In the year that’s followed David Bowie’s death there’s been there’s been a whole range of tributes. There was Lady Gaga’s coolly-received mash-up at The Grammys, Lorde’s classy rendition of ‘Life on Mars?’ at The Brits and, later, imaginative takes on Bowie’s hits, including Philip Glass’ seldom-played orchestral interpretations being performed at Glastonbury. But, on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday, Celebrating David Bowie, organised by his friend actor Gary Oldman feels like the most substantial, meaningful and personal tribute to date. Aptly, it’s in Bowie’s south London neighbourhood, the place where he was born. Brixton Academy is a few hundred metres down the road from where, this time last year, a spontaneous choir of fans gathered to sing his songs, place flowers and write messages. It’s an emotionally charged evening, but as Oldman tells the 5000 people who’ve braved miserable weather and transport strikes to get here, “it’s about celebrating… if you like David Bowie’s music then stick around.” Here’s why it was a special night:
It was Bowie’s people playing Bowie’s music Bowie style
In fact, it was three iterations of Bowie’s band performing Bowie’s songs. Those lucky enough to see him while he was still performing – the Reality Tour was his final run in 2003 – would recognise a number of the faces. If you watched the BBC’s ‘The Last Five Years’ documentary this past weekend most of the contributors appear on stage. There’s bespectacled pianist Mike Garson, acting as the host and anchor for the evening. He performs on almost every song. Throughout it’s a constantly shifting cast of Bowie’s collaborators. There’s flamboyant guitarist Earl Slick, sporting a scarf, knee-length coat and sunglasses. Bare-footed bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey. Guitarist Adrian Belew, drummers Zachary Alford and Sterling Campbell and many more. It’s a unique line-up: Bowie’s hand-picked musical colleagues, brought back together and performing these songs, in some cases, for the first time in decades.
The set-list was jaw-dropping
Near-enough three hours of Bowie’s hits. After a trilby-wearing Oldman introduces the show and sings a version of ‘Dead Man Walking’, the full-band strikes up with ‘Rebel Rebel’. And it doesn’t stop: ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Stole The World’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘Changes’, ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Starman’, ‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Fame’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Fashion’, Loving The Alien’, ‘Sound And Vision’, ‘Fame’ and ‘Let’s Dance’… just a few of the highlights. The main set concludes with Bernard Fowler singing ‘Heroes’. There’s a short encore, and the night comes to a close with ‘Under Pressure’. Yes, David Bowie’s band performing ‘Under Pressure’.
There were guest stars…
A few box office moments. Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott performs ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘Suffragette City’. Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley belts out ‘Changes’. Duran Duran’s Simon le Bon appears right at the end in a bottle-green suit with the London Community Gospel Choir to perform ‘Let’s Dance’. Perhaps more surprising, La Roux appears, Keane’s Tom Chaplin does a decent job with ‘Life On Mars?’ and, despite a few raised eyebrows in the crowd, the bleached figure of Mr Hudson fronts the band for ‘Starman’.
But, for once, the guests aren’t the stars of the show
It was Bowie’s band, and in particular, the majestic Gail Ann Dorsey. Each of the handful of times the bassist leaves a podium at the back of the stage to come forward there are massive cheers from the crowd. Deservedly so, the times she takes lead vocals, in particular on ‘Young Americans’, she captures the spirit of Bowie more poignantly than anyone.
There were special moments for different reasons
A couple of tracks Bowie never performed live. Like ‘Where Are We Now?’ Vocalist Holly Palmer, stood in front of a midnight-blue backdrop, is backed by an 8-piece string section. On a night where everyone is deliberately trying to focus on the positive, it’s a lump-in-the-throat moment of nostalgia.
It wasn’t perfect, but it really didn’t matter
There’s often about 15 people on stage at any one time, so there’s the odd missed cue or blast of feedback. Mike Garson’s introductions are muffled leaving a few people confused, but the infectious energy given off by the band – they all seem ecstatic to be there – more than makes up for any hiccups.
Celebrating David Bowie
And the atmosphere’s electric, because this may not be repeated
This is the first in a very short global series of these performances, with similar gigs over the next month planned in New York, L.A, Sydney and Tokyo. But each will be different. With tickets for tonight sold out in minutes, the crowd knew that. ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘Starman’ in particular are greeted with mass sing-a-longs. Whether this is the final time Bowie’s closest musical friends perform these tracks in his town is unknown, but there couldn’t have been a better way of marking his birthday. As three generations of his band gather arm-in-arm on the stage together at the end, Gary Oldman steps up the microphone. “Thank you to these amazing musicians,” he says, “And thank you for the amazing music of David Bowie.”