The genius of David Bowie is never far from our thoughts, and it would appear the BBC feel the same, with the inclusion of a special David Bowie Proms performance in this year’s program. It drew an interesting crowd; from classical music lovers, to avid fans dressed in leather jackets with Bowie patches sewn on. It was difficult to know what to expect, but the pre-advertised explanation of the night by the Albert Hall ‘to re-imagine the Bowie catalogue with fresh settings of classic works’ was a useful introduction.
The first haunting sustained notes of ‘Warszawa’ built through the introduction, arranged by the Berlin-based collective of musicians S t a r g a z e who provided the backing for the night. This unexpected, goosebump-evoking instrumental track from 1977, co-written by Bowie and Brian Eno opened the night as a testament to both Bowie’s prowess, and indeed their own.
The voice of Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) brought absolutely everything to ‘Station to Station’. His theatrical story-telling technique and perfectly apt vocal quality made this song absolutely soar. Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls) added a strong harmony, the two joined later in the song by Conor O’Brian from Villagers.
It was important to note from the start that this was not a tribute or a wake for Bowie, as pointed out early on by Palmer. This was a night dedicated to encompassing the experiences and personal interpretations of the singers, performers and composers involved. Hopefully the audience members who turned up with their faces painted in the style of Aladdin Sane were prepared for the classical music themed night.
‘This is not America’ saw Neil Hannon make a welcome reappearance to revamp this jazz fusion track. While we were prepared to have other people singing and interpreting these classic Bowie songs in their own way, hearing Hannon’s Bowie-like voice was a comforting inclusion. The music ramped up in the middle of this track, and rapper Elf Kid came out to add a verse. This risked being perhaps too hipster, too progressive and seeming out of place, but it was done well enough to really create a wonderfully gritty extra layer to the meaning of the song.
Mark Almond (Soft Cell) was bold enough to take on the classic ‘Life on Mars’. His vocals played around the notes more often than it hit them, and it seemed that by the end he had got a beat out of time with his backing. But his performance had character and he made a decent effort of embodying the spirit of Bowie in his performance. The ensemble also added such fantastic build to this song; they were the real heroes of the night, from start to finish.
While it was not a night geared to sing-alongs, Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile invited the audience to join in with the classic track ‘Ashes to Ashes’. The vocal line was brought down an octave in a very sparse arrangement of this incredibly recognisable song, and it ended with a questionable melody for the closing lines ‘my mama said, to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom’. Perhaps they were not so set on getting things done.
In the middle was a separate section dedicated to Bowie’s latest work, with ‘Girl Loves Me’, I Can’t Give Everything Away’, and finally ‘Blackstar’. Mvula’s vocals in ‘Girl Loves Me’ were stand-out, making the song come alive (which was expected following her earlier fantastic version of ‘Fame’). ‘Blackstar’ was performed by Anna Calvi and Amanda Palmer; a weird performance that sounded a little unrehearsed, was visually confusing (reminiscent of witches performing a ritual), took Calvi’s voice out of its comfortable range and ended with a very awkward moment of the two girls holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes as the audience wondered whether they should applaud. Still, while these renditions might not have convinced first-time listeners to rush out and buy the album, it was mostly a welcome addition from those who are well versed in Bowie’s final work.
John Cale (Velvet Underground) sauntered out in an overcoat and scarf to perform three songs that he arranged himself, ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Space Oddity’. His involvement in the night was a direct link to the Rock music side of Bowie, with a proper drum kit being used (and let’s not forget that Cale had an influence on Bowie’s style), and everyone knew to immediately expect something weird and different from Cale.
The first two tracks went along with not too much of a hitch (though Calvi’s backing vocals wailing over the top of some tremolo guitar was considerably off-putting), but the great disappointment of the night was when Cale decided to ‘re-imagine’ the absolute classic track ‘Space Oddity’. Whether he did what he did to match a restricted vocal range or because he thought it would be good, he changed the whole melody and feel of this song, turning it into some sort of non-memorable, almost offensive ambient disco-pop number. He also brought in the House Gospel Choir who were mostly just wasted on the very limited melody line the song had been changed to.
Unfortunately after this, it was difficult for the following finale to be well received. It was a shambles, with everyone returning to the stage and Palmer, Almond, O’Brian and counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky taking centre stage, (Palmer strangely decided to bring her baby on as well) to perform ‘After All’. All the voices struggled to meld well together well in this lilting waltz-time song which saw Almond embracing Palmer and baby in a strange puppet-like dance.
People were left wondering if that was really it, but S t a r g a z e broke into a jolly instrumental rendition of ‘Let’s Dance’ as everyone filed off the stage, which showed them thoroughly enjoying themselves. The audience were singing happily along, meaning that everyone left appreciating how good the music had been and were still singing the song as they poured out onto the streets.
The night was very self-indulgent; seemingly it was more for the singers to express their thoughts on Bowie than it was for the audience. But it was difficult to not get caught up in the feeling of the night, with the unparalleled genius of Bowie, and the fabulous backing provided by S t a r g a z e.