Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Stardust A Bowie Celebration at Irving Plaza
NEW YORK, NY — On a recent night outside Irving Plaza, lines of concertgoers stretched down the block, past vendors hawking David Bowie memorabilia and fans hunting for extra tickets. With no opener, the venue filled up early, front-row fans sporting VIP lanyards and comparing notes on which Bowie tours they’d seen in what cities. For devotees, the evening was a chance to revisit those concert memories. For those who missed out on seeing a live performance by the Starman, A Bowie Celebration is surely the next best thing.
Bowie alumni are among the all-stars at the core of the Bowie Celebration tour, and a rotating cast of very special guests join in each city. The tour is spearheaded by Mike Garson, whose versatility garnered him a decades-long place by Bowie’s side, on tour and in studio. (Garson studied with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Julliard instructors, and could provide the soul and gospel sounds for Young Americans (1975) as adroitly as the avant-garde jazz backbone for Aladdin Sane (1973) and Stravinsky’s Octet-referencing solo in “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” (from 1997’s Earthling).)
While waiting for the show to start, I thought back to last year’s “David Bowie Is” at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit felt like both a sacred space and playground: a pilgrimage for acolytes and a multimedia initiation for those less familiar with the artist.
Fans snapped iPhone photos of the sketches that became the art for Blackstar — Bowie’s parting gift to us, released two days after his death, on what would have been his 69th birthday. They squinted at his diary entry about his first co-write with “with Lennon, a beatle” (query why Bowie spelled “beatle” with a lowercase “b” and why he felt his future self might be confused as to which Lennon this was). Kids and adults alike gawked at outrageous costumes designed by Kansai Yamamoto and Freddie Burretti. And I scrutinized contact sheets from iconic shoots, including Terry O’Neill’s photos for Diamond Dogs — the freeze-frames of an enormous dog leaping up at the strobe light while Bowie lounged in angular elegance, lithe legs encased in platform boots.
These objects seemed talismanic, as if by proximity to them, we could internalize the magic of their maker.
Hours later, emerging from the dim exhibition hall into the afternoon sun, I turned my phone back on to a flurry of news alerts about the latest regulatory rollbacks. I found myself hoping that lifetimes from now, when aliens touch down to excavate the ruins of our civilization, that they’ll study David Bowie’s artifacts and realize that Homo sapiens‘ capacity to create once outstripped our drive to destroy.
For if ever there was a cultural ambassador for planet Earth, a representative of creative potential, Bowie would have been a frontrunner for the job. His protean personas were a dialogue with the world in all its terror and splendor — the space race, the Berlin Wall, capitalist commodification, nostalgic nationalism. He was the orange-haired, space-glam Ziggy Stardust, the sleekly coiffed Thin White Duke in subversively androgynous formal-wear, the decadent dystopian character from Diamond Dogs (the album cover always reminded me of the Bosch triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights). He was the Goblin King and the Elephant Man.
It’d be tempting to call him a human chameleon, except he wasn’t merely shape-shifting in response to his surroundings; rather, David Bowie was a provocateur and iconoclast, shaping and re-shaping the cultural landscape.
Bowie’s indelible influence was apparent on Tuesday night at Irving Plaza, both from the career-spanning set of songs performed and from concertgoers’ appearance — shirts with the lightning-bolt face from Aladdin Sane, tattoos of the geometric iterations of Blackstar‘s album art.
The core band for this Bowie Celebration tour comprises Garson on piano (he also emceed much of the evening); Earl Slick and Charlie Sexton on guitars; Carmine Rojas on bass; and Lee John and Imani Elijah (who play together as SayReal) on drums/percussion. Vocals were shared between Bernard Fowler (who has worked extensively with The Rolling Stones), Living Colour’s Corey Glover, and Sexton, alongside guests like the luminous Lisa Fischer.
A dizzying array of talent joined the core group. Violist/composer Martha Mooke, who contributed to 2002’s Heathen, sat in on a few songs, as did saxophonist Tim Ries and guitarist Vernon Reid. Naia Kete and Jeff Slate provided backing vocals (the latter has written extensively about Bowie), as did Glover when he wasn’t singing lead — on any other night, each of these three would be the main act. And Omar Hakim (Let’s Dance, Tonight), Zack Alford (Earthling, The Next Day), and Sterling Campbell (Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Hours, Reality) rotated in on drums.
Garson started to introduce the first song of the night as “a somewhat obscure one called ‘Bring Me the Disco King,'” then paused, noting the comprehending smiles in the audience. “But maybe not obscure to you, because you all are the real deal,” he continued, prompting applause, laughs, and the flash of phone cameras. He then swept out his long jacket with a flourish and sat down behind a Yamaha AvantGrand — a hybrid piano with the action of an acoustic grand (“Tactile Response” technology replicates the natural vibration of the keys) and the ability to re-tune instantly to different temperaments (dare we call it the Bowie of digital pianos?). In neat visual symmetry, the keyboard design that runs along Garson’s jacket sleeve was mirrored in the actual piano keys and reflected in the instrument’s glossy ebony finish.
“Bring Me the Disco King” has been the standard opening on this tour, and it’s a poignant choice — an acknowledgment that we are present for a show whose creator is absent. The song, off 2003’s Reality, is a rework of something Bowie penned in the early 1990s. Centered around Garson’s piano and performed at half the original tempo, it’s a stately reckoning with mortality, suffused with a stubborn resistance to the idea that the finish is necessarily the end: Don’t let me know we’re invisible / We could dance, dance, dance through the fire.
The iconic riff of “Rebel Rebel” rang out across the floor next, and the reaction, from veteran concertgoers to the little kid dancing at one end of the pit (she seemed poised to make a break for it and run onto the stage itself), made clear that we were here to celebrate and not to mourn.
While the concert honors the memory and music of its namesake, it’d be a disservice to think of A Bowie Celebration as merely a tribute show. The world-class musicians bring their own twist to the songs. Particularly memorable moments included Sexton’s haunting take on “Lazarus.” I held my breath as he approached the line by the time I got to New York, knowing that the audience would surely react to those lyrics — we did, exclaiming as one, and Sexton raised a fist in homage. Garson’s deconstruction of “Aladdin Sane” prompted smiles from even the staid venue security guards, and Fischer’s rendition of “Lady Grinning Soul” had the venue thrumming with collective joy.
The 20-song setlist was a well-balanced selection of the hits, including “Fame,” “Let’s Dance,” “Under Pressure,” and “Space Oddity,” and deeper cuts like “Stay” and “White Light/White Heat” (the Velvet Underground song). The encore featured “Life On Mars?” from 1971’s Hunky Dory, and, of course, “Heroes” — the co-write with Brian Eno that wasn’t a big hit when released in 1977, but is now one of Bowie’s most recognizable songs. I couldn’t decide whether to look onstage or back at the audience, bright-eyed and singing together, sharing some cosmic high. This was five decades of music compressed into a single night, and a reminder of the power of art to bridge divides by giving us a shared mythology.
Bowie’s music is encoded in our cultural DNA, but he was more than his songs. He embodied relentless innovation, the deconstruction of norms, of gendered constructs — forever fluid and bold. In these very troubled times, with each day’s headlines a blow to our sense of decency and truth, the promise encapsulated in Bowie’s art and his life — the belief that we are always in the process of becoming — is a powerful antidote to cynicism and paralysis.
After the encore, the musicians exchanged hugs, posed for selfies, and reached out across the photo pit to high-five fans. It was not quite 11pm — still early for a New York night. We emerged from the venue to see yellow taxis zipping down the street, past bright apartment windows and beneath distant skyscraper lights — the surrogate stars in our urban night sky.
If we were to somehow diagram all the ears and hearts that Bowie reached, and all the artists he inspired, including the talent on the Irving Plaza stage, we’d see the connecting lines — a chart of constellations by which so many navigate. To crib from the Starman himself, this is what we are and what we should all hope to leave behind: “Ashes to Ashes,” dust and stardust.