Last night’s Music Of David Bowie tribute at NYC’s Carnegie Hall was announced in January hours before the world learned about the legendary musician’s death from cancer. What was intended to be the intimate 13th annual music education charity fundraiser from City Winery impresario Michael Dorf quickly took on more significance and a higher profile. With bigger artists looking to join the lineup, and thousands more ticket seekers than usual, a second show had to be added for tonight at Radio City Music Hall. The Westboro Baptist Church even showed up to protest. It was a surreal set of circumstances that culminated in Wayne Coyne singing “Life On Mars?” atop Chewbacca’s shoulders. But before that Instagram moment came a thoroughly enjoyable if expectedly uneven parade of famous Bowie fans.
HoLY HoLY, the superish-group featuring the Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti, was the Hall’s house band and you couldn’t ask for a better one. It’s too bad they somehow pissed off Questlove (whose Roots crew and guest singers dropped out of performing “Aladdin Sane” and “Fame” at the last minute) since the show could’ve been more diverse. Hard to criticize the booking of these luminaries from Bowie’s adopted hometown of NYC, though: Cyndi Lauper kicking things off in a hot pink wig with a vibrant “Suffragette City,” Cat Power (who once sang “Space Oddity” for a car commercial) delivering a smoldering “Five Days,” Laurie Anderson and the unannounced Gogol Bordello playing back-to-back Low cuts, Rickie Lee Jones seemingly improvising the chords to an “All The Young Dudes” singalong, Sean Lennon strumming opposite J Mascis on the Dinosaur Jr.-interpolated “Quicksand” (and some “Andy Warhol”) and Debbie Harry of Idiot Tour opener Blondie earning the night’s first standing ovation with “Starman.” (Patti Smith was sadly also a no-show due to voice problems.) In between, Joseph Arthur struggled with his looping pedal on “The Man Who Sold The World” and John Darnielle — seated at the piano for the Mountain Goats and Robyn Hitchcock’s “Word On A Wing” — was obscured to the parquet behind an unfortunately placed music stand. (Arthur got a laugh after his performance by unfolding an American flag with FUCK TRUMP scrawled on it.)
Michael Stipe and his sea captain beard x septum ring look made their solo TV performance debuts on Fallon this week with an affecting “The Man Who Sold The World,” so it was a welcome surprise when the former R.E.M. frontman instead sang-spoke a funereal “Ashes To Ashes” with Karen Elson, backed by Paul Cantelon on piano. “David Bowie was a hippie before he was a spaceman,” said Stipe when introducing the song young people know from Nirvana’s Unplugged. “I was a hippie when I was 12 years old.”
It’s too bad there were no songs included from the last 33 (!) years of Bowie’s catalog (unless you count Pixies’ “cover” of Heathen’s “Cactus,” which you shouldn’t since it was a Pixies tune to begin with). Beyond Blackstar, Bowie’s late-career work isn’t very celebrated and the bold, electronic-infused sounds of recent albums aren’t easy to toss off live.
Back to the night’s penultimate tribute… After a stagehand dressed the Flaming Lips’ frontman with an illuminated robe, I got ready to roll my eyes. But watching Wayne Coyne sing “Life On Mars?” — a Bowie classic the Lips just recently started covering decades after their John Peel session of it — atop a Wookiee? That’s the freakiest show.
Tonight’s concert at Radio City Music Hall can be streamed live for a small donation. Check out photos up top and watch performances below.
Cyndi Lauper – “Suffragette City”
HoLY HoLY – “Width Of A Circle”
Robyn Hitchcock – “Soul Love”
Laurie Anderson – “Always Crashing In The Same Car”
Gogol Bordello – “Breaking Glass”
Debbie Harry & Matt Katz-Bohen – “Starman”
Joseph Arthur – “The Man Who Sold The World”
The Mountain Goats – “Word On A Wing”
Michael Stipe & Karen Elson – “Ashes To Ashes”
J. Mascis & Sean Lennon – “Quicksand”
Bettye LaVette – “It Ain’t Easy”
Perry Farrell – “Rebel Rebel”
Cat Power – “Five Years”
Ann Wilson – “Let’s Dance”
Pixies – “Cactus”
Rickie Lee Jones – “All The Young Dudes”
Jakob Dylan – “Heroes”
The Flaming Lips – “Life On Mars?”
Choir! Choir! Choir! With The NYC Children’s Chorus – “Space Oddity”