The many facets of David Bowie were on display at Radio City Music Hall Friday night, as an eclectic slate of stars from Michael Stipe to the Kronos Quartet paid tribute to his legacy.
What “The Music of David Bowie” showed, though, is that Bowie is irreplaceable, that no one combines his ambitions and adventurousness, his forcefulness and cool, not to mention his ability to reveal incredibly personal feelings either directly or through layers of imagery.
Even though the house band for “The Music of David Bowie” — this year’s installment in a series of fundraisers for music education produced by City Winery’s Michael Dorf, which had been planned before Bowie’s death in January — was headed by his longtime collaborator, Tony Visconti, and featured many of the players he had worked with in recent years, there was a Bowie-sized hole in the entire evening.
Sometimes, that was literal, as the Donny McCaslin Group, who had worked closely with Bowie on his final album, “Blackstar,” performed “Lazarus” with no singer. The song was reworked to have McCaslin play Bowie’s vocal parts on the saxophone, which had a stunning effect. And sometimes, it was just unavoidable, as when Perry Farrell handled “Rebel Rebel” with a sweet, coy take rather than Bowie’s defiant one.
Maybe it’s no surprise that the performers who fared best were the ones who completely reframed Bowie’s songs. Stipe’s hushed version of “Ashes to Ashes” tapped into the desperation of Bowie during his battle with drug addiction. Backed only by a piano, Stipe often whispered lines, while Karen Elson sang the words of the outside world in full voice. The combination was devastating.
Joseph Arthur, using a guitar and his technique of creating layers of sound live onstage by looping them, turned “The Man Who Sold the World” into a snarling wall of rage, punctuated by unfurling an American flag painted with an anti-Donald Trump message.
The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, dressed in a cape made of LED lights, sang “Life on Mars?” atop the shoulders of a guy dressed as Chewbacca. Blondie’s Deborah Harry strutted around during “Heroes” before nailing the song’s defiant climax with just the right amount of angry swagger.
Like most of the night’s guests, it was clear she had to work hard to get that mix just right — something that came so very naturally to the great David Bowie.
SET LIST: Ann Wilson — Space Oddity / Holy Holy — Width of a Circle / Jakob Dylan — Sorrow / Esperanza Spalding — If You Can See Me / Donnie McCaslin Group — Lazarus / Ron Pope — Moonage Daydream / Kyp Malone — The Bewlay Brothers / J Mascis & Sean Lennon — Quicksand / Michael Stipe & Karen Elson — Ashes to Ashes / Pixies — Cactus / Joseph Arthur — The Man Who Sold the World / The Polyphonic Spree — Slip Away / Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, Anna Calvi & The Kronos Quartet — Blackstar / Mumford & Sons — It Ain’t Easy / Cat Power — Five Years / Rickie Lee Jones — All the Young Dudes / Perry Farrell — Rebel Rebel / Blondie — Heroes / Flaming Lips — Life on Mars? / Choir! Choir! Choir! — Major Tom