Q: When is a tribute band elevated to a status beyond a mere tribute band? A: When the drummer (or indeed any former member) of the band you are paying tribute to joins your lineup, thus cementing the link between ersatz and authentic.
Not that tonight was the first time I’ve seen this done: I enjoyed two evenings in the company of Liverpool’s Muffin Men accompanied by bona fide Zappa alumni Jimmy Carl Black before his passing, and even contributed studio backing vocals once myself for Supertramp covers act The Logical Tramps, who were occasionally joined by the man himself, John Helliwell, on sax and clarinet.
But as someone who never saw Mick Ronson, will never witness Trevor Bolder (even though I spent many years watching him pummel four strings for Uriah Heep) play these songs, and whose only live experience of Bowie or Mike Garson to date was during the Dame’s drum’n'bass/industrial metaaal period at Phoenix ’96, I not only felt this was an event I simply could not miss, but- despite the cynicism expressed in advance by certain friends- that something truly special awaited me. I wasn’t wrong.
From the minute the opening strums of ‘Rock And Roll Suicide’ emanate from Newton-coiffeured frontman Malcolm Docherty’s low slung acoustic, all fears are dispelled, as realisation dawns that we are about to witness some of the most important songs ever written in the history of rock played by a band who for once have the right to play them.
For those of us not born or too young to experience it at the time, this is as close as we will ever get (save for the Spiders From Mars gigs at the Astoria in 1999 where Woody and Trev were joined by two-fifths of Def Leppard, which, for some inexplicable reason, I failed to attend) to the real thing: for those who were there, and have come to remember those heady days of androgyny, glitter, feathers and pansexuality, it’s about the best homage that could be paid.
Sure, relatively anonymous ex-Billy Idol guitarist James Stevenson resembles any one of a multitude of sessionmen, but he’s still part of a cast with genuine lineage, also including both Mick Ronson’s daughter Lisa and sister Maggi (also taking lead vocal for a stripped down ‘Fill Your Heart’), Ian Hunter’s daughter Tracie (not only handling ‘Sorrow’ expertly, but responsible for entertaining us earlier on with her trio The Revelles, delivering sultry harmony-laden takes on a variety of rock standards) another fiery female vocalist in the form of Westworld’s Sarah Westwood (contributing a bluesy, downtempo ‘Cracked Actor’) Eno/Dury/Lindsay Kemp collaborator Rod Melvin on keys, Big Audio Dynamite bassist Gary Stonadge, and on sax and rhythm guitar, native Islingtonian Steve Norman of Spandau Ballet, one of the many new Romantics whose awakening was triggered by the rise and fall of Ziggy in the, ahem, golden year that was 1973.
And behind them all sits the reason we’re here: Woodmansey himself, in the flesh, the definite article. The last Spider (bar part-timer Garson, conspicuous by his absence) standing, the unassuming Yorkshireman who beat the skins on those five seminal albums 1970-73, and the heart and soul of a lineup whose achievements still remain unequalled in their field.
Always the most humble, genial and down to earth of the gang, now even more so with his former shock of white-blonde hair and polka dotted catsuit replaced by a bald pate, baseball cap, t-shirt, jeans and trainers, he may be “up the back”, but he’s very much the leader of this ensemble, and both he and they know it.
The sound revolves around him, his thudding, solid rhythms and fills (best demonstrated on ‘Moonage Daydream’ ‘Five Years’ ‘Star’ ‘Queen Bitch’ an otherwise restrained ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and even a drum solo which, for once, didn’t overstay its welcome or have me running to the bar) cueing and spurring the ten-plus other members forrard, their eyes constantly on him.
Even the assorted vocalists repeatedly turn round to focus on him between verses, seeking their hero’s approval, although one can imagine him dismissing such reverence with a cheery Northern “ee, bugger off yer daft ha’porth” before once more resuming the backbeat of another peerless Glam nugget. Age does not seem to have withered his fire, and surrounded by others so in tune with the classic Spiders sound, his youth is, if anything, rejuvenated. Indeed, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a musician of advancing years (62 to be exact) enjoy themselves quite this much onstage.
Full kudos, also, to the band for not choosing the bog-obvious hits: yes, there is still room for ‘Starman’ ‘Life On Mars’ ‘All The Young Dudes’(great lead vocal from Mr Norman, though with Ms Hunter surprisingly remaining in the back row) and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ itself, but tunes many of us are, quite rightly, sick to death of by now, such as ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Jean Genie’ are replaced by, as the name might suggest, far more adventurous selections such as b-side rarity ‘Holy Holy’, the lamenting strains of ‘After All’, resulting in impromptu “oh by jingo”‘s from those present, my personal favourite ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, the bouncy effervescence of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and an arm-waving ‘Time’ (although I still maintain with regard to the latter, some 20-odd years after first hearing it, that despite its grandiose pianistic intro, portentous lyric and la-la refrain, it remains in dire need of the chorus it always threatens to provide).
Even the choice of closer ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, with the band’s manager by now also employed on backing vocals and percussive thingummy, deviates nicely from the cheesefest that could have prevailed, with full cast and crew (except opening act Phil Rambow, one of the great lost songwriters in the cracks betwixt glam, punk, pub rock and new wave, and composer of the evergreen ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ who prefers instead to recline heartily at the bar) now assembled en masse. Note to self: as his one-man-and-his-guitar act seemed somehow lost in tonight’s anticipation, I must resolve to see him again in more conducive surroundings.
As the orchestra takes their bows, Woody, now centre-stage, takes the mic and announces that “this only started for a bit of a one-off laugh, but now that he’s seen how much the audience has enjoyed this run of gigs, and realised he feels the same, he intends to keep it up for as long as possible”.
That, Spiders and Spiderettes everywhere, is the highest compliment that could be paid, from fan to musician and back: even more incredibly, when I speak to him, and ask him “how he’s managed to keep his secret identity as Jim Bowen hidden from us all these years”, he actually laughs and doesn’t clout me one. To paraphrase a well-known saying, you can’t beat a bit of Bowie…
Review by Darius Drewe
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
Power Plays w/c 11 November (Mon-Fri)
MILES NIELSEN AND THE RUSTED HEARTS Hands Up (indie)
THE FARGO RAILROAD COMPANY Something In The Water (indie)
THE DARK ELEMENT If I Had A Heart (Frontiers)
LIBERTY LIES A Thousand People (indie)
DIRTY SHIRLEY Here Comes The King (Frontiers)
CARRY THE CROWN Runaway (indie)
Featured Albums w/c 11 November (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 WORK OF ART Exhibits (Frontiers)
12:00-13:00 SIGN X Like A Fire (Pride & Joy Music)
14:00-16:00 JACK BROADBENT Moonshine Blue (Creature Records)
Albums That Time Forgot (Mon-Fri)
MAGNUM Sleepwalking (1992)
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