I was hesitant about going to a tribute to David Bowie. I’ve never gone to a see a tribute band before, much less a tribute orchestra. If you’re patient, you’ll eventually see your favorite act from the past at the Emerald Queen Casino (“Live in
Corset Concert!”). A bit sad when they become a tribute band to their younger selves, which the ever-restless Bowie never did.
Aside from that, there’s the troubling question of authenticity. You treasure an artist’s unique sound and vibe—would a clone be the same? Or even close? But then, how many counterfeit paintings are hanging in museums? Would it lessen your pleasure to know that you were looking at a fake? Could you tell it from the original? What if you liked the fake better? Would you have to hate yourself then?
Yet, when my friend Cubby offered me a ticket to the David Bowie retrospective at the Seattle Symphony, I decided not to overthink it (for once in my life) and just go. I trusted her taste—it probably wouldn’t be a cheesefest. And mostly, it wasn’t.
It started out oddly: it was just the guitar player shredding, unaccompanied, for a few minutes. I didn’t hear anything in his playing that related to Bowie—just kick-ass rock guitar playing. Very talented, and he would go on to play Bowie’s music perfectly, but I was mystified by the meandering solo wank. Oh well, everyone else seemed to like it.
Once the songs began, I relaxed into the music. The singer had an excellent voice for Bowie, especially the Ziggy-era songs, a little less so for the more resonant ones, like Ashes to Ashes or Changes. They wisely didn’t attempt any Blackstar era material, and stuck to the 60’s/70’s/80’s catalog. I can think of a lot of Bowie songs I’d rather hear than Fashion (like Stay), but aside from that, I had no playlist complaints.
The band was superb, and the symphony…um, they did their job very well. It was funny, some of them looked like they were serving detention after school, while some, like the clarinetists who dressed up (or down) for the occasion, seemed totally into it. We were in the very first row, and there was a mini-monitor right in front of us broadcasting just the band, so we were hearing less of the orchestra than those behind us. Still, what was great was how the orchestra filled out Bowie’s music—I felt a deeper appreciation for his songwriting–sudden swerves in the music were highlighted against the dark velvet harmony.
They missed a golden opportunity, however, with the distorted radio signal sounds at the end of Major Tom (originally done with just a guitar). They didn’t even attempt them. But can you imagine the orchestra doing that, with violins, piccolos? Sort of like the inspired symphonic fuckery in the Beatle’s A Day in the Life? Sigh.
The big fly in the ointment was the singer’s stage manner. He was fine performing the songs, but there was way too much, “Put your hands together, Seattle”, “I can’t hear you, Seattle!” “You’re awesome, Seattle! Give yourself a hand Seattle!” I haven’t heard so many “Seattle’s” since the last time I took the Underground Tour. What bugged me was that it was like being at the dreaded high school pep rally. I was a smart, lost, bisexual weirdo in high school, and David Bowie beamed down into my radio and told me I was okay. Cool, even. To hear him curated by an enthusiasm nazi was painful.
Mr. Vincent also painted himself as a bit of a Bowie scholar. His takeaway on Young Americans? “There are many interpretations of this song, but what I think he was saying is that we’re all blessed to live in this country.” Really? Cruise ship boosterism like that belongs on a floating lounge far, far out to sea.
He was at his best when he talked about his personal connection to the songs, like the wonder of being a kid and hearing “the grandiose, dark, strange” Major Tom for the first time on his dad’s car radio. The first Bowie song he’d ever heard, was also on the first colored vinyl record he’d ever seen—he didn’t know either one was a thing (back before things were “things”). Tony Vincent, you have a beautiful soul, so just be yourself, man. David gives you permission.
At the end of the evening, all quibbles aside, I loved hearing the songs. Ah, the songs, the songs. If it wasn’t David Bowie, it was at least a wonderful David Bowie bubble bath, which, after the election, is exactly what I needed to cleanse and lift my spirit. Radical self-care, as Dr. Cubby recommended, in advance of the long fight ahead.
It’s been said before: may you not rest, David, but endlessly create, in peace.