This wasn’t meant to be a memorial concert.
When Doug Cox first conceptualized Starman: An Acoustic Evening of David Bowie Songs, the thought of it being a posthumous tribute to the influential English rock star was inconceivable. But a lot can happen in a year.
“Absolutely, it was a shock,” said Cox, when discussing the news of Bowie’s death, Jan. 10. “But it’s not going to change much of the production, other than what we say.
“It’s been a shock to all of us, working on this show. We’ve all be working really hard at it and to be that far inside of somebody’s art and then hear that they passed away, it becomes pretty personal.”
Timing of Bowie’s death has actually set the promotional end of the production back a bit. Out of respect for the artist, Cox has refrained from an advertising push that should have started a week ago.
“We have actually stopped sending out any information for the past few days. We are trying to honour him and we don’t want to take advantage of, or appear that we are taking advantage of his death. This is something we have been working on for a year.”
Cox has recruited a solid cast of professional musicians for the tour, including Juno award-winning singer/songwriter Helen Austin, and Shaun Verreault of Wide Mouth Mason.
Other members of the show include Cox’s long-time collaborator Sam Hurrie, Linda McRae (Spirit of the West), percussionist Robin Layne (Locarno) and Canadian bassist extraordinaire Rick May.
Cox said recruiting musicians for this project was the easy part.
“Everyone I asked immediately said yes. When I announced we were doing it, I immediately got about 100 emails from other musicians, asking ‘how do I get involved?’ So the passion for his music is astounding.”
Hurrie said there was no hesitation on his part when he first heard about the project.
“I knew there would be a lot of work involved, but I knew it would be worthwhile,” said the Powell River resident. “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”
Verreault saw the invite as an opportunity to expand his musical repertoire.
“I’m always up for trying things I haven’t, and playing with ensembles I’ve yet to play,” he said. “The catalogue is as challenging as it is well loved, and that’s really appealing as a musician.”
“What we are doing is an ‘in the round’ version of our versions of his songs, which is going to continue to change as we get deeper into the tour,” said Cox. “We’ve got dates booked now all the way into October of 2017 now. It will morph, and it will get better in some ways. But the biggest challenge was picking the music, because there is so much of it.”
The project’s premier presentation will be at the Tidemark Theatre on Feb. 5 and Cox expects the shows to be popular because of Bowie’s wide appeal.
“He had a profound influence on anyone my age,” said the 53-year-old Cox. “Bowie is one of the few people who could cross over from absolute art, to pop star. There’s not many folks like that in history of pop music, whose art can go so deep and yet somehow he remained a very successful rock star. People who know him only from his Ziggy Stardust stuff don’t know him at all. His experimentation in music and art and stage presentation and stuff, it’s like he wrote the book, in so many ways.”
As the elder statesman in the ensemble, Hurrie was already into his own musical career when Bowie made his entrance into the industry.
“When his first album came out, in 1969, I was 23 – so I was well on the road at that time,” he said. “I saw the pictures and saw the hype, and then I was a little surprised to hear the music because it wasn’t what I expected. I guess I expected more, say, Sex Pistols, or something. But it was so crafted and so complex, and interesting. It really threw me for a loop.”
Verreault’s introduction to Bowie came in the 1980s.
“When I first became aware of Bowie during the Let’s Dance era, he didn’t really seem too different from the other besuited Brits filling up Good Rockin’ Tonight and Much Music, like Robert Palmer, Peter Gabriel, etc. It was cool, hook laden pop,” said the 42-year-old Verreault, adding that his intro to Bowie’s music was an educational experience.
“He was so insightful and erudite. And I’d become a ravenous devourer of albums, looking to them as a blueprint for not just music making, but navigating through life. I got a few of his, and when I sat down and reckoned with them while holding a guitar, trying to figure out the surprising, thoughtful, unpredictable moves he made as a writer and singer, I went deep down a rabbit-hole from which I’ve never fully emerged.”
The public reaction of Bowie’s death has caught Cox somewhat off-guard.
“The only time I have ever seen this kind of response (for a musician) was when John Lennon died. I knew that he had a big influence on people, but I had no idea how big it was.”
Reflecting on Bowie’s life, Cox said he was a superstar who gave hope to any kid who didn’t quite fit in with the crowd.
“I remember in high school , the girls and guys that weren’t the cheerleader and football types, but more of the introverts, they were the ones that were really listening to him and aware of him. He was the first androgynous performer for a lot of us, and he made so many things OK. It was OK to be feminine but still be an incredibly sexy man, to both men and women. One day he would be working with the most decadent of rock stars and the next day he would be working with Brian Eno and Lou Reed.”
Austin is the UK connection to the Starman project. Growing up in the northeast part of England, she said Bowie was a prominent news figure, on and off the stage.
“He was just always there,” she said. “He was this guy who did all this weird stuff and everybody just accepted it. He was just part of… England.
“He was just so damn cool. There were other people doing different stuff, but they weren’t him. There was a coolness about him, because he just didn’t care, and there is a certain attractiveness about someone who just doesn’t care what you think.”
The usually reserved Austin said she was surprised at how Bowie’s death affected her.
“It was the first thing I heard when I woke up (Monday morning),” she said. “I was really sad. I mean, obviously everybody is getting older and we all have to die sometime, but I don’t normally get sad over these things. Like when Princess Diana died, and everyone was sobbing their eyes out, I was … I don’t understand that. I’m not particularly sentimental at all about these things. But this one I was, partly because I have spent the last while practising his songs. But to realize this is his legacy and there’s no more coming.”
“It was a huge shock,” said Hurrie, who agreed that this project has made Bowie’s death more impactful. “It has gotten so personal… It’s almost like a family member died, in a funny kind of way. Maybe not a family member, but someone I had played with a lot. We have been getting our heads so into his music that it wasn’t just like David Bowie died. For me at least. He’s a presence in the room (during rehearsals). So it (Bowie’s death) did have a personal feel to it.”
Verreault was also deep into his own discovery of all things Bowie.
“I’d been working on the songs for this show, my appreciation growing with each one I charted out. I’d had Blackstar (Bowie’s new album) on repeat, its future jazz rock exciting my ears. Then I heard.
“After the initial shock and sadness, I reflected on how so many in the wake of his passing were discussing and celebrating great music, challenging art and the fearless creation and realization of the selves.”
Regarding the show itself, Cox described it as an interpretive collective.
“I don’t even like to call them tribute shows, because then people might go there thinking we are trying to sound like him. That’s not it at all,” he said. “I’ve done a few of these shows, where you pick a musician and do an evening of his music, a couple of other times, but this time I wanted to go deeper. I chose Bowie because it didn’t seem like anyone else was doing Bowie songs.”
“I guess it will probably be a little bit more meaningful now, as opposed to just doing a night of David Bowie songs,” said Austin.“I don’t like using the word ‘memorial’… ‘a celebration of’ would be better.
Starman: An Acoustic Evening of David Bowie Songs, opens at the Tidemark Theatre in Campbell River on Feb. 5 (tidemarktheatre.com) and plays at the Evergreen Theatre in Powell River on Feb. 6. (Tickets at Rockit Music in Powell River.)