Firstly, for the uninitiated, Tony Visconti is not a nut laden biscuit that you might take with your espresso during some down-time in Rome and Woody Woodmansey is not an alliteratively named mascot for one of Ireland’s largest chain of DIY stores. Rather, Visconti is a producer of legendary, near mythic status. He has guided and cajoled artists such as T-Rex, Thin Lizzy, Boomtown Rats, Iggy Pop, Sparks, Morrissey, Manic Street Preachers, Adam Ant and extensively so with rock’s greatest chameleon, David Bowie. Woody Woodmansey was tub-thumper-in-chief with the The Spiders From Mars, having worked with Bowie until Ziggy, sated after making love to his ego, had to break up the band in a very public manner onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon back in ’73.
At first glance, The Man Who Sold the World, tonight’s focus, seems like an odd choice to be the album from Bowie’s capricious back catalogue to be brought to life by Visconti and Woodmansey. Hunk Dory or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars may be more representative of what is deemed quintessential Bowie. And ‘TMWSTW’, outside of Nirvana’s rendition of the eponymous track on MTV’s Unplugged series back in ’94 (Jesus was it really that long ago?) is often overlooked and consigned to Bowies back pages. But ‘TMWSTW’, as well as being the first time Visconti, Woodsy and Bowie worked together, was also the bedrock on which the binary stars of glam rock and Bowie’s career were built.
Its dark dystopian themes pre-shadow Bowie’s descent into coked out paranoia. The music’s rough guitar and futuristic sounding moog herald the end of both Bowie’s and society’s dalliance with ’60s psychedelia and the wide-eyed naivety of hippy idealism as the drabness of an Orwellian future looms. Bowie and Britain move from the pastoral to the machine, as the bovver-booted boys get ready to kick the Birkenstocks brigade to touch; the harshness of the music forewarns us of the impending shadow that will cloak most of that generation’s youth.
Tonight, the band is introduced by another survivor of that scene of scenes, the venerable BP Fallon. Beep’s beat-like verbosity and introductions aside and it’s down to business. The 10 piece band, fronted by Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17) dutifully plays TMWSTW in its entirety and in its original sequence.
There’s no escaping the fact that there’s no Bowie here and that without him the music has lost some of its edge. Additionally, and let’s not forget that other demi-god of the glam-era, Mick Ronson is also permanently absent since his untimely death in ’93. Again the grit and glam of his playing is missed but James Stevenson (GenX, The Cult) and Paul Cuddeford (Ian Hunter, Bob Geldof) are able to conjure enough sorcery to summon Ronson up in spirit.
The assembled performers, despite hailing from very diverse backgrounds both sonically and chronologically are incredibly tight and do the album justice. Their playing breathes life anew into the celebrated opus and Gregory’s vocals and performance do Bowie’s original justice. Thankfully, Gregory doesn’t go down the “tonight Matthew, I’m Ziggy Stardust” route, instead he makes the performance his own, adding shades of Bowie’s distinctive intonation and twang when appropriate.
Album set highlights include the triple edged guitar attack of ‘Black Country Rock’ (3 men to replace Ronson – sounds about right) and an absolutely triumphant version of the titular track during which Gregory’s vocal does indeed shine with starlight. Post TMWSTW set the band continue to delve into Ziggy’s back catalogue and cover ‘Five Years’, ‘Moonage Daydream’ and the crowd pleasing, football terrace sing-along of ‘All the Young Dudes’. ‘Lady Stardust’ sung by Ms. Lisa Ronson (Mick’s daughter) is a low point as she belts it out wedding singer style more akin to an X-Factor audition than one begetting Ziggy’s paean to fellow starman, Marc Bolan. Ms. Ronson also takes centre stage to duet with Gregory on ‘Watch That Man’, another low ensues and the pair’s performance has more ham packed into it than a Michelin starred pork terrine. It looks and sounds like an undercooked Meat Loaf of both the culinary and musical variety.
But all is not lost. Back on terra firma and with the nepotistic turns cast to one side, we’re treated to another sterling vocal performance for ‘Life on Mars’ and a rip roaring ‘Ziggy Stardust’ followed by ‘Changes’ that has the auditorium on their feet before the band depart the stage with Gregory promising a few more tunes if we shout loud enough and we duly oblige. The inevitable encore climaxes with the white-hot heat of ‘Suffragette City’ – wham, bam, thank you mam indeed!
There were many highlights tonight. The band’s changes through the ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud/All The Young Dudes/Oh You Pretty Things’ were simply stunning as the piece segued from song to song with each of the band working as one to make the mercurial changes seemless. Glenn Gregory is a fine custodian of the Bowie flame too – just the right amounts of humility, showmanship and pastiche ensured that we were spared a karaoke Ziggy-by-numbers.
Mr. Woodmansey has put in a decent shift behind the kit and we begin to wonder if someone has slipped him a little something as he’s been going all night. His performance is faultless, never missing a beat and putting his all into every snare crack or roll on the toms. In contrast, Visconti looked on, slightly bemused and detached from proceedings and apart from a few snippets of chat his presence barely registered.
Throughout his career Bowie has been all about the shock of the new, attempting to define and shape the zeitgeist and I’m not sure how this amble down memory lane sits with that. Rather than looking backwards with our rosies on, Bowie would have us staring into the bright, burning sun of the future. Tonight’s show is just that; it’s a show and by its very nature has its limitations but what saves it from being a mindless old jolly down memory lane is quality. The quality of the music and the quality of the musicians assembled to perform it and tonight that’s enough.