I reviewed the David Bowie tribute show at Radio City Hall for Noisey.
The blackstar tattoo on my chest, which I’d gotten hours after learning of his death, smeared with glitter for the occasion, glared as a security guard scanned me with a metal detector. A crippling wave of anxiety passed over. He is gone, I am here. Bowie, his music, and his unfathomable legacy occupied a massive room in my psyche, in all of ours. When I closed my eyes and envisioned a Bowie tribute I saw bodies pressed together in a dark and messy venue, the type of scene where it was appropriate to kiss a stranger on the mouth just to taste their tears and lipstick. For that dark glamour was what Bowie meant to me. One version of what a Bowie tribute should look like for every fan left behind. At Radio City Music Hall, this was a classy affair. Time to sit up straight and act like I’m allowed in public. With the formal posture of a funeral, we were all here to pay our respects.
It was the second day of memorial following a concert at Carnegie Hall, the original show announced coincidentally on the same day of his death, featuring many of the same performers. Debbie Harry, Pixies, Mumford & Sons, the Flaming Lips and a thorough list of additional “all-stars” were here to pay tribute to David Bowie, the star who was given a constellation as he left this world. Tickets to attend both nights were being sold for $3,000. Proceeds of the concerts benefit organizations such as Little Kids Rock and Grammy in the Schools. Less charitably, vendors outside Radio City capitalized by selling crookedly printed Bowie photos for $5.
The audience was an older crowd. I was seated among other journalists, based on the lack of enthusiasm and frantic pen scribbling. Right before one of the first acts, jazz artist Esperanza Spalding performing “If You Can See Me,” the hall’s magnificent silence was interrupted. Someone very original shouted “Free Bird!” Once the lid had been cracked, a few others would later on join in the fun by adding “Feel the Bern!”, which lead to other audience members loudly requesting they shut the fuck up.
It wasn’t until saxophonist Donny McCaslin performed “Lazarus,” with Mark Guiliana, Jason Lindner, and Tony Visconti, that the mood began to form. They had helped create Blackstar. Visconti has been involved with Bowie since his self-titled and second in 1969. It was clear I would cry tonight. Despite the decades of memories and cultural currency that come with Bowie’s classics, it was songs from Blackstar that took the night. Perhaps the rationalization of why we were all there was best told through his final album, released just two days before his death.
One of the most powerful moments of the night came from Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, and Anna Calvi with the Kronos Quartet who performed the title track “Blackstar.” Palmer and company created Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute shortly after learning the news of his death. It was a perfect performance, their bodies forming a star. My anxiety broke to tears. The audience collectively stood in ovation. Through the beauty of their performance they had demonstrated the weight of what Bowie had done with Blackstar – he gave us an internal gift, and the monumental task of doing it justice. Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, Anna Calvi and the Kronos Quartet did.
Along with Palmer, Michael Stipe was one of the strongest performances of the night. In beautifully depressive Stipe fashion, before he began, he asked the needed question into the microphone: “Why are we here?”
An enormous pause, enough to make anyone decent in attendance ponder the real price of their ticket. “A celebration,” is the answer Stipe gave. A few more words for Bowie, and then came the performance. “Ashes to Ashes” has been played an unfathomable number of times, but never like this. He stripped it down to the bones, whispering the lyrics, and perhaps the first time in a million listens I was hit with the weight of the demons Bowie felt:
“Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh, no, not again”
Stipe stole the show with his brutally honest performance. And after we had his blessing, no, orders to celebrate, both audience and performers did just that. Perry Farrell gave a lively rendition of “Rebel Rebel” full of repeated hat lifts and cheesing grins, during which everyone was up and dancing (an act requested by Rickie Lee Jones, who asked everyone to get on their feet and join her in “All the Young Dudes”), but there was a disconnect. Even Debbie Harry, a goddess that can do no wrong, left an itch unscratched in her rendition of “Heroes,” but she, and the others, had an impossible assignment. No one can be Bowie, we’re all chasing a ghost.
Other highlights of the night included The Pixies covering Bowie covering the Pixies with “Cactus” (spelling out B-O-W-I-E), which was throw-up-in-your mouth cool. The Polyphonic Spree in their glorious Kool-Aid robes reminded that “the sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” During their introduction we learned that Bowie affectionately referred to them as “the pretty polies,” a tidbit of newly discovered Bowie trivia that tickled my brain, imagining our hero coming up with the alliteration in his brilliant voice. Cat Power covered one of the greatest album openers of all time, the epic “Five Years.”
The show was well-orchestrated and ran right on time. When the end was near the Flaming Lips played their favorite, “Life on Mars?”, Wayne Coyne was projection-mapped while singing sitting on top of Chewbacca. Massive karaoke screens came down for the closing number, an enormous sing-a-long to “Space Oddity” lead by The New York City Children’s Chorus. The thousands of voices, from the little punks on the stage to those in the nosebleed seats pronouncing “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…” summed it up. He’s dead. We’re still here, struggling to make with peace with the blackstar left in our souls.