Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke
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Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke




It’s been a rough old year for David Bowie fans. As well as losing our Main Man, it seems we’ve had to endure the inevitable rush of opportunistic biographies, Target and Big W T-Shirt lines, unauthorised bootlegs and of course – tribute after tribute, as the world tries valiantly to come to terms with our loss and the great man’s legacy… It’s even fair to say a lot of us are pretty much ’tributed out'. That said, everyone can always use a little positivity in our lives and so it was – that last night at Hamer Hall, many of the faithful gathered for a quality serving of man-love… at the third and final ‘David Bowie: Nothing has Changed’ performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

It’s always with a sense of trepidation that those, who really comprehend the depth and magnitude of Bowie’s talent, gather to pay their respects. After all, David’s are mighty big shoes to fill. In an act of self preservation and to avoid inevitable disappointment, I vow to keep my expectations low. Reading through tonights program, the Creative Director Amanda Pelman and Conductor of the MSO Vanessa Scammell, are calling it early…“If David Bowie had not existed, it would have been impossible to reinvent him. Now that he’s undergone his final transition, Australia’s finest pay tribute to the Starman.”

It’s a massive call as there are plenty of musicians and vocalists out there who consider themselves worthy disciples, but a glance at tonight’s cast reveals some sterling choices…the outstanding iOTA, Tim Rogers, Deborah Conway, Steve Kilbey and Adalita. Each of them bonafide performers but almost more importantly passionate Bowie fans at heart.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

At 8pm on the dot, the MSO take their seats and the crowd welcomes Vanessa Scammel to the conductor’s podium. A few seconds preliminary tuning and preflight check and then without delay, the ever flamboyant iOTA appears from stage left in bright red shoes, ready to kick our blues into orbit… immaculate in clown makeup and sporting a Black-starred pierrot outfit – an obvious hat-tip to David’s Scary Monsters phase.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

The familiar countdown begins as he delivers a stunningly heart-wrenching rendition of ‘Space Oddity’ – he has my friend already reaching for her tissues after only the first verse, setting the bar supremely high. The evening is off to a fabulous start.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

As he reaches the outro of the song, without fanfare he disappears through a side door stage right and the crowd erupts in appreciative applause but tonight’s performance is timed down to the second and there is no time for any delays. Deborah Conway steps out onto the stage and delivers a beautiful rendition of ‘Starman’. Her voice is really well suited to the arrangement and the crowd adore it.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

You Am I frontman Tim Rogers is up next and it’s with a reverently hammy attitude that he brings us “All The Young Dudes” - the Mott The Hoople hit Bowie wrote that single handedly resurrected their flagging music career. Tim’s version is buoyant, cheeky and utterly captivating, and at once, I can see why he was a less obvious but still inspired choice for this evening. His cheeky personality and larger than life stage presence injects a vital dose of jollity and celebration into tonight’s event and he’s a very welcome addition.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

Adalita then proceeds to tear through a blistering ‘Rebel Rebel’ which segues into the chunky ’The Jean Genie’ – both big, big songs that many would shy away from the challenge of performing. She delivers both with a surly attitude and vocal. What a star she is proving to be. Adalita cheekily prances across the stage eventually falling to her knees before the front row, hands outstretched, in a very Bowiesque ‘gimme your hands’ gesture, imploring a connection with the faithful. Sterling.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

The vibe is certainly 'up' now and the howling of dogs from down on ‘Love Me Avenue’ signals it’s time for Diamond Dogs. Steve Kilbey bounds out on stage and fervently yelps the intro. Kilbey, a self-confessed Bowiephile, who admits David Bowie inhabits every aspect of his creative DNA, channels the master through this performance and his rendition is fabulous. It’s a great match for his distinctive voice and is a joy to behold from our view ‘high up on Vulture’s Hill’. His unbridled enthusiasm as he bounds around the stage unfettered by his guitar and free to express himself – even ad-libbing in some hopscotch mime at one stage – brings a big smile to my face. Fantastic.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

iOTA and Deborah Conway team up for 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Suffragette City', the latter of the two songs seeing them both jump around in glee. In her enthusiasm, Deb must have got a little too close to some of the band equipment and took a brief tumble near a monitor speaker but ever the professional, she quickly picked herself up and continued on unfazed.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

By the songs end, after all that jumping around, Deborah feigned exhaustion and as iOTA left the stage, she collapsed over the grand piano. The chunky intro to ‘Fame’ blasted out and Tim Rogers appeared in funky Gousterish fedora and flares. Unobserved by everyone except those of us very high up in the auditorium, Deborah deftly reached behind the piano and donned a platinum blonde wig and Jackie O shades. The transformation was complete. The outfits allowed Deborah and Tim to truly lose themselves in their characters and as they traded off respective verses and the ‘fame…fame…fame’ refrain, I realised that whilst the presentation may have verged on kitsch, it was done with a heartfelt and respectful approach and that carried across to the audience, who adored the frivolity of it.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

The dynamic of ‘China Girl’ sung by Steve Kilbey and backing vocalist Robyn Loau was equally fantastic. Steve’s baritone suited Loau’s higher register perfectly.

‘Oh You Pretty Things’ saw Deborah Conway join the pianist for a happy bouncy version, especially fitting tonight in that we were hearing the song incorporating Mick Ronson’s sublime string arrangements and the original the bassoon outro.

Tim Rogers was then joined by Adalita to perform ‘Sorrow’ before the first act crescendoed with iOTA’s amazing take on ‘(Is There) Life On Mars?’. Where most singers would baulk at the challenge of the higher register, iOTA’s voice just soared effortlessly… thank god… this man is a truly undiscovered talent and was born to sing Bowie.

The second set resumes with Steve Kilbey dressed as the Thin White Duke sporting white shirt and black waistcoat and trousers with an energetic and frenetic take on ’Station to Station’. Where Bowie himself traditionally performed the song with elegant poise, Steve was having none of that and went at it like a man possessed. It meant we heard the classic in an admittedly different, but still fantastic light. And if there was anyone eminently qualified to sing the immortal line, “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine… It must be love” …it’s Kilbey!

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

It was now time for Even’s guitar maestro Ash Naylor to step forward and shine as he ripped out a stellar version of 'Moonage Daydream'. The ‘freakout-far out-in out’ passage was particularly affecting in it’s authenticity.

‘Golden Years’ featuring Tim and Deborah followed and in much the same way as they triumphed over their earlier version of ‘Fame’ the dynamic between them was equally effective here. Rogers is a wonderful sidekick and Deborah and he have great chemistry.

Kilbey was then back again to hammer out ‘Changes’. The arrangements that have been specially commissioned for this show are masterful in that they accentuate rather than dominate – allowing maximum involvement by the orchestra whilst still letting the traditional rock band and vocalists shine.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

Timmy Rogers then was back to gee up the crowd with an awesome take on ‘Young Americans’… at the breakdown, we see him on his knees… “Oh Uncle David…you just gave us so many songs… that make us… break down and cry”

Another of the night’s highlights followed. Davey Lane, guitarist from You Am I stepped forward and summoned his very best Adrian Belew guitar angularity for a gobsmackingly good ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ from the 'Lodger' album. Every nuance of Belew’s idiosyncratic playing style was honoured and was just a testament to Lane’s knowledge, appreciation and skill that he was able to deliver such an outstanding and representative version. Kudos to you Davey Lane.

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

The evening begins to wind up now as Adalita and iOTA present a trio of 80’s Bowie. We get 'Modern Love' and 'Let’s Dance' which cleverly segues into 'Fashion' in one massive swath of chunky funk. iOTA and Adalita totally own these songs and this performance succeeds in coaxing all the front few rows up and dancing at the lip of the stage. iOTA then commands the stage as he now performs ‘Ashes to Ashes’ dressed in a black clown outfit, signalling the transformation from pierrot to Blackstar. Sublime vocals again.

This brings us to the last track of the official setlist now and Tim Rogers performs what would be, for most people anyway, an impossible track. It’s Bowie’s final goodbye from the Blackstar album, ‘Lazarus’. He brings every ounce of his being to the performance – the anguish, sadness and despair, wringing sorrow out of every note. It’s unbelievably perfect in its delivery and leaves me in tears. Quite possibly the very best rendition of any Bowie track I’ve heard. Ever. I’m utterly speechless. How did he do that?

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke

The band concede that the audience can’t be left hanging like that, and so Rogers returns to the stage for one more. It’s ‘Five Years’ and he is joined in successive verses by Deborah Conway and iOTA. It’s sublime again and quite refreshing to hear it sung like this. The different vocalists make you concentrate more on the lyrics and it effectively breathes new life into a very old song… a whole new experience. The full cast then returns to the stage for an all-out, no-holds-barred rendition of arguably Bowie’s greatest track "Heroes".

Tonight has been revelatory and the performances world class. I can see no feasible reason why this production couldn’t tour the world… and make a killing… In David’s immortal words, ‘You could make it alright as Rock'n'Roll stars!”

Congratulations must go to the Creative Director, Amanda Pelman and the Conductor of the MSO, Vanessa Scammell. Also the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the whole cast and importantly the Man who Wrote the Songs that Thrilled the World. Everything has changed and yet, quite amazingly, with such an untouchable back-catalog of material and respectful productions like this…Nothing has changed. Five BLACK STARS out of five.

SETLIST
iOTA - Space Oddity
Deborah Conway - Starman
Tim Rogers - All The Young Dudes
Adalita - Rebel Rebel/The Jean Genie
Steve Kilbey - Diamond Dogs
iOTA & Deborah Conway - Ziggy Stardust/Suffragette City
Tim Rogers & Deborah Conway - Fame
Steve Kilbey & Robyn Loau - China Girl
Deborah Conway - Oh You Pretty Things
Tim Rogers & Adalita - Sorrow
iOTA - Life On Mars?
Steve Kilbey - Station To Station
Ashley Naylor - Moonage Daydream
Tim Rogers & Deborah Conway - Golden Years
Steve Kilbey - Changes
Tim Rogers - Young Americans
Davey Lane - Boys Keep Swinging
Adalita & iOTA - Modern Love/Let’s Dance/Fashion
iOTA - Ashes To Ashes
Tim Rogers - Lazarus
Tim Rogers, iOTA and Deborah Conway - Five Years
Full Cast - "Heroes"

Melbourne Festival's Return Of The Thin White Duke
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