David Bowie was nothing if not theatrical. So somewhere in the heavens, the late British rock legend would have been chuckling with approval at the sight of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips in a light-up gown, singing “Life on Mars” while sitting on the shoulders of a man dressed as Chewbacca.
It was a wonderfully surreal highlight of the eagerly anticipated tribute concert at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night (a second, with a slightly altered line-up, will be held at Radio City on Friday). “The Music of David Bowie” had originally been planned to honor Bowie’s musical legacy. But following his death from liver cancer in January at the age of 69, the show transformed into a star-studded memorial.
The show drew old Bowie friends and collaborators. Long-time producer and confidante Tony Visconti led the house band, while actress Tilda Swinton, who featured in one of Bowie’s 2013 video “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” looked on from the balcony.
It wasn’t a night for long speeches or eulogies. Instead, a roll call of around 20 artists each took turns to put their spin on Bowie’s half-century of music, including Lou Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson (who performed “Always Crashing in the Same Car”), Jakob Dylan (““Heroes””) and Joseph Arthur, who got a louder cheer for unfurling an American flag with an expletive aimed at Donald Trump than he did for his noisy, one-man version of “The Man Who Sold The World.”
Former REM frontman Michael Stipe delivered the most somber and affecting take of the evening, duetting with model/singer Karen Elson on a chilling, piano-led version of “Ashes to Ashes.” At times, Stipe whispered the lyrics so softly, it almost sounded like a prayer.
But the best moments of the night lifted the show into a more celebratory feel. Cyndi Lauper rocked a fluffy pink hairdo during “Suffragette City” and although she fluffed some of the lines, her manic energy more than made up for it. Ann Wilson of Heart made a point of wearing red shoes to match the lyrics of “Let’s Dance,” and the Toronto-based Choir! Choir! Choir! rounded out the night by leading all the performers and the entire crowd in a moving sing-a-long of “Space Oddity.”
But the peak point of fabulousness was provided, as ever, by Debbie Harry. Back in 1977, when Blondie were relative newcomers on the punk scene, Bowie took Harry aside and advised her to work the stage a little more. Almost four decades later, she channeled that advice straight into the Carnegie Hall auditorium. The 70-year-old New Yorker
strode on to the stage wearing a shiny hooded-jacket, danced her way through “Starman,” and forced the crowd to their feet, reminding them that this was no wake.
His music was peerless, his words were profound, but Harry is walking proof that David Bowie also knew how to give everybody a good time. No wonder so many people loved him.