REVIEW: BBC PROM 19 (David Bowie Late Night Prom)

David Bowie Late Night Prom
Photo Credit: BBC/ Mark Allen

David Bowie Late Night Prom
(Prom 19, Royal Albert Hall, 29th July 2016; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Expectations for this event were high, with statements by artists and arrangers that promised challenging interpretations of selections from David Bowie’s formidable catalogue. This was an evening which did have its occasional highlights (read on…), but otherwise felt like a succession of safe compromises, managing to elude both the raw spirit of rock and roll which imbued his live performances and the restless, inquiring mood of his recorded output.

André de Ridder, the Bowie Prom’s curator and director of the highly accomplished s t a r g a z e orchestra, stated that ‘we usually create new music and collaborate with experimentally minded artists’, and noted Bowie’s interest in Conlon Nancarrow, yet this was not evidenced in the MOR, lightweight mood that characterised much of the concert, catering for solid suburbia rather than disorientated youth who continue to look to him as inspiration.

Amanda Palmer declared at the outset that the Prom was ‘not a wake … [but] … a secular celebration.’ Palmer’s string tribute project to Bowie, with Jherek Bischoff, was acknowledged by de Ridder as inspiration and was his first port of call when he received the Prom commission. Their scintillating live performance a few days earlier (REVIEWED) had been soaked with sweat and emotion.

Neil Hannon’s guise of suited crooner failed to ignite Station to Station, stranded at the start of the concert with its light music orchestration. Conor O’Brien was equally lukewarm on Michael van der Aa’s setting of The Man Who Sold The World, notwithstanding the acapella duet which rounded it off, but offered more powerful vocal character, akin to David Ackles, in This Is Not America, given a fillip by a darting cameo appearance by rapper, Elf Kid, which, sadly, had no follow-up.

Marc Almond, André de Ridder and musicians’ collective s t a r g a z e
Late Night David Bowie Prom. Photo credit: BBC/ Mark Allen

The high points mentioned above included Marc Almond, in elegant black, with a hint of Marcel Marceau, shone a bright light on the poetry of Life on Mars and its vignettes of lowlife and injustice in Anna Meredith’s spare arrangement. He recalled his moment of epiphany in 1972 when he saw Bowie and ‘the late great guitarist Mick Ronson’ on TOTP, before launching in to a spirited, lightly reggae-tinged Starman.

Jherek Bischoff and Anna Calvi. Late Night Bowie Prom
Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allen

The diminutive Anna Calvi packed an enormous vocal punch, extra fizz on guitar and a much needed touch of discord in an edgy Lady Grinning Soul, with gold suited and booted arranger Bischoff on bass guitar. With Palmer they added an eerie fourth dimension to Blackstar through a vocal call and response in its drawn out coda (‘I’m a blackstar / I’m not a gangster’). As ‘Spirit rose’ the beams of stage lighting swung heavenwards and the RAH’s organ added a power reeded drone, courtesy of James McVinnie, echoing its emotional charge. Palmer admitted this song had been an intimidating challenge – ‘I think he’s in my house tonight!’. And, to follow, Palmer sent chills down the spine on Heroes, with searing vocals slicing through the full orchestra.

Laura Mvula got the menace of Girl Loves Me, with its quivering yodels, to a tee, and in her duet with Paul Buchanan a hint of Blue Nile’s space was massaged in to the song he had most wanted to perform, I Can’t Give Everything Away. Yet, Mvula trod cautiously, perhaps constrained by Greg Saunier’s tame arrangement, on Fame, and Buchanan was too soft spoken and polite in the charged Ashes to Ashes to impact the vast Albert Hall.

Surprise was supplied in the beautiful, warm pitches of countertenor, Philippe Jaroussky, in a pastoral reinterpretation of Crashing in the Same Car. Bowie would have loved this. And there were curious, brief chamber vignettes – Rebel Rebel unrecognisable, but full marks for thinking out of the box.

John Cale, André de Ridder and musicians’ collective s t a r g a z e
Late Night David Bowie Prom. Photo credit: Mark Allen / BBC

It was down to John Cale, in feather boa, looking every part the pantomime dame, to lend his knowing vocal delivery and authority to this musical Festschrift, adding his three piece band plus Anna Calvi to the orchestra to give Valentine’s Day the real wallop that had been missing from a fair amount of what had preceded. The masterstroke was was the addition of the 12-piece House Gospel Choir to give a rich glow to his unsettlingly powerful take on Space Oddity. ‘David, where are you?,’ Cale called out, ‘We are all space oddities.’

The final sequence was dedicated by de Ridder to ‘the next generation’ when Palmer brought on her ten-month old with the reassembled cast, for After All, veering dangerously close to Bowie, the Musical as Let’s Dance became a singalong!

The David Bowie Late Night Prom
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved

Categories: miscellaneous

7 replies »

  1. A lot of the night was a little too safe and reverential, although John Cale stepped up to the plate, but the revelation for me was Anna Calvi, especially on Lady Grinning Soul. She blew my socks off!

  2. It's Paul Buchanan, not Paul Buchnan. You were very kind about this gig. It was a travesty from start to finish.

  3. it was by far one of the worst tribute to bowie, out of tune, boring and nothing to do with David, Laura Mvula was the only acceptable moment, it was a disgrace..

  4. We had the following comment in by email, the autor requesting anonymity:

    A considered & thoughtful review – it's too easy to spit vitriol at something that is always going to divide opinion, but the criticism made here is justified.

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