BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Even before David Bowie’s surprising 2016 death from the cancer he kept concealed from most everyone in his inner circle, there weren’t regular opportunities to hear his music live.
His last major run – “A Reality Tour” – came in 2003-2004. A handful of special appearances followed, but for the most part, the man who crafted some of the most ingenious live productions of the ’70 and ‘80s had bid adieu to road life.
That makes this recent spate of Celebrating David Bowie dates even more special to longtime fans and those who never had an opportunity to experience the Thin White Duke on stage.
There are no holograms or cheesy replicas; nothing that would sully the memory of his extraordinary catalog.
Instead, Celebrating David Bowie, which wrapped its five-week 2018 tour at the Buckhead Theatre Sunday night, is a loving tribute by musicians who knew Bowie’s quirks and preferences and singers who worshiped his contributions to music history.
Led by keyboardist/pianist Mike Garson, Bowie’s longest and most frequent band member, this stellar group of players fulfilled fans’ expectations with a set list stocked with favorites and sprinkled with rarities – the best of all scenarios.
Garson, a genial Brooklynite, briefly addressed the crowd at the start of the 2-hour-plus concert with an explanation about “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song he said Bowie would sometimes use in an encore.
The expressive voice of Bernard Fowler, a veteran backing vocalist with The Rolling Stones, handled the ethereal lament beautifully. But it was the one-two punch of “Rebel Rebel” and “Fame,” when Garson and Fowler were joined by the full crew including eternal rock ‘n’ roller Earl Slick on guitar, Carmine Rojas on bass, Gerry Leonard on guitar and Slick’s son Lee John Madeloni on drums, that sent fans’ swooning.
Tucked in the background were two of the show’s other special guests – British singer/producer Mr. Hudson (he steered some of the best tracks on Duran Duran’s “Paper Gods” album) and singer/guitarist Joe Sumner, whose resemblance to dad Sting was overshadowed only by his resemblance to NFL-er Rob Gronkowski.
Throughout the night, Fowler, Mr. Hudson and Sumner rotated from the spotlight to playing congas or guitar (or, in the case of Mr. Hudson and Sumner, also recording the other musicians during some songs).
Mr. Hudson coated “Changes” with his lithe voice, while Sumner gleefully strummed through “Space Oddity.”
What was immediately apparent with all of the singers was their reverence in tackling Bowie’s songs. And, as distinctive as each of their voices, they also approached their assignments differently.
Fowler was always mesmerizing in his theatricality – big notes, eyes closed, arms outstretched – as he soared through the dreamy rarity, “Five Years.” Mr. Hudson usually took a deep breath and a long blink before approaching the microphone, as he did before the winding “Aladdin Sane,” which was highlighted by a Latin-jazz piano solo from Garson. And Sumner appeared to enjoy every second, whether injecting his inherent suaveness into “Let’s Dance” – which was crisply executed with an undercurrent of Slick’s buzzy guitar – or standing in the shadows singing backup vocals.
Through it all, Garson was a casual emcee, introducing the guests and telling the occasional backstory to a song, as he did before bringing the achingly passionate Evan Rachel Wood out for “Moonage Daydream” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
In an interview a few weeks before the Atlanta concert, Garson explained Wood’s adoration of Bowie (she has an “Aladdin Sane” logo tattooed on her leg) and her visceral presentation of his songs was deeply felt throughout the venue.
Atlanta fans received a bonus Wood sighting when she and Fowler teamed for a Bowie favorite seldom played on the tour – his brilliant collaboration with Queen,” Under Pressure.” Their duet, backed by the pristine musical re-creation, was a show highlight.
While Garson hopes to take the Celebrating David Bowie tour to Asia or Europe, there is no definitive future for the group at the moment. It would be a shame if what Garson managed to create on this tour (and a handful of shows around the world last year) dissolved, because there is no better homage to be paid to Bowie’s life work than from those who played it best.