When I last reviewed the Holy Holy show in 2015 link here I stated it was the best gig of the year. My only regret from the article is writing the line: “If this is what can be done during Bowie’s retirement from live performances, then stay retired Mr B”. Sadly, David had entered the final stages of cancer at the time, and he passed away the following January. I understand that Tony Visconti was aware of the situation during that tour as he had also been producing Bowie’s final album, Blackstar then. How he kept the secret of Bowie’s poor health is testament to the long friendship they shared.
What is interesting about tonight is the turn out. Three years ago the Academy’s main room was less than half full, with the balcony closed off. It is wonderful to see Birmingham’s Town Hall packed tonight. Whether this is a knock on effect of Bowie’s death is difficult to say, because Woody Woodmansey has worked tirelessly for a long time ensuring that this period of his and Bowie’s work is kept alive.
The setlist is not dissimilar from the previous tour and the show starts with ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ album in its entirety. The change tonight is that they now play the whole of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’, with the same running order as the album. Although it is thrilling to hear the tracks not played last time (glorious versions of ‘It Ain’t Easy’; ‘Star’; and ‘Hang Onto Yourself’), the randomness of the previous shows led to more excitement because you didn’t know what was coming next. Although saying that, you only need to look at the Setlist website to completely remove the element of surprise from any tour these days.
There is also full focus on lead singer Glenn Gregory now as there are no guest vocalists, apart from Visconti’s daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, who sings ‘Lady Stardust’ solo as well as contributing stunning backing vocals throughout, sax on some of the Ziggy numbers and Bowie’s signature 12 string guitar. The band are altogether (obviously) and again beautifully recreate the songs down to the minutest detail. In fact the only thing missing is the guiro on ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. Credit has to be given again to Glenn who manages to cover Bowie’s extensive vocal range and get his tongue around the more challenging lyrics with ease: “Pack a pack horse and rest up here on Black country rock”; “Spitting sentry, horned and tailed”; “It seems the peacefuls stopped the war left generals squashed and stifled”; “We can’t dance, we don’t talk much we just ball and play but then we move like tigers on Vaseline” etc.
The four encores that follow the two albums include two from the earlier tour (‘Changes’ and ‘Life On Mars?’) and two never played before, ‘Rebel Rebel’ which closes the show, and the first encore ‘Where Are We Now?’ from Bowie’s penultimate album ‘The Next Day’ (produced by Visconti). I have to say this is a very special moment in the show. The song is completely out of context, written over forty years after the rest of the songs played, and it sounds beautifully out of place. Due to its slow, quiet build up, it felt like the audience is being given a moment of quiet reflection to consider their relationship with Bowie, in the context of the music already played, his death and that moment in 2013 when out of nowhere, Bowie released this song with no promotion and no fanfare, with its simple black and white video that seemed to focus on the sad face of Bowie on the head of a still puppet. When the song came out and became newsworthy because of the secrecy around it, it was almost more alarming than when the song ‘Blackstar’ came out in November 2015 because the 10 year silence that preceded ‘The Next Day’ album was not repeated. I would also say this song was more surprising than when the news of Bowie’s death was announced, because like many fans, it almost seemed inevitable, what with the health scare during the Reality tour and his almost total withdrawal from public life. In fact because Bowie had not been in the news for so long, I thought the fact he was in the news in 2013 was that he had died, not because of a new single. These thoughts are flying around my head as a near perfect version of the song is played. Glenn Gregory’s vocal is arguably better than Bowie’s, as the frailty of the original recording is replaced with the vitality and pureness of the younger man; as if the old Bowie reminiscing about Berlin became the 30 year old Bowie walking along NÃ¼rnberger StraÃŸe again. As the song builds to the end section, the uplifting words remind me of why I have loved Bowie’s music for most of my life: “As long as there’s sun. As long as there’s rain. As long as there’s fire. As long as there’s me. As long as there’s you”. Yeah, that pretty much says it all.
What is so interesting about this song being played, is that it made me question why Holy Holy continues to concentrate on the 69-73 period of Bowie’s music, and particularly sell the tour on the back of playing two complete Bowie albums. Granted Woody and Tony are a massive part of The Man Who Sold the World, and Woody is the only Spider left, but the musical and band focus seems to have moved away from Visconti now, to the point that he barely speaks to the audience tonight, whereas previously he had shared equally with Glenn and Woody the introductions and insights during the show. Surely there is room now to release themselves from the confines of this brief period of Bowie’s career, even to the point of including more obscure tracks from the period. Imagine the next tour if it included the Arnold Corns’ songs, or Velvet Goldmine, or Conversation Piece, or the band’s namesake track, Holy Holy (it was after all, originally produced by Visconti)?
I guess this is my only criticism of the current tour, that the structure and running order are so rigid. The original concept of playing The Man Who Sold the World in full was a bold idea, and including Ziggy tracks is a definite crowd pleaser, but this band can and should do much, much more. Maybe it is time to look at which are the best songs to play, and what is the best order to play them at this point in time. Also I am unsure why Glenn felt the need to introduce songs when I am convinced there is not a soul in the audience that did not know that ‘Star’ follows ‘Lady Stardust’ for example. However, maybe this had more to do with trying to rouse the crowd and generate excitement because certainly for the first twenty minutes (until they played the song ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ in fact) almost all of the Bowie faithful remained seated. Thankfully, by midway into the Ziggy tracks everyone is up and many had moved to stand right by the stage; more importantly, no one sits down again and each song ends with rapturous applause.
As with the previous tour, Woody is invited to the microphone at end of the show to convey his heartfelt thanks for the support. He later chatted with fans and signed merchandise along with other members of the band. What a great guy.
After reflection then would I consider this the gig of the year? Well, possibly not, and this is more based on how much more the surprise element of the earlier tour meant, coming as it did at that time, from nowhere. For a first timer the show is glorious, and a poignant reminder of what made this music great. All I know is that by the end of the gig, I was hoarse from singing/shouting along to every song… my apologies to anyone standing by me who had hoped to hear Glenn.
Reviewer: Alan Neilson
Photographer: Stephanie Colledge