TORONTO – Fans of David Bowie gathered at a jam-packed Toronto concert hall on Tuesday to pay tribute to the beloved performer with a spirited event focused almost solely on the music.
What could’ve become a spectacle for the colourful personas Bowie created over the decades instead turned into a deep-dive into his 1970s album catalogue, led by Holy Holy, a band comprised of former Bowie collaborators.
But the show almost didn’t happen.
“We actually had to talk about whether we were going to perform more on this tour,” Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti told the sold-out audience of nearly 900 people.
“There is no better way to work through grief (than) through music. Music is magic. It’s better than any pill to take, it’s better than any drug.”
Holy Holy, which is devoted to recreating Bowie’s groundbreaking early albums, features Visconti and Bowie’s former drummer Mick (Woody) Woodmansey.
It was after Bowie’s death on Sunday due to cancer that Visconti said the band had to consider whether it was appropriate to continue the tour.
“We’re going to celebrate the life of David Bowie,” Visconti said.
“This is some of the best music that’s ever been written.”
The timing couldn’t be more coincidental for the concert at the Opera House in Toronto. The event was scheduled months ago as part of a North America tour, but only sold out after word spread of Bowie’s death.
On Tuesday morning, the band announced that due to overwhelming demand, it added a second Toronto show to be held Wednesday.
After Visconti introduced the show, he slipped into the background as frontman Glenn Gregory took on the role of Bowie for nearly two hours, channeling just enough of his energy to seem authentic, without veering into sheer imitation.
They began by performing Bowie’s 1970 album “The Man Who Sold The World” in its entirety before charging through other favourites from the Ziggy Stardust era.
Audience members sang along to a spirited rendition of “Changes,” and fell silent as Visconti’s daughter Jessica Lee Morgan — the band’s backup singer — performed “Lady Stardust.”The evening closed with “Suffragette City” as fans tossed roses onto the stage. Visconti picked one up and held it aloft.
Outside the venue after the show, people talked about the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Tonight was an amazing go-back down memory lane,” self-professed lifetime fan Philip Cotterill said.
“I had to fight back the tears.”
Others described the concert as a moment of emotional healing as they came to terms with the singer’s death.
“Bowie was the guy who did the soundtrack to my teenage years, so when he died it was almost like a mate died,” said David Seggie.
“I’ve known Bowie longer than I’ve known my husband,” interjected his wife Lesley Finn.
Some people celebrated Bowie by dressing in vibrant costumes inspired by his colourful career.
“I had a crisis getting ready for tonight,” said Sarah Blostein, who arrived with a painted lightning bolt streaked across her face, evoking Bowie’s 1973 “Aladdin Sane” album cover.
“I thought, if I can’t do him justice it’s going to break my heart.”
Visconti told the crowd that Holy Holy’s tour had “total approval” from Bowie before his death.
“Technically, we are not a tribute band — we are the real dudes,” he said, as the audience cheered.
Several times during the show the band noted that their heightened emotions might get the best of them on stage, though they got through the evening without a hitch.
Woodmansey formed Holy Holy in 2013. He was Bowie’s drummer from 1970 to 1973 and worked on several of his albums.
Visconti was Bowie’s producer throughout his entire career, from Bowie’s 1969 album “Space Oddity” to his recently released “Blackstar.” He plays bass in Holy Holy. The band also features Gregory on vocals and James Stevenson on lead guitar.
Next month, Visconti will lead a house band for a Bowie memorial concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The event had been scheduled months ago as a tribute concert with performances of Bowie songs by 20 artists, including Cyndi Lauper, the Roots and Ann Wilson of Heart.
Numerous other Bowie tributes will take place over the coming weeks, including a segment during the Brit Awards in late February.
Bowie’s death has also sparked a renewed interest in his back catalogue.
On iTunes in Canada, several of his classic hits have spiked on the singles chart. On Tuesday morning, “Space Oddity” was at No. 3, “Changes” was the 11th best-selling single and the new track “Lazarus” was at No. 12. Almost two dozen other Bowie tracks filled the Top 100.
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