Sunday, 7 August 2016

Somebody else took his place and bravely cried…

I’m always a little queasy about tributes, especially in the wake of a death.  Too often, they can tip over into sentiment, or turn into an opportunity for nostalgia or self-aggrandisement. Bowie's death sucked all the words out of me for a while, so perhaps a discussion of the recent Bowie Prom might help remind me there's still a lot more to be said.

There was nothing mawkish about the special Prom concert held recently at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Instead of celebrity karaoke, we witnessed reinvention; both hits and obscurities turned upside down by an array of guest singers alongside AndrĂ© de Ridder’s ‘Stargaze’ ensemble.

There were those performances you knew would work.  Villagers singer Conor O’Brien’s haunted take on “The Man Who Sold The World” evoked nightmare and rough magic. The sweeping, erotic “Lady Grinning Soul” could have been designed for Anna Calvi’s brand of steely romanticism.  Paul Buchanan’s emotive croak made “I Can’t Give Everything Away” even more unbearably valedictory.

Conor O'Brien sings 'The Man Who Sold The World'
But the most memorable moments were also the most unexpected. Laura Mvula intoned in Nadsat for  “Girl Loves Me”, melting into tearful, yearning disbelief on the choruses.  Composer David Lang had invited classical countertenor Philippe Jarrousky to turn “Always Crashing In The Same Car” into a keening renaissance lament.  Amanda Palmer and Anna Calvi, black-clad and crowned in thorns, stood motionless as Greek caryatids to invoke the serpentine gravity of Blackstar’s title track.

Anna Calvi sings 'Blackstar'
Some experiments worked better than others, but there were few outright failures.  Neil Hannon might have lacked the range and power to handle the higher notes of “This Is Not America”, but his just-behind- the-beat delivery eerily recalled Bowie’s in the lower registers of “Station To Station”. Composer/percussionist Greg Saunier’s reimagined “Fame” lost the funk but veered into minimalist territory instead,  with Laura Mvula’s vocals bobbing like a cork on its staccato currents.

Laura Mvula sings 'Fame'
Saunier was perhaps the most adventurous of the night’s arrangers: there was one moment, near the end of the concert, when the packed Albert Hall crowd realised that the deconstructed instrumental they were hearing was in fact 80s mega-hit “Let’s Dance” - and spontaneously exploded into song: “if you should fall into my arms and tremble like a flower…..”  Perhaps that how Saunier planned it, though his version of “Rebel Rebel” – on bass flute - was well-nigh unrecognisable.    For me, though, the only truly false note of the night was struck by Marc Almond, who bellowed “Life On Mars” and “Starman” like Ethel Merman in a karaoke bar after too many cocktails.  

It’s true that John Cale’s Welsh-chapel austerity didn’t quite gel with the exuberant gospel choir which accompanied him on an inverted, elongated “Space Oddity”, but as one by one the singers cut loose at the finale a sense of wild celebration replaced the helplessness and isolation of the original.  No longer in orbit, Major Tom had finally been set free to roam through the universe.  It was a moving moment.

John Cale and House Gospel Choir sing 'Space Oddity"
There have been many tributes in the six months since David Bowie died in January, but this one probably did more than any to honour the audacious spirit of its subject.  Lighting familiar work from unfamiliar angles, it wasn’t afraid to reach for the impossible - and in its willingness to fail, it probably succeeded way beyond its expectations.

Concert finale

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