Seven years ago, forces conspired in unusual ways. An unassuming concert featuring the music of David Bowie was planned featuring local musicians. Despite knowing many of the scheduled players, I didn't pay much attention. Cover bands can be hit or miss, but even when they hit, there's seldom much artistry in apery. Then, a week before the concert, David Bowie died. Suddenly the concert was vital, and it shouldered an unexpected new significance. I was swept up in the emotion of the event. After the dust had settled, it was obvious that the gig had not only created a needed space for all the mourning misfits who saw themselves in the glamourous, alien, and androgenous Bowie, but it also bonded the musicians who celebrated the importance and fragility of musical comradery. Since that initial performance, the concert has transformed into an annual event – one on its way to becoming an institution. Now the concert continues to comfort the fans and musicians just as it did that first year, but it also importantly serves as a benefit, raising money for local charities and non-profits working in the community.
In 2023, the seventh annual "Bowie Weekend" kicked off with a special Thursday night VIP affair priced to deliver maximum assistance to KC Common Good – a non-profit organization that addresses the root causes of violence in Kansas City. In return for the elevated ticket prices, VIPs would be treated to a unique playthrough of Bowie's 1972 masterwork, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. As well as the special setlist, Thursday's performance would also feature the talented and appropriately glittery Calvin Arsenia. This gala, along with the other two evenings, sold out quickly.
At 8:00 the audience was primed. Stage managers held the anxious videographers, photographers, projectionists, and sound engineers at bay until the band finally walked on stage. Eventually the stage would include thirteen players, most adorned in some combination of sparkling makeup and gleaming jackets. I'm told that before the show the greenroom was a mess of creative costumers and dressers working in a cloud of hairspray.
True to the album, the set began with "Five Years." Nathan Corsi took the lead vocal. Throughout the night he'd share that role with Steve Tulipana. The band also featured the usual suspects: guitarists Alex Alexander and Katy Guillen, bassist and bandleader Michelle Bacon, drummer Stephanie Williams, keyboardist Kyle Dahlquist, and backing vocalists Julia Haile and Havilah Bruders. When needed, cellist Christine Broxterman, violinist J Buch, and saxophonist Rich Wheeler played along. Guest star Calvin Arsenia provided backing vocals and flute, as well as his turns in the spotlight playing harp and singing lead. It's a talented lot, and there's not one musician that I haven't seen on stage with other projects.
No one wants to read a complete rundown of the set, of the comings and goings of players, of the arrangements and how they differed from the original recordings. Suffice to say that musically the band was both Bowie and Bowie-esque, with performers adding their own touches, energies, and hearts to the songs. Despite being told by a tech that the band always has kinks to work out on opening night, the performance went off flawlessly, even as players entered and exited the stage, even through the tricky moments that took Arsenia up to the mezzanine level where a spotlight lit him and his harp.
The first portion of the night ended as the album does, with "Rock & Roll Suicide" – a song I long contended was a karaoke no-fly zone. But of course, Tulipana nailed it. With Ziggy behind them, the band then offered seven more cuts including "Golden Years" and "Fame." It's this mid-1970s era where the large ensemble really shines. The band ended on a different note however, instead closing with the intimate "Life on Mars" featuring lead vocals from Arsenia. His emotional performance was amazing and earned a standing ovation from the audience.
Eschewing tradition, the band never left the stage, and instead quickly segued into a two-song encore that featured "Boys Keep Swinging," where Alexander delighted in Adrian Belew's disjointed solo, and "Under Pressure," where Tulipana's Bowie duetted with Corsi's Freddie Mercury. Sure, the song is a classic, and fans felt it without a doubt, but better than the infectious bassline, or soaring bridge, was the way the two vocalists embraced throughout the song, and the way the audience joined them in the finger-snapping finale. It's that unity that makes the tribute so wonderful to witness, and what soothes souls. Imagine, a cover band capable of all that.