Review: David Bowie Tribute At Radio City Features Michael Stipe, Mumford And Sons, TV On The Radio & Others

Two months and 21 days after Bowie’s death, it’s still hard to believe he’s really gone. At the Music Of David Bowie At Radio City tribute last night (April 1) — the second of two such events in two days (the first was at Carnegie Hall) — I couldn’t have been the only one fantasizing that the legend might casually stroll out onstage to join one of the acts (the Flaming Lips, perhaps?), his re-entry to the physical world as spectacular and meticulously planned as his exit. After all, Bowie had told organizer Michael Dorf that he’d be in the audience for the long- planned Carnegie Hall concert, part of an annual charity series, the tickets for which went on sale just hours after the singer lost his battle with cancer.

And maybe he was.

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Bowie would no doubt have been impressed by the disparate acts on the Radio City bill, which included many of the same players from Carnegie and then some. Those enjoyed by the sold-out crowd and thousands more around the world watching via live-stream included Bowie contemporaries Blondie, Rickie Lee Jones, Ann Wilson of Heart and the event’s house band, Holy Holy, featuring the artist’s longtime producer Tony Visconti and Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey; glam-rock descendants Michael Stipe, Perry Farrell and Wayne Coyne; and more recent Grammy winners Esperanza Spalding and Mumford And Sons. There was a even pair of rock progeny, Sean Lennon — a guest of J Mascis — and Jakob Dylan. (Previously announced act The Roots featuring Tariq & Bilal pulled out of both tributes on Wednesday in a controversy over shared equipment. And though Miley Cyrus and the Dead Petz remained on the poster outside Radio City, they, too, were a no- show.)

Though all were able performers, not one really brought the house down in a true rock-star moment a la their honoree. What was so striking about the evening was just how quiet it was — almost funereal. At its apex — Stipe’s stunning interpretation of “Ashes To Ashes” with Karen Elson — the 6,000-plus audience listened in rapt silence. All the better to hear his whispered vocals, though. The song’s bouncy new wave-era electronics stripped away, Stipe and Elson were accompanied only by piano, and thus able to get to the sheer sadness of the 1980 hit: “I never done good things; I never done bad things. I never did anything out of the blue.” Lumps were in throats; tears were shed.

While the setlist at Carnegie Hall was almost all ’70s-Bowie — the most recent song was 1982’s “Let’s Dance,” selected by Ann Wilson — Radio City’s spanned his career. Last night’s show opened and closed with his first single, 1969’s “Space Oddity” (sung first by Wilson and later by Choir! Choir! Choir! and the New York City Children’s Chorus), and included material all the way up until his last two: the mournful title track and “Lazarus” from January’s Blackstar, released three days before Bowie’s death.

As with Stipe and Elson’s “Ashes To Ashes,” the Blackstar moments were quite emotional. “Lazarus,” included in Bowie’s 2015 off-Broadway play of the same name, was played as an instrumental by the Donny McCaslin Group, the jazz band who backed Bowie on the album, featuring Mark Guiliana and Jason Lindner, along with Visconti. “Blackstar,” meanwhile, was beautifully brought to life by Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff and Anna Calvi with the Kronos Quartet. In February, Palmer and Bischoff included their version of “Blackstar” on Strung Out In Heaven, their EP of Bowie covers that featured Calvi, Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman, and John Cameron Mitchell.

Other song choices ran the gamut from iconic anthems “Heroes” and “Rebel Rebel” — performed by Blondie and Farrell, respectively— to latter-day gem “If You Can See Me,” from 2013’s The Next Day, as reimagined by the charismatic Spalding. And the Flaming Lips reprised “Life On Mars?” from Carnegie, complete with Coyne perched atop the shoulders of a man in a Chewbacca costume — the freakiest (part of the) show, indeed.

Among less obvious picks: “The Width of a Circle,” an epic rocker from 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World album, by Holy Holy (featuring Bowie soundalike Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17), as well as Hunky Dory (1971) cuts “Cactus,” performed at both tributes by the Pixies; “Quicksand,” Mascis with Lennon; and “The Bewlay Brothers,” another dark number, by TV On The Radio. Meanwhile, Mumford And Sons opted for “It Ain’t Easy,” the Spiders From Mars’ Ron Davies cover — although, according to an earlier setlist, the group had originally planned on another Bowie cover, of Johnny Mathis“Wild Is The Wind.”

Set List

“Space Oddity”: Ann Wilson of Heart

“The Width of a Circle”: Holy Holy

“Sorrow”: Jakob Dylan

“If You Can See Me”: Esperanza Spalding

“Lazarus”: Donny McCaslin Group with Mark Guiliana, Jason Lindner and Tony Visconti

“Moonage Daydream”: Ron Pope

“The Bewlay Brothers”: TV On The Radio

“Quicksand”: J.Mascis with Sean Lennon

“Ashes to Ashes”: Michael Stipe with Karen Elson

“Cactus”: Pixies

“The Man Who Sold the World”: Joseph Arthur

“Slip Away”/“Memory of a Free Festival”: The Polyphonic Spree

“Blackstar”: Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff and Anna Calvi with Kronos Quartet

“It Ain’t Easy”: Mumford And Sons

“Five Years”: Cat Power

“All the Young Dudes”: Rickie Lee Jones

“Rebel Rebel”: Perry Farell

“Heroes”: Blondie

“Life On Mars?” The Flaming Lips

“Space Oddity”: Choir! Choir! Choir! with the NYC Youth Choir