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David Bowie’s Radio City Tribute Show Was a Beautiful Compilation of His Life’s Work

This week, I had the opportunity to attend night two of “The Music of David Bowie” double-header, this one a talent-packed affair at Radio City Music Hall. When I arrived, people of all ages were slowly flooding into the capacious innards of the historic New York venue. Billowing curtains hung suspended over the stage, shadowing the legion of seats that receded back to the lobby and up to three stacked balconies. Recessed lighting cast a golden glow upon the sold-out event, warming the funereal occasion of our gathering.

Credit: Evan Agostin/Invision/Ap

Michael Stipe performing “Ashes To Ashes”

The Radio City show was added when Bowie’s death incited overwhelming interest in the tribute. “The sad coincidence that our previously planned concert at Carnegie Hall was announced on the same day as David’s passing on Sunday, resulted in a tremendous outpouring from fans, friends and fellow artists wanting to show their respect and adoration for his deep repertoire,” said the show’s producer, Michael Dorf, in the press release. “Our phones were going off the hook.”

Dorf was the first to take the stage on Friday, introducing the tribute and explaining that, when he had first begun planning back in October, his goal was to celebrate “one of the world’s greatest living icons.” He had hoped that Bowie might even attend. When news arrived that Bowie had passed, tribute tickets became prized commodities; after the first show sold out, longtime Bowie collaborator and producer Tony Visconti suggested adding another.

Perry Farrell

Perry Farrell

Visconti also led and played bass in the house band, which included drummer Woody Woodmansey, the last surviving member of Bowie’s backing group, The Spiders from Mars. The eight-man house band accompanied several artists throughout the night, enriching Bowie originals with resonant, full-bodied arrangements—and the night was full of them.

In some ways the night had the air of a talent show. Each artist in the festival-worthy lineup had one Bowie song and one opportunity to memorialize the late Starman. There were no winners or losers in this talent show, of course—I would’ve watched every one of them play an entire concert of Bowie covers. This was more of a talent exhibition, a robust compilation of indelible moments that channeled the spirit of the supremely talented David Bowie. There were too many such moments to list here, but I’ll include a few of the most memorable snapshots.

The talented Esperanza Spalding performed the difficult “If You Can See Me,” seamlessly negotiating complex meter and perilous vocal contours. In billowy white clothing, Spalding riffed on her bass as though it were attached to her body.

Nashville-based Ron Pope played an incendiary rendition of “Moonage Daydream,” giving the piece a raucous bluegrass energy. He ripped through guitar solos, writhing as the tremolos shook through the air.


Debbie Harry

TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone played a tender, toned-down version of “The Bewlay Brothers,” a Hunky Dory track that Bowie himself has described as “incomprehensible.”

Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and Sean Lennon—who had knee surgery earlier in the day(!)—performed a re-write of another Hunky Dory track, “Quicksand.” Each armed with an acoustic guitar, Mascis and Lennon engaged in incredible counterpoint that had an epic, “Battle of Evermore” vibe to it.

Seriously, there were so many amazing moments. Debbie Harry, in that same practiced and heavily made-up gravitas that Bowie had, led Blondie in a celebratory performance of “Heroes.” Wayne Coyne, wearing a necklace of streaming LEDs, sat on the shoulders of Chewbacca while the Flaming Lips played “Life on Mars”—truly the “freakiest show.” Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, and Anna Calvi joined the cinematic Kronos Quartet to play a harrowing version of “Blackstar,” the title track from Bowie’s latest album.

And Michael Stipe, who described the night as “a gathering of a family, of a tribe, of a people,” sang a gorgeous, piano-accompanied version of “Ashes to Ashes” alongside singer Karen Elson. Stipe was visibly and viscerally connected to the piece, at times convulsing as though possessed by the spirit of Bowie. It was the highlight of the show and an especially surreal moment in a night that had many of them.

“Lazarus,” performed by the Donny McCaslin Group—the jazz ensemble that Bowie unexpectedly collaborated with for Blackstar—offered another. The group, joined by Visconti, opted to play the song without a vocalist, as if hoping that Bowie might descend and take the helm. It almost wouldn’t have surprised me to see him appear at the microphone, spontaneously manifested by all the Bowie spirit and love that hung heavy in the room. In some way or another, he was there. And we could all feel it.

Heart’s Ann Wilson, Pixies, Mumford & Sons, Perry Farrell, Cat Power, Jackob Dylan, Holy Holy, The Polyphonic Spree, Rickie Lee Jones, and Choir! Choir! Choir! with the New York City Youth Chorus all performed as well. In total, the tributes netted more than $300 thousand for music education programs for underserved kids. Bowie would have been proud.

Featured Image: RCA Records

Concert Photography: Evan Agostin/Invision/AP

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