Expectations Were High Yet Open
As soon as the Houston date was announced, I snagged a couple of tickets to "A Bowie Celebration." But I read no reviews. I wanted to go into show as clean as possible. I wanted the experience to be like it was for me, back in 1987, when I first saw David Bowie and had no idea about the setlist.
That proved to be the best decision I made. I was thoroughly entertained.
The brainchild of Mike Garson, David Bowie's longtime pianist, A Bowie Celebration gathers members of Bowie's longtime bands—including Carmine Rojas and Earl Slick from the 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour (two names I memorized by listening over and over to the recorded FM broadcast back in the day)—to tour and play songs from Bowie's vast array of songs from all eras of his career. Bowie might be linked with his lead guitarists over the years--Mick Ronson, Slick, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar, Peter Frampton, and Reeves Gabrels--but for my money, Garson's piano is the secret ingredient. He's the one enhancing everything from "The Lady Grinning Soul" to "The Heart's Filthy Lesson," to say nothing of the spectacular piano solo on "Aladdin Sane."
To sing the songs of one man, Garson recruited four vocalists, all of whom brought something special to their performances. Bernard Fowler has sung with The Rolling Stones for thirty years. His voice has an incredible range, able to hit the high notes while going very deep, all with crystal clarity. Gaby Moreno is a singer from Guatemala whom I didn't know before last night, but will be looking for some of her own music as of today. I knew Corey Glover as the lead singer from the great band Living Colour and man was he fantastic.
And, of course, there was Texan Charlie Sexton. I first saw him in 1987 when he performed with Bowie on the Glass Spider Tour. He was a member of the band last night, playing guitar and singing. Interestingly, with his high cheek bones, dark-colored rock star hair laced with gray, he somewhat resembled Bowie himself. Like an American cousin.
The Heights Theater Was The Perfect Venue
The Heights Theater, as its name implies, is a converted movie theater. For those of y'all who don't live in Houston, The Heights is like its own city, just to the north and west of downtown. When you drive up and down its streets, you can disappear and almost think you're in a small town. And in the 1940s. Which made the Heights Theater an excellent venue for this concert. Seating approximately 300, just about every seat was filled, and folks were standing along the walls. Bar tables with chairs occupied the front area. My wife and I were along the balcony, probably twenty feet from the stage, with a clear view of the piano keys. Of all the things I wanted to see, Garson's hands playing the keyboard was top on the list.
The eclectic mix of people sported more gray hairs than your typical rock concert, but every age was represented. The Heights being known for its artistic flair, the members of the audience did not disappoint. Not only did you have folks like my wife and I—suburban parents who haven't lost what it means to go out on a week night—but there were also folks you could tell were rock stars, albeit of the local variety. Heck, I even saw one woman dressed in a sequined white leotard with a red lightning bolt a la the cover of Aladdin Sane.
Bernard Fowler's Dramatic Voice
Five minutes after eight, Garson emerged from the back and walked on stage. He introduced himself, talked about the project, then sat at his piano to play "Bring Me the Disco King," from 2003's Reality album. Bernard Fowler came out to center stage and approached the microphone. This was it. This was the moment I had been waiting for. How would he interpret this song? Would he try to caricature Bowie or make the song his own?
The latter was the answer, and set the tone for the entire evening. Bowie was often a crooner. Think of "Absolute Beginners," "Wild is the Wind," or "Life on Mars." “Disco King” has only piano, minor drums, and voice. Fowler took this song and made it his own, adding wonderful inflection and emphasis not present in the studio version, breathing new life into the music. Make no mistake: this band is not a tribute band. These are musicians who played with Bowie, knew him, worked in the studio with him, and toured the world with him. They are channeling him but, in keeping with Bowie's adventurous spirit, this was not a rote concert.
The full band came out as the song finished. The three backup singers—one of whom played bongos and one was Corey Glover (that’ll tell you the depth of talent when you have someone of Glover’s caliber singing backup for most of the show)—stood on a small riser stage right. Carmine Rojas on bass occupied his own riser stage left. Garson's piano was up front on the right. Slick assumed his station in front of Rojas, while Sexton stood next to the piano. With the full band in place, they belted out "Rebel Rebel." If "Disco King" was the contemplative template for some of the obscure songs, then the rousing rendition of "Rebel Rebel" was the loud anthem when the gathered audience could clap and sing.
Corey Glover Soars
I'll admit I didn't know what Corey Glover looked like, although the multi-colored, multi-striped suit and colored hair peeking out from under his stylish hat should have been the giveaway. But when he stepped up to belt out "Young Americans," I had no way of knowing just how powerful this man's voice was. Coming just after "Fame," this sister song from the 1974 album showcased Glover’s incredible range. On the famous line "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry," Bowie always stopped the song and delivered that phrase with gusto. Glover blew the roof off the theater. It alone elicited cheers.
When Sexton picked up a 12-string guitar and with "Young Americans" out of the way, there was only one song that fit the bill: "Space Oddity." Haven't heard this one since 1990 when Bowie played it on his Sound + Vision Tour. Even here, Sexton did not merely mimic the Thin White Duke. Dressed in a sleek black suit with matching scarf, Sexton rocked up the traditionally slower tune, giving it that special something in this, the song's fiftieth anniversary.
Speaking of rocking things up, "Lazarus," from Bowie's last album, “Blackstar,” transformed from the dirge-like jazz number of the original to a guitar-heavy intense song. Slick, whose amps were always on top of the mix, and Sexton traded off guitar licks on an extended solo section. "Ashes to Ashes" took on the vibe from the 2000 live set "Bowie at the Beeb" and Garson threw in a keytar solo with spacy, 1980-era synth sounds.
Gaby Moreno’s Operatic Singing
Gaby Moreno took center stage as the opening drum beats of "Five Years" thundered in the theater. Again, she interpreted the song in her own way, adding newer notes to the established flow of the song. But as the song neared its end, she let loose an extended single note, high in the register, and near operatic in tone. She held it so long, cheers erupted before she finished the note. Incredible. Her onstage role continued a bit later in a duet of the song "Time" with Sexton. The dichotomy of the young Moreno and the older Sexton each taking turns with lines like "Time, he's waiting in the wings" and "You are not evicting time" took on new meaning.
Going into the show, I honestly expected Garson to break out the song "Aladdin Sane" and duplicate his piano solo. He didn't, but to make up for it, his piano showcase was on the rarity "Sweet Thing/Candidate" from 1974's “Diamond Dogs.” After Fowler crooned out the main verses, Garson took over. Musically pared down to bass and drums, Garson's piano soloing was exquisite.
A Triptych for the Ages
After a rousing, hard-edged rendition of "Let's Dance"—where Sexton and Slick again traded guitar solos—it was time for a trio of songs to close out the main set. "Under Pressure" got it started. This song took on added meaning after Bowie's death. I got emotional with the ad-libbed words Fowler spoke in "Disco King," but with "Under Pressure," the tears almost escaped, despite me singing along. With Fowler and Glover trading verses (rather than each man taking a single part), the words assumed greater meaning, especially as they often sang arm-in-arm. The entire audience was singing along now, and it was cathartic.
Next up was the crowd-pleasing "Suffragette City." With the audience already on its feet singing at the tops of its collective lungs and Glover actually in the audience leading the song, you know what was coming when we got to the "Wham Bam, thank you ma’am" line. Everyone belted out the words, fists raised. The old building's seams probably cracked at that point. "All the Young Dudes," closed out the main section. Written early in Bowie's career, it's a fitting song for a crowd sing-a-long. Many in the audience swayed with the beat, mesmerized by the finale.
Closing Out With Heroes
As the band took a short break, I leaned over to my wife and asked her opinion about the last song. To my mind, there could only be one.
"Heroes" started and it served a fitting close for the night. With the full band jamming, Fowler's powerful voice heralded into the theater, filling the venue. He held up his index finger while singing "just for one day." The audience got the message and did it with him every subsequent time.
With a final group bow, the evening was at a close.
As the lights came up, everyone beamed with happiness and excitement, knowing they'd been a part of something special. Fans on the floor came up to the stage to say hello to the band. The musicians gratefully talked with everyone. It was like a family party. My wife and I found the other couple we chatted with before the show. Their grins were radiant. Before the show, I was hesitant to buy a concert t-shirt. My wife convinced me otherwise. We drove home under the full moon—a serious moonlight? —talking about the experience, the musicians, and a vow from her to find her Charlie Sexton cassette.
The Music of David Bowie Lives On
I've been a fan of Bowie since 1983 when I figured out who that guy was singing "Under Pressure" with Queen. He is one of my four favorite rock acts of all time. I loved his willingness to change styles, taking some current trend in music and putting his own unique spin on it. His 90s era is quite underappreciated. And, in 2016, while the sounds of his new record was only two days old, his death hit me hard. It was awhile before I could listen to his music again without sad emotions.
That time has passed. Honestly, I've been listening to Bowie's music with great happiness for a long time now, even a renewed interest in his 80s material thanks to the most-recent box set. And, as much as I fist-pump in the car while driving in Houston traffic, nothing compares to the splendor of last night's show.
If you enjoy consummate music professionals at the top of their game, this show is for you. That those same pros are intimately familiar with the music of David Bowie, their love and appreciation for him shines through in their playing. The performance last night ranks as one of my all-time favorite shows.
In short, A Bowie Celebration is a must-see event, a one-of-a-kind musical experience worthy of the man himself. And, for just one day, David Bowie was again alive.