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Review: Bowie at the Proms

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Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir of Stargaze

Of all the tributes enacted in the memory of David Bowie this year, perhaps the most divisive (and some might say purposefully so) was that delivered by the BBC Proms this past weekend.

An integral part of what is traditionally, if not always in actuality, seen as a celebration of classical music, the performance was nevertheless an opportunity for Bowie’s music to be celebrated in a manner, and in an element, that he might well have engineered himself. One which, if the immediate online commentary is anything to go by, was pretentious, absurd, arty-farty and effectively up its own behind. It wasn’t rock’n’roll, but it wasn’t classical either.

Yeah, that sounds a lot like Bowie. Or, at least, it sounds a lot more like Bowie than the “gee, it’s wunnerful to be here, let’s boogie to ‘Blue Jean’” style tributes that have unfolded elsewhere. There were no Cyndi Laupers at the Royal Albert Hall; no all-star supergroups wondering whose turn it was to play guitar like Ziggy; no mindless recitations of the greatest hits. But there were a lot of glances into Bowie’s darkest corners.

Built around the brilliance of the Berlin-based Stargaze ensemble (catch their rendering of Terry Riley’s In Chere), beneath the baton of the ineffably personable André de Ridder, the event’s genesis lay in the days immediately following Bowie’s death, when Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff and Anna Calvi cut a tribute EP, topped by a remarkable interpretation of Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the title track of his only-just released final album.

It was a spellbinding vision, one that they replayed at the Radio City Music Hall tribute earlier this year, but which was somehow out of place there - a moment of high art drama amid the Perry Farrells and Michael Stipes of this world…which intends no disrespect whatsoever to their contributions to the evening. They worked within the context they were intended to; it was Palmer and co who felt a little out of place, like finding a Man Ray photo montage among grandma’s holiday snapshots. Tonight, however, the platform boots were on the other exquisitely pedicured foot.

Both the list of performers and arrangers, and the songs they would be performing, leaned heavily towards Bowie’s “middle period”… the Berlin trilogy, and its attendant stepchildren, cast through an instrumental prism that owed as much to Philip Glass’s interpretations than any of the Thin White Duke’s. Or, perhaps, to some vast reimagining of his performance in Baal.

These impressions were certainly confirmed by Stargaze’s opening “Warszawa” - the most somber and beautiful of Low’s side two sound paintings, performed with an alienation that echoed the very first time you heard it - at a time when Bowie was still a hit-making machine, and we were just recovering from his Soul Train years. Every instrument hung in isolation, yet all twisted and twined around one another, each fresh sound sending your eyes darting across the stage in search of the perpetrator, every iota of emotion torn from each note, to balance splendidly, resplendently, in beautiful, shimmering solitude. It was over far too quickly.

As understated as he ever was with Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon was next, with a “Station to Station” that rode glockenspiel, cello, and Amanda Palmer’s inspired backing vocals for an utterly claustrophobic, creaking, looming, rendering of a song that was always a lot more sinister than Bowie ever let on. The Villagers’ Conor O’Brien joined in late in the performance, then remained onstage for an eerily muted “Man Who Sold the World,” his acoustic guitar and gently fragile voice a naive counterpoint to the knowing menace of Stargaze’s accompaniment.

Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon

Hannon returned for the evening’s first comparative misstep, as the first of the guest arrangers, Michel Van Der Aa, retooled “This is not America” for voice and rap… Elf the Kid’s mid-song diatribe was effective, but not, perhaps, what the evening demanded.

Contrarily, Stargaze flautist Maaike van der Linde’s harmonies (here and elsewhere) were among the understated highlights of the entire show.

A similarly oddly-awkward vision remained center stage as Marc Almond emerged for composer Anna Meredith's take on “Life on Mars?” The second mistep.

Almond, thanks to his work with former Spiders from Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy tribute act, has himself become something of a professional Bowie surrogate in recent months - a very capable one, admittedly, with a clutch of stellar covers already under his belt. Tonight, however, something was amiss, as though vocalist, orchestra and arrangement were all working from a slightly different template, and really didn’t want to address the ensuing slippage.

To that dislocation can be added “Life On Mars?” itself, and its status as one of those Bowie songs that all-but defies any attempt to cover it. Lorde, at the 2016 BRITS awards, and backed by Bowie’s own backing band, is probably its sole successful interpreter, and this would have been the perfect stage upon which to rebuild the song entirely. Almond, after all, long ago proved himself to be capable of some astonishingly avant-rock moments, with his Marc and the Mambas alter-ego long since engrained deep within the sonic left field. But Merdith’s arrangement felt awkward and strained, and Almond and Stargaze were captive within it. A shame.

André de Ridder, Amanda Palmer, Anna Calvi and Jherek Bischoff

André de Ridder, Amanda Palmer, Anna Calvi and Jherek Bischoff

Everything fell back into place, however, with Anna Calvi and Jherek Bischoff’s version of “Lady Grinning Soul,” with Bischoff’s arrangement among the most spectacular of the evening, and Calvi’s performance likewise - a raw energy that utterly belied the original song’s end-of-a-party weariness, and transformed it into a Weimar cabaret at the end of all time. Hard to follow indeed, but Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan managed it, delivering an “Ashes to Ashes” (another Bischoff arrangement) that felt almost humorous in its delivery, playful violin and sparkling backing chorus deliciously at odds with Buchanan’s wry High School Principle demeanor.

Soul vocalist Laura Mvula’s “Fame” kept up the same sense of light relief, with Stargaze’s accompaniment feeling more like a Disneyfied dance of random elves and pixes than one of the most convincing white funk rhythms of the seventies; but the mood shifted abruptly as Mvula, again, and a returning Buchanan launched into the first of three selections from Blackstar - an utterly ghost-whipped “Girl Loves Me,” whose expletive-laden hook was singlehandedly responsible for the television broadcast being preceded by a warning about strong language.

Buchanan alone delivered a mournful “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Josephine Stevenson’s arrangement stripping Bowie’s original back to the barest, skeletal remnants, then weaving them into a fresh new vision; before the sequence concluded with Palmer, Calvi and Bischoff’s “Blackstar,” breathtakingly transformed into a duet for every disquieting notion and sense of loss that Bowie’s death ever unleashed.

His own admiration of Scott Walker has never been a secret - here we see that fascination tear off any lingering reluctance it might ever have felt, and place Walker’s Tilt firmly in the heart of Bowie’s Berlin. Plus, Palmer and Calvi’s vocals (and matching crown of thorns headgear!) cling to one another like sisters at a sabbat, as the joint-longest performance of the night edges into its so-insistent coda.

Philippe Jaroussky

Philippe Jaroussky

Palmer and Bischoff remained onstage for a gloriously understated “Heroes,” tearing the song back from every over-wrought, over-emoted example you have ever suffered in the past; while French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky ripped “Always Crashing in the Same Car” out from any version you have ever even imagined. David Lang’s bare, almost folk-inflected arrangement rendered it as unrecognizable even with words as arranger Greg Saunier’s later interpretation of “Rebel Rebel” was without.

The Marc Almond/Anna Meredith pairing returned to the stage for “Starman,” and suffered from many of the same failings as the earlier “Life on Mars?”; but now we were heading into the closing salvo, with John Cale about to take the stage.

Cale’s own relationship with Bowie is one of those great “if only-what if” pairings that flirted with reality in the late 1970s, when they recorded a couple of new songs (“Pian-Ola” and “Velvet Couch”) that didn’t do either of them any favors, when what should have been doing was re-envisioning The Church of Anthrax.

Hopes that Cale would redress the balance tonight were partially justified. With his own band augmenting Stargaze, a driving, desperate “Valentine’s Day” hung just on the edge of coherence, but was all the stronger for it. But a take on “Sorrow” that matched his own “Paris 1919” with the Fun Boy Three’s “Our Lips are Sealed,” did the same damage tonight as “Changes Made” did for his own Music for a New Society album - shattered the mood with a rocking clamor that was effectively Cale on rock song autopilot. The returning Anna Calvi, meanwhile, succeeded in a feat that few have ever even dared to try; out-ferocious-ing Cale on his own stage. Once again, she was devastating.

John Cale

John Cale

But it was what Cale did with “Space Oddity” that really shook things up, a nine-minute-plus drone that first slowed, and then slowly eviscerated the familiar pop song, until its closest living relative was his own “Hedda Gabbler” - the protracted fade of “Floating in a tin can, far above the earth” borrowed the latter’s melody line almost perfectly.

But with the House Gospel Choir having now appeared on stage, this was no time for comparison or recrimination. A night of subtle beauty was building towards its joyous crescendo….a tout-ensemble “After All,” and a finale of “Let’s Dance,” tortured to within an inch of its instrumental life by arranger Saunier, but buoyant enough to have the audience clapping gleefully along - and then surely throwing every musician off their guard by delivering a note-and-word perfect singalong, a moment of such high emotional drama that Bowie himself would have been in tears.

Again, there have been a lot of tributes to Bowie played this year, and there’ll doubtless be more to come. But those three minutes or so of “Let’s Dance,” topping a night that had already tapped so many conflicted emotions, might well have been the most spontaneous, and meaningful of them all.


Maaike van der Linde of Stargaze

So yeah, the online chatter suggests that a lot of people were completely underwhelmed by the Proms tribute to David Bowie. Some of them might have been upset that they weren’t asked to contribute. Others might have mourned the absence of an eighty-guitars-led “Hang onto Yourself.” Others still scratched their heads and wondered who these people all were, and maybe some genuinely didn’t like hearing Bowie performed in a manner which even he never quite dared to perform. (Although he came close a lot more than maybe they realize.)

No matter. This may not have been an occasion for the casual fan, or for the dilettante devotee. Neither, however, was Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting album, but Bowie could hum both sides of it. Tonight was a night for him.