When David Bowie died in early 2016, there was a tribute that quickly went viral as millions of mourners were awoken on a stark winter morning, thrust into grappling with one of music’s greatest losses. “If you’re ever sad,” wrote poster Dean Podesta, “just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”
And yet even two years after his untimely passing it’s still difficult to imagine a world without Bowie — especially for the people who worked closest with him. Many have now come together for the Celebrating David Bowie 2018 Tour that merges musicians from all eras of Bowie’s lustrous career, giving fans a chance to relive the incredible catalog of music from the people who once played it on a nightly basis.
CELEBRATING DAVID BOWIE When: 7:30 p.m. February 23 Where: Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield Tickets: $35-$135 Info: ticketfly.com
“I miss him terribly and wish I could be working with him now, but this is the next best thing I could do,” says Mike Garson, the show’s producer and band leader who, as a principal keyboardist since 1972, estimates he shared the stage with Bowie for more than 1,000 concerts, up until what would be Bowie’s very last show in 2006.
“I didn’t know it then, but now I understand what a gift it was to work with him. There was this magic about him and the way he was able to weave seamlessly with rhythm and time and get deep into your soul as a musician. I’m seeing it all now though,” Garson continues. “It’s like Groundhog Day, getting a chance to relive all those years through all these great musicians on this tour. The band we have assembled sounds as good as we did when we backed him up.”
Garson’s idea for Celebrating David Bowie (which carries off from the original inception in 2017 by Angelo Bundini to commemorate what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday) was to separate it from the many tribute acts by featuring actual alumni. The lineup is a who’s who of the Starman’s greatest contributors including long-time guitarist Earl Slick (from 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” to 2013’s “The Next Day”) as well as axe men Adrian Belew (Sound & Vision Tour) and Gerry Leonard (A Reality Tour), plus bassist Carmine Rojas (Let’s Dance/Serious Moonlight Tour) and Slick’s son Lee John Madeloni on drums.
For the important vocal duties, Garson says, “it takes a village” to tap into Bowie’s intense range and to do so he corralled a number of diverse talents including Bernard Fowler (known for his work with The Rolling Stones), recent Grammy nominee Gaby Moreno and a slew of special guests like Living Colour’s Corey Glover and actress Evan Rachel Wood on select dates. The Chicago date, on February 23, will also have a special appearance by another Bowie producer Mark Plati who first introduced Garson to the Thin White Duke.
“It’s amazing how many people, massive artists themselves, he influenced,” says Garson believing it was Bowie’s ‘Renaissance Man’ like qualities that have made him and his music still so in demand. “He has all these layers of meaning in his songs and the music itself. He did things structurally that were different and really understood hooks, plus he was bringing fashion to the music, he was bringing his acting abilities, his producing abilities and his philosophies on life. I think his music was almost like a secret code for those who maybe were growing up and didn’t feel wanted or accepted to know who they are, he kind of said it before everybody else that it’s okay to be yourself.”
Ensemble member Gerry Leonard, who worked with Bowie in his latter years, believes that Bowie’s popularity and respect has actually grown more since his untimely passing. “I think when he was alive, there was always those that would say ‘I prefer these records’ and ‘didn’t like that era.’ Everyone had an opinion. But since he has passed I think all that has melted away and it’s like we are looking at his body of work and going, ‘Wow it’s all amazing.’ I think there’s a real groundswell of appreciation that’s come around.”
Though the set list changes every night, Garson has made interesting picks for the show’s content. Of course the familiar hits like “Space Oddity,” “Changes” and “Life on Mars” can’t be avoided but there’s also more obscure cuts like “Lady Grinning Soul,” (which had never previously been performed live), “Conversation Piece” and “Quicksand” floating around the roughly 23-song set. “I want his catalog fully understood and so I searched for some real gems,” Garson says.
One album the Celebrating David Bowie Tour is not currently touching in this run is Bowie’s last, “Blackstar,” which came out (unbeknownst to many) while the artist was on his deathbed.
“It’s a very special record, you could almost do it by itself,” says Leonard. “There’s such an eerie tone, almost like this requiem for David, and because none of us were really involved in that record, I think there’s that point to consider, too.”
In particular, the track “Lazarus,” with lines like “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” has haunted many with the idea that Bowie foreshadowed his death. In fact, Garson has recently admitted that Bowie once told him that he visited a psychic in the ‘70s who correctly predicted when and how he would die, and Bowie believed in the prophecy.
“It’s been sensationalized in the media, but what I was trying to say is if you look at his last few albums, it’s almost like an opera, a person understanding they’re going to die and planning it all out and talking about it, and that was part of the magnetism and myth of David. He was a very good observer of life,” Garson says, also admitting that even with that information, Bowie was not necessarily done with music as he got closer to his fate. “He wasn’t done at all. He told me in 2006 that he wanted to really be a present father for the next 10 years, and he committed to that and he was. But the last few months prior to him passing he had chatted with Brian Eno about maybe continuing his original concept of the trilogy of the ‘Outside’ album. Of course it wasn’t meant to be. Life does what it does and if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from this, it’s enjoy every minute.”
Garson is also not done exploring Bowie’s music with plans to make the tour a regular affair.
“I have a lot of different concepts,” he admits, hinting at collaborations with symphonic orchestras and album-centric tours. “I’m just keeping a very open spirit and I’m going to continue doing it because I love the music and I love the response from the audience.”
Adds Leonard, “I think that’s the spirit of these shows, that we are coming together truly to celebrate David and to play his music and remember him because he was a great man. He had an effect on all of us — his band members and his audience members. And to just hold that for a few hours in one room is amazing.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.