By John Swartz
Last Saturday night’s The Bowie Lives concert at the Opera House turned out better than I expected. Madison Mueller and Sam Johnston opened the show, each doing one tune. Madison did Moonage Daydream and Sammy did a mashhup of It Ain’t Easy and Life On Mars. Both obviously had fans in the audience and maybe made some new ones. I think Sammy’s choices gave her better opportunity to let her voice loose.
The show everyone came to see started with Michael Bell (who does all the singing and posing) playing the guitar riff ofSpace Oddity from the wing, hitting center stage as the band kicked in and the lights came up.
One thing this band cannot be faulted for is production value. The show started, continued and ended with moments designed to leave impressions. Of course a lot of it rests on Bell’s shoulders as the front man, but saxophonist Bobby Shaw impressed a lot of people, especially with a second half solo in Modern Love. At halftime several people approached me just to talk about the bass player, Dawson McManus¸ and his solid work.
Matter of fact, the last half of the second half heading into the end of the show came from just one album, Let’s Dance. Here the bass and work of drummer Michael Beauclerc are so critical because the title track, Modern Love and China Girl are all about the groove. Regardless of how the tune is sung, if the band doesn’t lock into the groove and keep it, the songs fail. While all along I was impressed with general musicianship of the entire band, those 12 minutes were the calling card.
Another thing making the performance realistic was the backup singing. Beauclerc handled most of it, but others joined when needed. Bowie’s backup singers sounded different from album to album, song to song and this crew nailed them. The only moment the audience slept through was in Suffragette City. Bell gave everyone a heads up, did the mic pointing at the audience thing, and everyone missed Wham bam thank you ma’am. How to explain this is difficult, even little kids know where to do it.
So, Bell. I saw Bowie in 1997 at the Guvernment in Toronto (the concert was actually in o/o The Warehouse part of the club). If you’ve never been, it’s a small venue with a small stage (for a Bowie concert); it’s really just a dance floor with no seating and the capacity was about 2,000 people. I got to watch Bowie from right at the lip of the stage and from mid house and at the bar. This concert is my #1 experience. I can say there is nothing Bell did on stage that distracted me from just enjoying the show. He did nothing cheesy or forced, like I’ve seen from so many other tribute bands/artists. His mannerisms were at times very reminiscent of Bowie and when they weren’t he just came off as someone enjoying being able to perform the music.
The show progressed according to the order the songs appeared in the world. The first half ended with 1974s Rebel Rebel and on the other side picked up with 75s Young Americans.
The show skipped over a bunch of music made between 1983 and 1997, which Bells said earlier his target audience probably wouldn’t know many of those songs. He stopped the time machine for I’m Afraid Of Americans from the Earthling album, and he was right. Up to that point the audience was eating every tune up and then all of a sudden the mood changed. Personally it’s a shame because I think Earthling was Bowie’s best album. When that finished I thought, here comes the closer because the albums subsequent to Earthling while great, did not make a big dent on mainstream consciousness. I was right, next up was Lazarus from Bowie’s last album, Blackstar.
This one was better recognized by the audience of Bowie’s later tunes, having been released days before Bowie died and the subsequent media attention meant it was hard to escape hearing the song.
One thing I haven’t mentioned was the use of video screens. There were four differently sized screens on stage, all showing the same images, most of them familiar to audiences, to add colour to the show. They added a nice dramatic effect at points beyond the standard logos and photos relevant to songs as most bands do. For Lazurus the drama was dripping all over. The screens showed prominently snow, not the stuff we’re dreading in all our immediate futures, but the signal is not being received kind. Very subtly the Blackstar logo, and lines of lyrics would emerge from the haze, but not escape it and fade back in, while Bell sang sitting/sprawling in a director’s chair to one side of the stage in a manner of ‘this is it, it’s all I got in me’ kind of way. The easy way to do it would be to use footage from the Lazurus video. I think it was a bit of genius to go with what they did. I also think the audience was collectively remembering Bowie’s place, and how he went out, having the guts to do one last album, and the timing of the release as part of the art.
Bell acknowledged it wasn’t the most rousing tune to end a show on, nevertheless the audience cheered. The band never left the stage and went straight into their encore, which as Bell told me weeks ago, would be a surprise and it would make perfect sense. I did not see All the Young Dudes coming. Neither did anyone else. It was a good way to go out.
I have to say this band deserves respect for not doing a send up and being hokey like so many other tribute bands do. They treated the task with some dignity and did a wonderful job of reminding us what a giant artist Bowie was and I’d gladly go see them again.
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)