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The Music of David Bowie at Carnegie Hall: Recap

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I've been privileged to be a part of the tribute concert series held over the past 12 years, (mostly) at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I play the part of the "Voice of God" — that's the term, or "VOG" — introducing the artists as they walk out onto the big stage.

This year's show, which was planned last fall, brought together 20-plus artists to honor David Bowie.  Tickets went on sale about two hours before his passing. Of course, emotions ran high — as they still do — and there were so many people who wanted to be involved from every angle that a second show was planned, for Radio City Music Hall. (Plus it's to be streamed online, and this is all good news because the whole shebang is a benefit for various children's music charities.)

Anyway, tonight I was there for the first night, sitting with a microphone at side stage, just out of view. It was an amazing scene as always, artists and bands and instruments pressed together, peering over and around each other to get a look at the stage.

And everyone is nervous. Which I understand — its Carnegie Hall, first of all, and for the most part artists are playing without their usual bandmates, and they're about to perform a song they might have just learned, and they have just one shot to get it right.

That said, production-wise, it ran like a dream. (Thank you, Ed!)

Overall, the tribute was a study in contrasts. David Bowie's peers were there to mourn their friend and celebrate his music (Debbie Harry, Laurie Anderson, the Pixies).  Some professed themselves to be fans who grew up listening to him (Michael Stipe and Karen Elson, Cat Power).  Some were kindred spirits who seem to be cut from the same cloth (Rickie Lee Jones, Perry Farrell, Joseph Arthur).

Playing with the house band — Holy Holy, an assemblage of veterans who'd all worked with Bowie for years — allowed some folks to channel their inner Ziggy and do the original songs proud. Cyndi Lauper burst out of the gate with a raucous "Sufferagette City." Debbie Harry pulled the whole crowd into her rocking "Starman" with high style. Jakob Dylan killed "Heroes," which is not an easy one to kill.

Some others brought unexpected twists. Rickie Lee Jones' "All the Young Dudes" became a talking blues with an audience sing-along, all about the lyrics. Cat Power's lovely, emotional "Five Years" was mesmerizing. Gogol Bordello took a bold move and switched out the guitar parts of "Breaking Glass" for an energetic violin.  Joseph Arthur, who says the universe conspired to add him to the show (with apologies to an ailing Patti Smith), added his trademark loops with fuzzy electric guitar work to "The Man Who Sold the World."

Riding the line right beween the two was The Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne climbed onto the shoulders of Chewbacca, wearing a cape complete with a flashing LED light display, and delivered a beautiful, heartfelt "Life on Mars."

Internet sensation Choir! Choir! Choir! led the big finale alongside the New York City Youth Chorus, with the house lights up and all artists on stage for "Space Oddity." (I ducked out there too.)

I'll admit it was great fun to see everyone interact. There were high-fives all over the place, the pile of musicians, family, friends, managers and PR people squeezed backstage were all listening intently and hugging between songs.

The house band got to play with singers who were so happy to be able to play with them, and that formed the thread that kept the show on course. And the backbone behind it all was thoughtful, artistic curation on the part of Michael Dorf and Shlomo Lipetz from City Winery.

As a Bowie fan this was an amazing night and a credible, proper tribute to a true artist.

SET LIST: The Music of David Bowie at Carnegie Hall 3/31/16

  • Cyndi Lauper, "Suffragette City"
  • Holy Holy - The House Band, "Width of a Circle"
  • Joseph Arthur, "The Man Who Sold the World"
  • Robyn Hitchcock, "Soul Love"
  • Laurie Anderson, "Always Crashing in the Same Car"
  • Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello, "Breaking Glass"
  • Debbie Harry & Matt Katz-Bohen of Blondie, "Starman"
  • The Mountain Goats, "Word on a Wing"
  • Michael Stipe, "Ashes to Ashes"
  • Bettye LaVette, "It Ain't Easy"
  • Perry Farrell, "Rebel Rebel"
  • Cat Power, "Five Years"
  • Ann Wilson of Heart, "Let’s Dance"
  • J Mascis & Sean Lennon, "Quicksand"
  • Pixies, "Cactus"
  • Rickie Lee Jones, "All The Young Dudes"
  • Jakob Dylan, "Heroes"
  • The Flaming Lips, "Life on Mars"
  • Choir! Choir! Choir! with the New York City Youth Chorus, "Space Oddity"