Bowie the eclectic celebrated in star tribute
David Bowie had many faces — the attention-grabbing glam rocker, the inward-looking experimentalist — and for a tribute to his life, leading names in music celebrated him by embracing his eclectic spirit.
Nearly three months after the shock of Bowie’s death from an undisclosed battle with cancer, some of the many musicians influenced by the rock legend honored him with two sold-out nights in New York.
Yet the concerts were not about dutiful covers of Bowie’s hits, many of which went unplayed. In fitting remembrance of Bowie — who stayed cutting edge until the end rather than sliding into a cliche of an aging rocker — the artists looked for new ways to explore his vast work.
Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame offered one of the most stirring performances by transforming “Ashes to Ashes” — Bowie’s 1980 hit that heralded his entrance into mainstream pop — into a piano ballad.
Commanding near silence in 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall on Friday night, Stipe appeared to be speaking to a Bowie in the afterlife — or, as the late rocker may have preferred it, in space — as he sang with whispery tenderness about a bleak life chapter of Bowie’s fictional astronaut Major Tom.
Looking monk-like in a long white beard and tunic, Stipe turned over a haunting line to singer Karen Elson — “I’m happy / And I hope you’re happy, too” — as composer Paul Cantelon played the melancholy piano.
– Fresh look at last album –
The first day of the tribute, at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, was designed to raise money for music programs in schools and tickets coincidentally went on sale moments after Bowie died on January 10.
Transformed into a remembrance, organizers added the second night at Radio City with mostly the same lineup and said the two concerts raised more than $300,000.
Bowie released his final album, “Blackstar,” on his 69th birthday and two days before he died. Despite his illness, the album was one of his most experimental yet as he pursued a type of hard jazz, his voice dueling with the saxophone.
Donny McCaslin, the innovative saxophonist picked by Bowie for the album, took to the stage to perform “Lazarus,” one of the tracks on “Blackstar” that in retrospect most foreshadowed Bowie’s mortality.
Yet this time there could be no duet with Bowie. McCaslin’s richly toned tenor sax posthumously took the part of the vocals in their entirety, winning a standing ovation at Radio City.
In a daringly quick attempt to reinterpret “Blackstar,” singers Anna Calvi and Amanda Palmer performed the title track, a ghoulish 10-minute piece about violence and religion.
The classically inspired Calvi and punk-rooted Palmer sang in a melodic unison as the acclaimed Kronos quartet created the eeriness of “Blackstar” on strings. Bassist Jherek Bischoff — who collaborated with Calvi and Palmer on an EP of Bowie covers — wove together the non-linear song, whose original was laced with electronic elements.
– Glam provocateurs –
The Flaming Lips — disciples of early Bowie in their flamboyance and fascination with space — put on some glam showmanship, even though the Oklahoma band is more about irony than Bowie’s theatrical character-playing.
In a faithful cover of “Life on Mars?”, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne donned a flowing scarf covered with flashing neon like a bursting waterfall, all while singing piggyback atop a man in a Chewbacca costume.
Another experimental rocker, Joseph Arthur, offered the most provocative performance, deploying his trademark fuzzy pedals on “The Man Who Sold the World” before crouching before his guitar like Jimi Hendrix and hoisting a US flag that, in a brief glimpse, revealed a scribbled profanity against Donald Trump.
Artists who offered comparatively straightforward covers included Blondie, The Pixies and Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, while jazz fusionist Esperanza Spalding picked the challengingly ambiguous “If You Can See Me.”
Grunge godfather J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. performed his cover of “Quicksand” — a rare piece in which he trades ultra-distortion for an acoustic guitar — and brought on Sean Lennon to play lead guitar at Radio City.
Even though Bowie lived in New York for his final years, his family has chosen not to participate in any public memorial and, according to his will, planned to scatter his ashes in Bali.
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