Midway through a concert performance at The Birchmere on Thursday, Tony Visconti paused to share a memory of his time playing bass for David Bowie with the very full house.
Doing a warm impersonation of David’s famous voice, Tony recalled how Bowie instructed him to play like Jack Bruce, the Scottish bass player known for his work with Cream. Tony impressed Mr. Bowie well enough, and he joined up with drummer Woody Woodmansey and guitarist Mick Ronson to form a Bowie backing band that most famously performed on the Bowie album The Man Who Sold the World (TMWSTW).
Woody was the heart of that operation, and Mick the soul, Tony said. “But the brains and the beauty and the creativity was a great man who left us recently — Mr. David Bowie.”
And so it was that Tony and Woody, joined by friends and contributors, dove back into a full-throated celebration of the music of David Bowie to a crowd that couldn’t get enough of the original Bowie band. They performed the album The Man Who Sold the World in its entirety under the name Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy, a project that already toured England — and found itself in the midst of a North American tour when Mr. Bowie unexpectedly passed away of cancer on Sunday, Jan. 10.
Although Tony was replaced in that early ’70s unit by the late Trevor Bolder — don’t fear for Tony as he went on to produce Marc Bolan and came back to work for Bowie for decades afterward — Woody drummed as a member of The Spiders from Mars and performed on the albums Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, and Aladdin Sane before the group disbanded.
The Holy Holy band drew from the other three albums as well to fill out their set, which pleased the Birchmere audience to no end. Vocalist Glenn Gregory came into the show loose and ready to go. He poured every ounce of his remarkable voice into every song with soulful passion, treating each individual number as if it were hallowed ground. Glenn, who serves as vocalist of English synthpop band Heaven 17 in his “day job,” impressed early with a show-stopping version of TMWSTW’s “After All,” a mournful song about making one’s way in the world. He then chocked up a bit when acknowledging it would be difficult to sing the next song “Running Gun Blues,” presumably because it is a rather fanciful ode to death. Glenn caught his breath quickly and gave the song its due, however.
The audience already was sold on the outstanding performance of the band, which included Terry Edwards on sax and James Stevenson (of The Cult!) on guitar, but a beautiful and powerful rendition of the title track “The Man Who Sold the World” absolutely reminded us that this was no dream — we were watching Mr. Bowie’s friends and bandmates perform the highest tribute they possibly could to their friend and inspiration. As Woody and Tony shared the music they created alongside David, every heart in the room was full and keenly aware of how at that moment, in a way, a circle became complete — as “The Man Who Sold the World” is a alluringly glam song about aging and then passing on to fulfill your destiny. In the days after Mr. Bowie’s death, there could not possibly be any greater way to simply grieve than to lose yourself in this sublime performance.
Now, don’t get me wrong — the show wasn’t all about tears. The night was a fitting celebration of Bowie and Woody’s time with the man, the myth, and the legend. After TMWSTW album, Glenn led the room in fantastic singalongs of Ziggy’s “Five Years” and “Moonage Daydream.” The band then successfully undertook a remarkable effort to duplicate the medley from the concert film Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, consisting of “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud”/”All the Young Dudes”/”Oh You Pretty Things.” Holy Holy absolutely nailed the chain of songs, creating a memorable glam stomper of a montage that brought the crowd to their feet in collective joy.
Not content to simply satisfy, Holy Holy reached for (and firmly grasped!) gold, charging into “Changes” and “Life on Mars” from Hunky Dory, arguably the greatest album as a whole from the indomitable David Bowie. Both songs were enormous crowd-pleasers — every word known by every soul in the theatre — and Glenn, Woody, Tony, and the others set a very high bar indeed for a live performance of those iconic numbers. Holy Holy revisit Ziggy with the title track and “Rock and Roll Suicide” before closing the show with an encore of “Time” and another extraordinarily well-known Bowie number, “Suffragette City.”
For me, Woody and Holy Holy capped off an eventful week. After the death of David Bowie, I spent the week dashing to impromptu wakes and reflecting on the loss of a great artist. But coming as they did four days after I heard of Mr. Bowie’s passing, Holy Holy were instrumental in lifting my spirits from a place of loss to a place of celebration. Thanks to Woody and Tony and company, I let go of sadness and embraced the music, which continues to endure. I was especially moved by Tony’s words — the man was a producer on the last four Bowie albums and one of the best friends to the rock icon, who had become quite reclusive in the last 10 years of his life. Tony and Woody solemnly took the stage before the show started to explain that they considered canceling their remaining North American shows when Mr. Bowie passed. But as musicians, they were compelled to play the music to honor him.
Well, I’m glad they did. And you’ll see exactly what I mean and you may feel exactly how I feel if you catch one of their remaining shows this week. They return to New York City for an encore performance at the Highline Ballroom on Tuesday, Jan. 19, and then hit Lancaster, Pa., on Wednesday and Boston on Thursday.
If like me, you find yourself at a loss in a world without David Bowie, trust me when I say Holy Holy will make you feel a little bit better about it. And you’ll emerge ready to turn and face the strange.
Thank you for the music, David Bowie. And thanks for keeping it alive, Holy Holy.