Adam Lambert, Trent Reznor, Andra Day and Huge Cast Shine in ‘Bowie Celebration’ Tribute Livestream

Chris Willman
·9 min read

While no tribute may ever go down as the one David Bowie actually deserves, Saturday’s three-hour “A Bowie Celebration” livestream came within spitting distance of giving the duke his due, with a worthy cast of dozens that included Duran Duran, Trent Reznor, Andra Day, Yungblud, Adam Lambert, Ian Hunter and Gary Oldman fronting superb arrangements put together by host Mike Garson, Bowie’s longtime pianist.

The $25 webcast will continue to be available through 6 p.m. PT/9 ET Sunday via the HYFI platform (click here) or producing platform Rolling Live Studios (here), at which point it will be taken down — much to the consternation of fans who used the latter website’s live chat function to say they’d been watching it on continuous loop and hoped for a permanent record of the show. The stream was originally set to premiere Friday night, on Bowie’s 74th birthday, but was pushed back a day at the last minute — shades of Justin Bieber’s delayed New Year’s Eve livestream, but attributed in this case to “technical issues and COVID-19 restrictions.” (Its final hours of airing now coincide with the fifth anniversary of Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016.)

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Highlights of the three hours included both big names and singers culled from the ranks of backup singers or other lesser-known figures. Two female duets that came near the beginning and end of the webcast easily counted as standouts, although they represented completely different genres, as Bowie’s catalog did. The second song of “A Bowie Celebration” had hard rock queen Lzzy Hale joining with actor/singer Lena Hall (a Tony winner for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) to belt, in separately filmed tandem, the “Ziggy Stardust” classic “Moonage Daydream.” (Hale and Hall recently met up for the first time on agent Richard Weitz’s RWQuarantunes livestream series and bonded over their mutual love of Bowie there.)

The penultimate number, meanwhile, had Andra Day teaming with Judith Hill on the same soundstage for a song that was originally conceived as a duet, “Under Pressure,” starting it off on stools as a gently nuanced R&B duet backed by Garson before the appearance of a virtual full band kicked the Bowie/Queen chestnut into louder and more familiar gear.

The final all-star run of numbers in the 30-song set also included Adam Lambert lending his sense of not-so-straight theatricality to a musically straightforward reading of “Starman”; Ian Hunter reviving Mott the Hoople’s cover of Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes” as well as singing “Dandy,” his own 2016 homage to Mott’s one-time producer; and, to close the show, Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler putting a soulful spin on what has finally come to be Bowie’s best-regarded song, “Heroes.”

The prize of Bowie’s catalog for any vocalist with chops remains “Life on Mars?,” which boasts one of the most majestic melodies in all of rock; the honor of claiming it here fell to one of the younger members of the cast, Yungblud. “Best moment of my entire life,” tweeted the singer, who had changed his Twitter handle Saturday to “Yungblud’s on Mars,” posting a photo of his performance coming through his laptop.

Although “Life on Mars?” has been Garson’s go-to when anyone asks him to play even a snippet of a Bowie song, he wisely turned over that song to the man who played piano on the original track, Rick Wakeman of Yes, who had not lost a step in his ability to bring splendor to that part, even though he’s played it at least hundreds or thousands of fewer times in the intervening half-century than Garson has.

Probably no performance was more anticipated than that of Trent Reznor and his scoring/Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross. Reznor impressed Bowie enough to be invited to tour and record with him in the mid-’90s. Rather than revive their recorded collaboration, Reznor chose two other Bowie catalog songs — the avant-funk “Fashion,” which featured a full-band treatment and the inclusion of Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig Reznor as a backup vocalist, and, more stripped down, the far lesser known “Lodger” track “Fantastic Voyage,” which considered mortal-coil stuff under the shadow of nuclear proliferation at the time.

While most of the webcast had performers singing in front of Garson-led ensembles made up mostly of alumni from Bowie’s touring and studio bands, Duran Duran opened the show without any outside assistance, with “Five Years,” the song most obviously befitting the anniversary setting, even if that “Ziggy” number’s sci-fi theme looked ominously five years ahead to a looming disaster instead of five years tragically back on a devastating loss.

Also filing their contribution separately, without help from any of the house bands, was a supergroup made up of Corey Taylor, Taylor Hawkins, Dave Navarro and Chris Chaney, which mailed in very high-energy performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Hang On to Yourself.”

Actor Taylor Momsen earned Garson’s approval, he said in an introduction, by telling him that she’d become a Bowie fan at age 2. One of the few performers to shoot herself in closeup in a home studio, the “Gossip Girl” star chose the not-often-revived “Quicksand,” from “Hunky Dory,” an album released more than 20 years before she was born. Although Garson made only sparing comments about the 30 songs performed, he called “Quicksand” “one of the deepest songs David ever wrote.”

Garson had been a compatriot of Bowie’s from the time he was hired to go on a 1972 tour, famously going on to be featured prominently on the “Aladdin Sane” and “Young Americans” albums and return intermittently for tours through Bowie’s last one before he retired from live performance, in 2006. His extended piano solo on the title track of “Aladdin Sane” remains one of the more celebrated strictly instrumental parts in the Bowie catalog, and the revival of it has been an in of all the tribute tours he’s led since Bowie’s death five years ago, as it was here, when Boy George did a medley of the song with “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.” But Garson — who has always been more of a jazz player who just happened to find his fame as a rock accompanist — lent that same jazz feel to passages in other numbers in this three-hour tribute, too, leading mutual fans of Bowie and jazz to wish that maybe someday he’d head up a strictly jazz salute to Bowie’s endlessly rich ouevre.

From his decades backing Bowie, Garson is of course well aware that different ensembles are differently well suited for the epochs of Bowie’s career, and so, as he has when he’s led tribute tours on the road, he put together different configurations of musicians. The one that played live with him on the soundstage on a number of tunes included Charlie Sexton (who also sang “Let’s Dance” and a “DJ”/”Blue Jean” medley) on guitar, Carmine Rojas on bass and Alan Childs on drums. But he also enlisted different configurations to play a majority of the selections remotely, with sometimes as many as 13 musicians visible on screen in completely separate video bubbles. The most consistently seen remote players included Gerry Leonard on guitar, Mark Plati on guitar and bass and Sterling Campbell on drums, with frequent guest appearances from guitarists who count as superstars in the Bowie-loving world, Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, among other alumni. (Among the valuable players who were not part of Bowie’s stage legacy but played a big recurring part in this show: the L.A. string players the Section Quartet.)

For “Young Americans,” sung by Living Colour’s Corey Glover, Garson managed to virtually assemble an impressive six people who’d appeared on the original 1974 single: himself, Alomar, drummer Andy Newmark, saxophonist David Sanborn and backup singers Ava Cherry and Robin Clark.

In the one blatantly apparent audio glitch of the three hours, viewers in the chat room wondered why the sax solo in “Young Americans” wasn’t being replicated. It was, at least in theory — attentive viewers could see Sanborn wailing away in his Hollywood square in one of the corners of the screen — but he was not to be heard. Fortunately, that was not the case on the two other songs on which Sanborn appeared: “Can You Hear Me,” sung exquisitely by latter-day Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, and a medley of “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” that allowed Sanborn, Garson and Slick successive, extended solos.

The epic, nine-minute “Sweet Thing”/”Candidate” medley — arguably a highlight, if not the highlight, of the webcast — was sung by Fowler, who certainly counted as an MVP, between that and his show-ending “Heroes.” It was enough to make a Stones fan wish that Mick Jagger would call in sick some time so that we could hear what it’s sound like if Fowler took over an entire Stones set as understudy, if just for one day.

But “A Bowie Celebration” was also remarkable for letting the spotlight shine on a succession of lady-grinning-souls. Prior to her later duet with Day, Judith Hill was a solo standout with “Lady Stardust,” accompanied only by Garson, who was not shy about using “voice of a century” terminology for the one-tie Prince protege. Dorsey also commandeered the show with “Strangers When We Meet,” from the “Outside” album, as well as “Young Americans'” “Can You Hear Me.”

Other contributions of note included Billy Corgan doing a low-key “Space Oddity,”; Perry Ferrell and his wife Etty Lau Farrell going theatrically over the top with “The Man Who Sold the World”; Def Leppard’s Joe Elllott taking on the underrated “Win” as well as the perfectly rated “Ziggy Stardust”; Jesse Malin taking to the streets of New York for a bit, in a rare trip outside studio walls, to lip-synch to his own “The Jean Genie”; one-time sideman Peter Frampton finally getting his own spin on “Suffragette City”; Ian Astbury doing the lone nod to Bowie’s career-capping “Blackstar” with the ominous “Lazarus”; and Gary Oldman doing an equally one-off dip into the Tin Machine catalog with an aptly portentous “I Can’t Read.” Hunter’s “Dandy” was not the sole non-Bowie-composed song in the show, Garson also paid tribute to Mick Ronson by covering the Bowie guitarist’s cover of Richard Rodgers’ instrumental “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” which he played on in 1974.

A full setlist can be found here.

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