the obvious rapport between sax player Emily, and rhythm guitarist Darren Jones. More than anyone they captured the spirit of the music, exuding an infectious joie de vivre and all round happiness. James Stead on Keyboards, like Tim Wedlake on lead guitar, suffered from a poor mix so it is difficult to say anything other than a competent contribution to a great show was made.
It is pretty clear that the Bowie Experience has a winning formula on their hands. Bowie’s career, and catalogue, is so extensive that it offers the opportunity to present several self contained shows, as well as a greatest hits format. “China Girl”? They cheated! The arrangement featured the Nile Rodgers choppy oriental guitar motif, but rocked out at the end.