Remembering Bowie with gigs

Debbie Harry (centre) of Blondie and Matt Katz-Bohe (right) performing at the David Bowie Tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Debbie Harry (centre) of Blondie and Matt Katz-Bohe (right) performing at the David Bowie Tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • David Bowie had many faces - the attention- grabbing glam rocker, the inward- looking experimentalist - and, for a tribute to his life, leading names in music celebrated him by embracing his eclectic spirit.

Nearly three months after his death, some of the many musicians influenced by the rock legend honoured him with two sold-out nights in New York.

Yet the concerts were not about dutiful covers of his hits, many of which went unplayed.

In fitting remembrance of Bowie - who stayed cutting edge until the end rather than sliding into a cliche of an ageing rocker - the artists, including Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Laurie Anderson, Cat Power, Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, the Pixies, the Flaming Lips and Heart's lead singer, Ann Wilson, looked for new ways to explore his vast work.

Cyndi Lauper kicked things off with Suffragette City while Debbie Harry of Blondie sang Starman and Wilson had red shoes to match the lyrics of Bowie's 1983 hit Let's Dance. But it was Michael Stipe of R.E.M. who offered one of the most stirring performances, transforming Ashes To Ashes - Bowie's 1980 hit that heralded his entrance into mainstream pop - into a piano ballad.

Commanding near silence in 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall last Friday night, he appeared to be speaking to a Bowie in the afterlife - or, as the late rocker may have preferred it, in space - as he sang with whispery tenderness about a bleak life chapter of Bowie's fictional astronaut Major Tom.

The first day of the tribute, at Carnegie Hall last Thursday, was designed to raise money for music programmes in schools. Tickets coincidentally went on sale moments after Bowie died on Jan 10.

Transformed into a remembrance, organisers added the second night at Radio City.

Bowie released his final album Blackstar on his 69th birthday, which was two days before he died.

Despite his illness, the album was one of his most experimental yet as he pursued a type of hard jazz, his voice duelling with the saxophone.

Donny McCaslin, the innovative saxophonist picked by Bowie for the album, took to the stage to perform Lazarus, a track on Blackstar that in retrospect most foreshadowed Bowie's mortality.

Yet this time, there could be no duet with Bowie. McCaslin's richly toned tenor sax posthumously took the part of the vocals in their entirety, winning a standing ovation at Radio City.

In a faithful cover of Life On Mars?, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne donned a flowing scarf covered with flashing neon like a bursting waterfall, all while singing piggyback atop a man in a Chewbacca costume. Artists who offered straightforward covers included The Pixies and Farrell, while jazz fusionist Esperanza Spalding picked the challengingly ambiguous If You Can See Me.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Remembering Bowie with gigs'. Print Edition | Subscribe