Much has been written about this “all-star tribute” series of concerts to celebrate the music of the recently deceased David Bowie. While I can appreciate the idea and the concept itself – part of a long-running series of concerts to help benefit keeping music and arts programs in schools – last night’s show was more than a disappointment on several levels. Yes, there were some good-to-great performances but the negatives outweighed the positives.
Start with the poor running of the show – by virtue of not very good technicians, the pace of the show never gelled – setting up between acts was not smooth so there was no consistent flow. The sound was sub-par; in a forum like Radio City Music Hall, it should have been crisp and clean but was low and for certain performers, non-existent. It came out sounding amateurish and less than professional, which for someone like me who sat 4 rows from the stage, was aggravating.
The original concept of the presentation was an “all-star” line up featuring people like Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Patti Smith, The Roots, Michael Stipe, Robyn Hitchcock, etc. – and many others that one could easily enjoy. This particular evening was without any of those names, save for Michael Stipe, and seemed like a confused mish-mash of whoever could be found and available. A few of the artists had already performed on Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, so they did different songs on both nights (except for Stipe) – those were the better performances. And some were listed and never performed.
Of the good and memorable performances – in no particular order except that I actually liked them – Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction was the biggest surprise because I have never liked Jane’s Addiction or his voice but his damned perfect run-through of “Rebel Rebel” was the highlight of the night; it was also the only truly “rocking” moment, filled with energy, enthusiasm and a smile that was on the man’s face from the moment he took the stage until he left. Ann Wilson of Heart started the show with her rendition of “Space Oddity” which was warm and touching – but because of the poor sound quality, her powerful vocals were somewhat neutered, which is a damned shame. Jakob Dylan did a spot-on take of Bowie’s version of “Sorrow”, which was uptempo and just right and Rickie Lee Jones did a very sweet singalong version of “All The Young Dudes”. I’ll give honorable mention to J. Mascis with Sean Lennon on acoustic guitars doing a rework of “Quicksand” and to The Kronos Quartet with Anna Calvi, Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff for their tight and inventive rendition of “Blackstar”.
The rest, however, were simply insipid performances made worse by the poor sound quality – there was no vibe and it was just flat. The Pixies doing their own song just because Bowie covered it? That’s head-scratching. A performer named Esperanza Spaulding, who played bass and started her segment with an attempted socio-political ramble – uh, no. I paid to be entertained. And if this is an “all star” cast, then who is she? Someone from TV On The Radio? Who? This is where it became murky and troubling. Worst of all – was Michael Stipe’s “whispered” William Shatner-like take on “Ashes To Ashes” – one of Bowie’s most unforgettably catchy songs – aided by a piano player and a female singer. Equally irritating to his deconstruction of the song, his gestures were pretentious as they were distracting. This is a performance people have been falling over themselves to praise to the skies. And I can’t understand it. He was the lowest point of the night. And the world knows I love R.E.M. (an understatement) and Stipe. But that was – in a word – bullshit.
I really had no desire to have my writer’s hackles raised last night – I wanted to sit and enjoy a show that I thought would be worthy of the cost of admission and to tackle the music of an interesting performer. I liked Bowie; I liked some of the performers. But that was just plain bad and ponderous. When it comes to artists, people can’t separate truth, reality and their over-emotional ties to the deceased performer and those who are supposed to be paying tribute. And in the case of last night at Radio City, it made for a bad taste left in my mouth.
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