Monday, April 04, 2016

Two New York City David Bowie Tributes: Carnegie Hall, March 31, 2016, and Radio City Music Hall, April 1, 2016

by Dick Mac

Carnegie Hall, March 31, 2016

Cyndi Lauper opened the show with a rocking version of "Suffragette City." You can tell she sings the song loudly while driving her car, and like most of us doesn't know the actual lyrics when it comes time to sing it in front of others.

Glenn Gregory and crew did their best-ever performance of "Width of A Circle."

Robyn Hitchcock lent his perfect voice to "Soul Love" and made it sound as if his was the original.

How can one woman be so hugely talented, brilliantly enthusiastic, and humble all at once? You should have seen Laurie Anderson perform "Always Crashing In The Same Car."

Gogol Bordello blew "Breaking Glass" out of the water. Two of the sexiest unattractive guys in the business were mindbogglingly good!

Debbie Harry could not hide her happiness singing "Starman" and she led the audience in a sing-along.

Joseph Arthur's experimental version of "TMWSTW" will not be appreciated by some, but he really was amazing.

Mountain Goats doing "Word On A Wing" made me cry.

J.Mascis performed his personalized version of "Quicksand" with Sean Lennon. It's the version that he originally recorded for Dinosaur, Jr.

Bettye LaVette was, perhaps, the most polished of all the performances and delivered her soul shaking version of "It Ain't Easy."

Perry Farrell. Perry Fucking Farrell nailed "Rebel Rebel." I don't really know Jane's Addiction and am not really familiar with any more than his name. Until now! Looking like a million bucks, and performing the feyest version of the song I've ever heard, Farrell was amazing!

Cat Power who has the voice of a mystic wowed with her version of "Five Years." Even though she seemed distracted or uncomfortable onstage, she proffered a wonderful version.

Ann Wilson did a soulful, almost Motown-like version of "Let's Dance." She danced. We danced.

Michael Stipe performed "Ashes to Ashes." I was never an REM fan. Nothing against them, they just sort of arrived when I wasn't much interested in hearing them. His political activism has been impressive; but he's become just a bit too precious for my taste and his lovely cover of "Ashes To Ashes" was really ruined by his pretentiousness. He can go now.

The Roots bailed. There was a dispute with sharing equipment with other acts, and they found the perpetrators (whoever they were) so offensive they refused to participate. The Vast Majority has their money on The Pixies as the bad guys, but coffee in the hotel lobby the next morning revealed nothing, and standing at the jewelry counter at TJ Maxx revealed less. [EDIT: Come to find out, it wasn't The Pixies who wrecked everything, it was a more significant player in the proceedings.]

The Pixies limped through a lame-ass version of Bowie's version of The Pixies song "Cactus."

My brother's back at home with his Rikki Lee Jones, but we never got it off on that revolutionary stuff. . . . Jones impressed with a lovely acoustic "All The Young Dudes."

Jokob Dylan, who has aged into a very handsome man, did his Wallflowers cover of "Heroes"!

Flaming Lips left me speechless during the afternoon sound check, and the early warning of what
would transpire in the evening did nothing to (mark this as a red-letter day) alleviate that odd notion that Dick Mac was Speechless. "Life On Mars" really came to life!

Choir! Choir! Choir! led the entire audience in a collective rendition of "Space Oddity." Amazing!

The after-party at City Winery was great!

Radio City Music Hall, April 1, 2016

Given the fact that Bowie tributes were held a single day apart in two different venues, basically around the corner from each other, it is impossible to avoid discussion of the venues.  Both RCMH and Carnegie Hall are storied venues, certainly two of the most famous and revered music halls in the Americas.  That reverence is where all comparisons stop.

RCMH, a beautiful, brilliantly designed music hall was acquired by the Dolan Brothers some time ago.  They are the people who own Madison Square Garden and Cablevision.  basically, two over-rated businessmen who want to be jocks (and aren't) and have no idea how to run an entertainment venue as a place a consumer would enjoy.  They run entertainment venues that make lots of cash.  It used to be a joy to go to RCMH; not quite as nice as Carnegie Hall, but nice.

Now, the venue is run like a boxing arena, the staff acts like they are managing a boxing card, the refreshments are similar to those you'd find at a semi-pro basketball game, and the sound system is used like the sound system for a boxing match.  the acoustics are basically ignored, if not downright destroyed by the amplification and incompetence of the sound team.

The venue was half-empty for the first few songs, because everyone was searched just short of an anal probe in order to gain admittance.  If you could have seen this crowd you'd wonder why there were any searches and not a team of geriatric care professionals to get us all to our seats more promptly.

Like all shitty venues run by shitty sports companies, RCMH security works to intimidate the paying customers and maintain the highest possible level of tension and intimidation at the doors, in the lobbies, and in the seats.  Staff stood in the aisles blocking the view of people who paid hundreds of dollars to see the concert, and they were surly when asked to move.  They were heavy-handed with the least dangerous people, and plain-old belligerent with anyone who dared respond to them with a compound sentence instead of an obedient grunt.

In situations like this, the most poorly behaved patrons are empowered because the tension is so high.  Hence, people are up and down, switching seats, arguing with the staff, generally acting like 10-year-olds.

For the record, Carnegie Hall treats every patron like a patron.  They are polite, the mood is calm and exciting, the enthusiasm is palpable, everyone gets to their seats quickly, nobody gets hit, few people experience any conflict, and the place hums like a music venue would hum.

The house band tonight, like last night, was Holy Holy, the band formed by original Spider from Mars, Woody Woodmansey, and Tony Visconti, Bowie's long-time producer and friend.  The vast majority of acts played with Holy Holy as their band.

Ann Wilson opened the show with a soulful rendition of "Space Oddity."  It became (I think) an unintended a sing-along.

Holy Holy then performed their amazing version of Bowie's 8-minute epic "Width of a Circle" from the Man Who Sold The World record.  Glen Gregory belted out the vocals, guitarists Paul Cuddeford, James Stevenson, and Tony Visconti nailed the performance, Terry Edward blew his heart out on sax, Berenice Scott's flawless keyboards flowed, Jessica Lee Morgan's backing vocals filled-in the entire background, and Woody Woodmansey's drums rocked like mad.  The crowd went crazy (while the rest of the crowd continued to file in).

Jakob Dylan, who the previous evening performed his version of Heroes, treated us to a lovely rendition of "Sorrow."  My goodness, he is a handsome bloke, isn't he. 

Since security was so bad, this was the moment I was able to get my second date into an unused seat next to me, so the three of us were together.  It's sort of embarrassing to arrive with two dates and have one person sitting elsewhere.  I mean, really!  What's the point of having two dates to escort if you are not escorting two dates?!?!?

As we were settling back in, Esperanza Spaulding delivered a physically and vocally flowing rendition of "If You Can See Me" from The Next Day record.  Lovely, really, quite lovely.  In every way.

Nashville sensation Ron Pope and his band did a version of "Moonage Daydream" that started like a Country Soul hit from 1968 and burst into a slow, soulful rendition that was more energizing than the crowd gave it credit or honor.  Again, the crowd problems are venue problems, not people problems.

Kyp Malone (TV On The Radio) performed a haunting version of Bowie's amazing "Bewlay Brothers" and although his phrasing seemed cock-eyed at times, I still wept when he sang: "My brother lays upon the rocks he could be dead he could be not, he could be you. He's Camillian comedian, Corinthian and caricature shooting-up pie-in-the-sky . . . "

J. Mascis (Dinosaur, Jr.) was joined by Sean Lennon, just as he had the night before, to perform the Mascis re-write of "Quicksand" that appeared on a Dinosaur, Jr. CD in the mid-1990s.

Michael Stipe (*sigh*).  Stipe is brilliant, he knows his stuff.  Sadly, he regularly breaks Rule 62 ("don't take yourself too damn seriously").  He has created a stunning remake of "Ashes To Ashes" that he performed with the lovely Karen Ellson.  An amazing re-make.  Breath-taking really. But, he has become a caricature of precious pretension and it's impossible to watch as he dramatically acts out (seemingly) his pantomime of addiction; and this was the second lowest point of the show - a real downer.  He's just impossible and if I never see him again it will not be too soon.  Listen to the recording, but avoid looking at the pompous ass hat he has become - it will only encourage him.  He's one of the reasons rock and roll is dying.  Actually, he's just turning it into rock and troll!

The once-dynamic and now-pedestrian Pixies offered (for the second night in a row) the loe-light of the evening.  They delivered a mechanical, perfunctory, flat, un-creative version of Bowie's version of The Pixies song "Cactus."  Listen to the records. Or not. Maybe they'll go away now.

Joseph Arthur (RNDM, Fistful of Mercy), is really a very talented guy, and his idea about performing "The Man Who Sold The World" probably looks great on paper, and I can imagine that his explanation of it is downright exciting; but it takes longer to set-up the song than to perform it, so he loses the audience easily. 

I think it was at this point that an altercation transpired in the back orchestra, on the opposite side from our seats.  Security was probably thrilled, because this justifies their shitty security paradigm.

Fasten your seat belts!  Polyphonic Spree is a huge band and singing group from Texas.  Bowie loved them and referred to them as "The Pretty Polys."  They performed "Slip Away" from Heathen, which they have performed live with Bowie in the past.  They did a beautiful job and blew the roof of RCMH by breaking into "Memory of a Free Festival, Part 2" to conclude their performance.  The place went wild!

The Donny McCaslin Group, joined by Tony Visconti, started the opening notes of "Lazarus" and I thought I would have to get up and leave.  If you have not heard the song, it is Bowie saying good-bye, the artist announcing his imminent death to the world, before quietly departing this mortal coil.  I whispered that I might not be able to handle it while McCaslin blew the opening plaintiff saxophone strains.  I waited and listened, and was relieved that no vocalist stepped forward to sing: "Look up here, I'm in heaven."  The song was presented as an instrumental.  I didn't sob, but it was emotionally taxing.

Jherek Bischcoff, Amanda Palmer & Anna Calvi then joined The Kronos Quartet to put the entire audience in stunned silence with their rendition of "Blackstar" from Bowie's final LP of the same name.  I really never thought I'd see it performed live.  I was, and remain, stunned by its beauty.

Mumford & Sons performed "It Ain't Easy," the soul cover that Bowie inserted in the Ziggy Stardust LP.  The previous night it was performed by Bettye LaVette, so it was hard to even take this group seriously.  It's a grand soul song.  Mumford & Sons are not a grand soul band.  Not bad, actually quite good; but a different cut from Ziggy would have been a better choice.

Cat Power repeated her lovely rendition of "Five Years" from the previous night. Like the performance at Carnegie Hall, her signature phrasing was spot on, but she seemed uncomfortable on the stage.  Her work is so strong that I've never imagined her being intimidated or uncomfortable while performing.  Perhaps I am reading too much into her delivery.  She was, nonetheless, amazing.

There are as many opinions about the Rikki Lee Jones' acoustic version of "All The Young Dudes" as there are covers and recordings of the song over the past 4 decades.  I like it.  I liked it when she was struggling to learn it.  I liked it when she performed it at Carnegie Hall, and I liked it this night.  Jones is a real pro and was not afraid to tackle a song not even remotely suited to her style or songbook.  I adore her and will always remember fondly her live performances of this glam anthem.

Perry Farrell.  Perry Fucking Farrell!  How has he been under my radar all this time?  A pure glam performance, in every sense of the word, of a pure glam anthem, "Rebel Rebel."  A-fucking-mazing.  Really - just breath-taking.  Fey and aggressive, fun and scary, loud and soft, all of it all at once.  I can imagine being in a chat room with Bowie the next day and him gushing about the performance.  My eyes have been opened and I will seek the glam holy land using Farrell's road map.  It's friggin' HOT!

I remember purchasing the 12" vinyl of Blondie's single "Atomic" because it was backed by their live version of "Heroes." It was great on that recording and it was great this night.  It was, unfortunately, during this performance that RCMH's piss-poor sound system, engineering, or implementation was most egregious.  you could barely hear the guitar.  This was true through most of the night, but this song has a pretty vital guitar line.  The performance was grand but the venue continued to be an embarrassment to the entertainment industry.

OK, Flaming Lips covered "Life On Mars."  Again.  In a funny, fun, silly, absurd performance.  One of the principals of these Bowie tribute concerts was candid about the collective decision to exclude particular female artists who are out-of-favor with the most pretentious of Bowie fans, and the most serious rock and rollers.  So, we had to settle for these guys pretending to be that popular current-day girl singer known for silly, over-the-top stage performances.  I'd have preferred seeing the excluded girl, but it also would have been OK to exclude both.  I have nothing more to say about it.

If you are not familiar with Choir! Choir! Choir!, I suggest you do a little research.  They are fun.  From Toronto, they do this regular gig where the public attends and collectively sing the songs of a particular artist.  When Bowie's death was announced, they immediately changed gears for the next performance and posted a video of 500 people singing "Space Oddity."  The video went viral on YouTube and the rest is history.  The original plan for this night was a collective sing-along of The Man Who Sold The World, but it was switched to "Space Oddity."  Tonight's version was better than the Carnegie Hall version.  I saw people crying.

So which tribute was better?  Overall, the performances this night were superior to the Carnegie Hall show, but the venue was so lacking, the house so poorly run, that I'll call it a draw.

After three nights of Bowie Tributes, a group of us made our way to Philadelphia on Saturday for the Holy Holy show at the Tower Theater. If you have not seen Holy Holy, you need to look at their schedule and see them when they play a venue near you.

I look forward to annual tributes to David Bowie, in New York City.

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