OOn January 10, 2016, David Brighton’s phone started ringing as fans began sending messages of comfort to the musician. At this point, he was making a living as a David Bowie impersonator for over a decade and, thanks to his appearances as an icon in the 2009 film Guardians and his stage show “Space Oddity” was considered one of the best in his field of work. But suddenly, when her hero died of cancer at age 69, the gig had changed.
“When I found out I was in shock,” Brighton recalls. “People are unfortunately appreciated after they leave, unfortunately sometimes more than they were back then. I remember the first time we shot in Europe [after Bowie’s passing], one of the criticisms we received was: “It is deplorable to pay homage to David Bowie so soon after his death.” They felt like we had just formed this act in response to her passing. We had been doing this act for about fifteen years ago and David Bowie himself was supportive. Only “a small part” of the fans felt this, however. “The much higher percentage came to our shows to cry and heal.”
Tribute acts often deal with the perception that they are somehow less important to reading another artist’s back catalog. But there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Bowie loved his lookalikes, from his own desire to be bigger than life (“I felt very puny as a human,” he once remarked. “I thought, ‘Damn. A superhuman’) when he was trotting his own imitators on stage. More than that, Bowie understood their cosplay. After all, what were Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke if not opportunities to express creativity through different characters?
While not as ubiquitous – and certainly less maligned than Elvis impersonators – there are still plenty of David Bowie-inspired acts populating pubs and concert halls with their takes on his genre-engulfing catalog. And as many have discovered, actively participating in their appreciation of Bowie has created unexpected opportunities for creative growth. Still, it takes a lot of work to slip into her multicolored jumpsuits.
Chris Connelly, frontman of the Chicago-based Sons of the Silent Age tribute act, says his goal is to create a performance more in tune with the 1998 Todd Haynes film. Golden velvet than a sense of documentary realism. His work as a musician has included sojourns with industrial groups Revolting Cocks and Ministry, the latter including Bowie as a fan. But bringing together like-minded musicians to perform Bowie’s music in the early 2000s meant Connelly was forced to jump into acting.
“I didn’t know the real David Jones, I knew him from his character,” says Connelly. “I play the character, which is a wonderful thing to do because it means I don’t feel embarrassed about it. It’s more of an acting challenge from someone who isn’t an actor. If I’m wrong, it’s not me messing up, it’s this person trying to impersonate the Thin White Duke.
Despite his desire to mirror Bowie as closely as possible, Brighton faced a similar challenge. With the music legend’s training in mime work and his interest in Kabuki and drama, coming to terms with his personality meant internalizing a multitude of skills. Brighton admits that sometimes the muscle memory of his performances trumps him backstage.
“If I had known how difficult it was going to be to impersonate David Bowie, I would never have taken on this task,” he jokes. “I remember meeting Elvis impersonators when I was doing The Beatles [tributes] that were committed. It was just, ‘Dude, you’re not on stage right now. Can you give up the act of Elvis? It’s a bit boring. But now I realize it’s not always intentional. It’s just something that you incorporated, this vast repertoire of movements and performances, skills and ways of speaking and everything – you just integrated it into your soul somehow, and it comes out, even when you don’t need it.
Brighton had the opportunity in 2003 to do his imitation in front of Bowie himself on the set of a French television commercial for Vittel. It was a “surreal and humiliating” experience, he recalls, while quickly adding that the singer was also a perfect English gentleman.
For other cover artists, emulation alone is not the goal. Jeff Duff, an Australian artist with a prolific catalog of original works, has paid tribute to a number of stars. But it’s his cabaret version of Bowie, including the Sinatra / Bowie mashup Ground Control from Frank Sinatra, which continues to resonate with the public. Contemporary to Bowie when he lived and performed in England in the 1980s, and later next to the music icon in Sydney, he’s just happy his Bowie act was turnkey to continue. his decades-long career. People want Bowie and he’s happy to give it to them.
“I couldn’t even pass myself off as myself!” Duff laughs. “When I lived in London in the 80s, I wouldn’t have done David Bowie songs.” But the parallels between his gaze and Bowie’s have caught the attention of casual observers. With his “tall and thin” frame and love of makeup and “flamboyant” clothes, he admits, “Bowie’s character fits my character perfectly.”
Likewise, Jane Roberts, the singer of Miss Bowie, found an unexpected sideline when, at the age of 36, she began to learn to play the guitar and began playing “Five Years” during open-mic parties around Nottingham, England. Shortly after Bowie’s death, she formed a band with musicians in their 40s and 50s who shared her desire to celebrate her music. While she felt empowered by the prospect, the Thin White Duke performer found a unique challenge: convincing fans that as a woman, she deserved to put herself in the shoes of the musician who bends the kind.
“It’s a tale as old as time, isn’t it?” she says. “You are a woman with a different level, with the added benefit of posing as a man. Sometimes people come to concerts to see you fail because you’re a woman singing Bowie. But we have people who come to concerts and say, ‘I had to see this because I didn’t think it would be good. But I really like you! ‘ You kind of change the mindsets and perceptions of people. And it happens quite regularly. Which is good because it means people have at least tried it and come with a pretty open mind. But these are the same challenges that women face with everything else, really. It’s just that extra question of whether what you’re doing is valid. “
It is the power of hearing these songs live that connects the acts of tribute through their countless incarnations. Nailing a model created by a legend is a challenge. But with bursts of creative confidence and increased touring opportunities, there is a sense of community that accompanies these acts.
During his lifetime, David Bowie’s approach to music and art united those who felt excluded from societal definitions of “normal”. Even now, five years after his death, he still brings people together. Connelly remembers the first Sons of the Silent Age show shortly after Bowie’s passing, with special guests Ava Cherry and Billy Corgan, as one of those times that connection was fully realized.
“That night was really cathartic for a lot of people,” he recalls. “It was the major loss of modern music in our time. And it meant so much, in so many dimensions, to so many people that it was something big that was being taken away from us. Just give people the courage to change. There were a lot of tears shed in the crowd that I saw.
“In a way, we’re not doing a David Bowie show,” he adds. “We’re just the Charles Mingus Orchestra or something like that. We keep his discipleship music alive and perform it, maybe in a way he could have done. And since he died we have a very loyal group of people coming. And that makes people feel good. It makes people to feel better. “
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