'Old, New, Borrowed and Reviewed for you...' okay, that’s not an exact album title, as fans of UK 70s glam rockers, Slade will know. To complement the recent big screen biopic, Moonage Daydream (which I reviewed here), I witnessed three Bowie shows in one weekend. And it's a comment on the enduring need of artists in our culture to interpret and reinterpret the ever changing music of Bowie.
On one wet afternoon looking at stuff to do, I saw two ‘Bowie’ concerts coming up and remembered a Bowie inspired CD, and hey presto, Three Bowie’s… Well sorta.
Royal Northern Sinfonia Plays Glass: Bowie Symphonies
It’s Gateshead Sage - many say the venue has the best sound in the UK. The Sage presents Glass:Bowie - a classical minimalist interpretation of Bowie in the style of Philip Glass. Like many Bowie fans, I am intrigued; the concept might work for his Berlin phase, and maybe the Ziggy stuff? But the rest? Hmmm. Open ears and mind. The audience at the Sage is mixed, Bowie face shirts, Bowie album cover shirts. The orchestra tunes up, Ziggy’s signature slash, purloined from Presley projected bigly and all seemed tickety-boo.
I knew that we were not gonna get a LSO plays Queen gig. This is Philip Glass, so it was an avant garde nod to Bowie’s own minimalist pieces, Low and Heroes, pared down, as a few gigsters expected. But not a classical treatment. What we got was, full on, heads down, concentrate, and go with the flow, 2½ hours of Philip Glass’s interpretation, inspiration, and representation of Bowie. No long phrases from hits, no Bowie chords or riffs that I could hear. No funked up, Rebel Rebel, nor slowed down Heroes, no Scary Monsters, perhaps the mildest hint of Major Tom, as you might expect from the futurist vibe. Distant echoes of Wild is the Wind. The staccato stutter of Heroes? Here for a moment, maybe, wrapped in what was the song’s soul, perhaps. If you were switched off for a moment, you missed it.
So what did you get was exactly Robert Ames, conducting the Royal Northern Sinfonia's intention, an interpretation of the man and his music.
The dark lonely drug years, the loud raucous 70’s glitz, the changes in who he was, androgyny, ambiguity, teasing uncertainty. Yes, volume, crescendo and timing; pounding industrial beats, minimalist dance and moments of discordant, chopped sounds. But for me, the insight, introspection and exposure of Bowie’s underlying themes was an ear opener. Pathos and humour, a childlike playfulness, hope and anger, mixed and mashed like his early lyrics. Mixing the years, Bowie’s phases and influences, without a time delineated continuum. Lyrics I half-remembered and half-recalled as angry or celebratory, were sad, melancholic. These are underlying things not as I thought.
Repetition can be the heart of minimalism, sure, despite the superb percussion and delicate strings the one disappointment was a constant musical bar and sequence repeated. I’d expect that in a Glass piece, but this was sampled from a decade ago, perhaps that was the point. Or that Bowie has unifying themes, anyway, these bars, and motifs ran through the seven pieces, giving a unity, and linked interpretations, musings, extrapolations on Bowie, his music, his soul, and spirit.
Bowie fans intrigued by the Glass:Bowie mash-up, there’s been a lot of it over the years, were there, although some split at the interval, those that stayed, were hardcore Philip Glass fans, either that or they embraced the themed approach, followed ideas, and views of David and his work. As a representation of the man, his work, his soul, and hidden themes, it was like finding a secret autobiography, or Bowie’s own critique, and inner meanings, the songs we all thought we knew, but realise now, we were miles away from truly understanding.
Are we to accept that the Glass:Bowie is subjectively more valid than our own Bowie? It was not so much for the straight get down, dress up Bowie fans, that’s for sure. But if something a long way left field is your thing, Glass: Bowie is a night out for you. There was a standing ovation from about half the audience, I was in the other half, I was not so moved. Maybe I am more of a meat and potatoes Bowie man. If we exist.
It’s the Riverside, old fish market hall, and an evening with A Lad In Sane. Yeah, the 70’s Bowie act copied come face to face with a group Bowied up faces, and Young American suits, a happy, glad ragged mix of punters.
The Riverside is tight and intimate, of this crowd, most could have seen Bowie in his 70s Ziggy, Aladdin Zane, Diamond Dogs, pomp; moving and a-grooving, dancing, swaying along to the 70s hits. The Glam of Ziggy, the poses, a bespangled Ronson, axe flailing, slashed chords, rock 'n' roll stances. John, I’m Only Dancing, Life on Mars, Suffragette City... Missed the start, train delays, maybe I missed my fave, Panic in Detroit. But there was enough Absolute Bowie to fire a swaying chanting audience.
The singer had Bowie’s look, the Ziggy Fashion, the stance, the mannerisms, the evenly replicated phrases, but the voice was a bit ragged. Not really an issue on the straighter rock songs which were wonderfully covered. The audience rejuvenated their memories, others like me, wistfully wished they had Glam Bowie memories to rejuvenate. Some were too young, too sniffy, too poor, or mums wouldn’t let them go. Now they could feel, see, and experience part of a Ziggy show they missed 50 years ago.
Ziggy departed for a costume change.
The second set is electro, Scary Monsters, the Berlin years, Heroes, Ashes to Ashes, Fame all played and moved to, brilliantly. It was during these later numbers that I realised just how tight and proficient the band were at playing, posing and mixing styles.
The third set, another era of Bowie. China Girl, Let’s Dance, Young Americans, (worth the wait). I loved these songs then, transported back to the only time I’d seen him live, on the ‘Let’s Dance Tour’. The excitement incumbent in seeing a truly special artist raced back, quintessential Bowie for me. Encore, Space Odyssey had to be.
A good night, despite a slightly ragged voice. I was more delighted in the 80’s-90’s Bowie than I expected. Only one pint of beer, the show was that good. I swayed and moved and grooved and loved it all, and the show captured the 80’s spirit, my Bowie.
Night’s end, Newcastle’s football chant never felt more appropriate.
“all the lads and lasses there, and all the smiling faces, up and down the Scotswood Road...“
The Quayside on Saturday night, there were lots, including me, wandering home, Bowie’s earworms in ears.
SEU JORGE - THE LIFE AQUATIC STUDIO SESSIONS
‘The Life Aquatic’ acoustic, unplugged Bowie in Portuguese, sung and played by Seu Jorge and a Wes Anderson film soundtrack t’boot. Sunday morning, hot Chocolate and Croissants, and Seu’s delicate Bowie versions, warmed up by sips, and Seu’s summertime senses. Rebel, Rebel a revelation unplugged, shorn of swagger, more a lovers reassurance, it floats, sways, shimmers, an understated open fire on a deserted beach. The desperation of Life on Mars supplanted with wistful regret; ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor’ a roman à clef. Starman, a simple cover, so easy to follow you could duet in Ingles. Ziggy Stardust, stripped raw Portuguese blues, not fado, but guitar, alone unplugged, Ziggy’s pain oozes through.
Even the tracks I didn’t instantly recognise, there’s a delicate feel of music in a seaside, sunset brushed bar. Changes is a magical evocation of evening intimacy, eyes closed, gentle chink of lover’s wine glasses, ahh summer nights. Pretty Things, relaxed, cocktail sipping, delightful, easy playful ears, sounds. Rock and Roll Suicide, plaintive pleading, rawer if that’s possible than the original. But Suffragette City is the showstopper, not as wild, raucous as the original, but just as lively, evocative and angry.
Three Bowie's, in three days, all different, all essentially Bowie, but all three capture what he could be, who he was, and what he is now. If you were to couple these shows with the recently reviewed Moonage Daydream biopic you would surely come to love A Lad In Sane…