We were late…

Not that we didn’t plan to arrive on time, in fact, we left early in order to scope out the situation.  I hadn’t been to Meadowbrook since I was a little kid, when my family saw the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform Wagner’s infamous Die Walküre, replete with a laser light show (it was the mid-1980s, when such exhibitions were in vogue).

The concert was billed with a 7:30 start time, which, to me, meant the performance would start at around 8:00.  At least, that’s how it works at seemingly every other gig I’ve attended in the last decade or more.

So we arrived at around 6:45, saw that there was plenty of parking available, and decided to go grab a quick dinner before the show.  We dined at a restaurant right around the corner, and left to head back at around 7:20.

Big mistake!

Vehicles were lined up for over a mile in each direction to get to the venue, because the road leading to Meadowbrook is only one lane wide.  It took us until after 8:00 to park, and once we did, it cost $15, even on the outskirts of the lot.

Upon exiting the car, it was immediately apparent that my queen and I were overdressed for the occasion, in our respective dress and suit.  But we got a lot of compliments, especially her, since she styled her makeup in true Ziggy Stardust fashion.  Most people looked as though they came directly from their family’s backyard BBQ.

After hoofing it a half mile up a dirt road, we got to the will call window, whereupon I showed my ID and promptly received the press passes I was promised by Ben Breuninger, Public Relations Coordinator for the DSO.

[I had contacted the DSO back in March when the concert was first announced to inquire about press passes, since the release included the information to do so.  My blog reaches hundreds of people, and I don’t see many under the age of 50 reviewing classical concerts.  So I figured, what the heck, why not??  The worst thing that could happen is they say no.  Not only were they happy to accommodate my request, Ben got on the phone with me the day after the show to answer some of my questions about the event.  You don’t ask, you don’t get!]

Tickets in hand, we waited in line for drinks — $13.50 each for tiny vodka sodas?? — and faintly heard what I could only assume at the time was a cover band warming the crowd up for the big show with “China Girl”, “Starman”, and “Heroes”.

We wouldn’t learn, until a woman sitting near us, whom the conductor randomly picked to come on stage and lead the band through “Golden Years”, showed me the set list she was given, that we had actually arrived at the end of the first half of the show.  Turns out, we got to our seats during intermission.

I was giddy when I saw where we would be sitting: in the pavilion, row X, seats 101 and 102, on the aisle, the third point of an equilateral triangle with the speakers on each side of the stage.  Perfect listening seats, and a great view!

The band and orchestra took their places, tuned, and the vocalist came out to a warm applause from the audience.  After riling up the crowd, the ensemble launched into “Modern Love”, and I instantly knew we were in for an interesting night…

Because I could hardly hear the strings!  I had to use earplugs in order to reduce the reverberations so I could make out what the strings were actually doing.

Mind you, I’m not a lifelong Bowie fan, still I hold a huge respect for him as an artist and musician.  He always pushed the limits of popular music throughout his career, challenged convention, championed originality.

It wasn’t until just before his death that I began to dive into his work, catalyzed by the production of his last album, Blackstar.

Blackstar is David Bowie’s final truth, told to the world.  The album is deep, with lyrics addressing topics ranging from his own death (“Lazarus”) to the current culture of mindless popular music (“Girl Loves Me”) to even ISIS and religious fundamentalism (“Blackstar”).  His confidants have gone on record to say that Bowie essentially willed himself to live long enough to complete the album, to see it through to the very end.  He died two days after Blackstar‘s release.

But even though Blackstar became Bowie’s first album in his 50-year recording career to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 in the US, it would not be represented in the program.  Neither would anything he created in the last three decades.

I spoke with the show’s arranger and conductor, Brent Havens, a few days after the gig.  He said he loved the title cut from Blackstar, but being over ten minutes in length, it would have comprised nearly a third of the entire program.

Fair point, to be sure…but why not “Lazarus”, the lead single from Blackstar?  The first lyric in the song — “Look up here, I’m in heaven…” — transports you right next to Bowie in Valhalla.

And “Lazarus” leaves an arranger ample room for orchestral accompaniment.  When the vocalist stated to the audience (paraphrased) “I listened to a lot of David Bowie’s music right after he died, and when I got to this song I started crying,” my queen was getting her tissues out because she thought it was going to be “Lazarus”.  It gets her every time.

But it turned out to be “Space Oddity”.

In fact, the most recent work in the 18-song program was “Blue Jean” from the 1984 album Tonight, which, according to numerous critics, is one of the three worst albums in Bowie’s oeuvre.  And he had released nine studio albums since, two to critical acclaim.

Granted, Havens was already in the process of arranging and putting together The Music of David Bowie prior to the icon’s death in early January.  When I asked why he chose not to include anything Bowie released in the past 30 years, Havens stated he was aiming for “songs most people would know”, songs from albums that “sold the most”, and frankly, songs from the era of Bowie that Havens personally “grew up with.”

Which sparks another observation: most of the folks seated in the pavilion had full heads of gray hair.  My queen and I were members of the minority, that is, people under the age of 50. Understandable, considering David Bowie released his first album in 1967.

That’s not to say we stuck out like sore thumbs (beyond our outfits, of course), there were many people our age and younger in attendance, and several thirty-something parents with their kids.  But they were mostly on the lawn, the “cheap” seats, which went for $20 apiece or $60 for a four-pack.

Our tickets had a face value of $55 each, tickets for seats up front went for $75.

My first introduction to Bowie was “The Man Who Sold the World”, and that’s only because Nirvana covered it when they performed on MTV’s Unplugged back in the day.  I wonder how many others in attendance had the same experience.

That thought led me to ask Breuninger what the DSO is doing to increase visibility among Millennials.  He told me that the DSO aims to be “the most accessible orchestra on the planet”: they stream concerts online, offer student packages with ticket discounts, have an education wing dedicated to connecting with young people, hold family concerts, and champion diversity in the programming.

Maybe I don’t attend many concerts (I don’t).  Maybe I don’t have a great deal of disposable income (I certainly don’t).  And maybe being a performing musician for nearly three decades impairs my judgment of what is truly entertaining (up for debate, I suppose).

But the night was billed as “a one-night-only symphonic odyssey that explores the incredible range of David Bowie’s musical genius,” according to the press release, and it came off as a brilliant cover band playing a spot-on Bowie-classics revue, who just happened to have an orchestra on stage with them for effect.  I just didn’t feel the impact I expected.

“My concept for The Music of David Bowie was to take the music as close to the originals as we could and then add some colors to enhance what Bowie had done…The band is reproducing what Bowie did on the albums, verbatim,” said Havens in the aforementioned press release.

And Havens lived up to that concept — the band nailed it, the vocalist did a fantastic job.

“The wonderful thing with an orchestra is that you have an entire palette to call upon…having an orchestra behind the band gives the music a richness, a whole different feel, a whole different sense of power.”

That’s exactly what was missing from the show…POWER!  It felt more like a concert in the park, especially since the sun didn’t set until just before the show had ended, rendering the would-be light show lackluster.

People surely knew the songs, though “Ashes to Ashes” received a tepid response.  They sang along heartily with “Space Oddity”, and got funky during “Young Americans”, which featured a trumpet solo instead of saxophone (I could hear the horns all night!), everyone moved their bodies to “Let’s Dance”, of course.

During the show’s closer, “Life on Mars?”, it seemed as though the orchestra finally came to life — or maybe the sound guy just cranked them up for a big finale.  But as my queen flicked her Bic and swayed it in the air, we couldn’t help but notice we were in the minority again: everyone else was holding up their cell phones.  Traditions change with the times, too.

Havens and I agree that “Life on Mars?” was the perfect final number for the show.  Though the song was originally released over four decades ago, the poignant lyrics are still relevant to our current culture — “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy…”.  Hopefully people left thinking.

Full disclosure, my queen is a diehard Bowie fan, with a tattoo of Blackstar‘s album cover on the back of her neck, and I love to make her happy.  If Ben wasn’t so kind and benevolent, I probably would have bought tickets anyway.

But we wouldn’t have sat in the pavilion, not at $55 a ticket, no sir.  In a strained economy the entertainment budget is generally the first to get slashed.  Between dinner, parking, drinks, and tickets and service fees, it would have been more than my monthly car payment. And that’s a shame, because if we weren’t sitting where we did, the show would have been even less powerful.

Havens told me on the phone that two speaker cabinets, one on each side of the stage, had blown earlier in the day, and they weren’t able to be fixed in time for the show.  Perhaps that’s why I was having a hard time feeling the impact I had expected.

I was really hoping for more arrangement liberties to be taken with the music, to push it further.  Moreover, Bowie was not just a recording artist, he knew the power of visuals and imagery.  A dazzling light show is an integral part of any Bowie production, I believe.  Still have those lasers in a closet somewhere?  Dust them off!

Because just playing the songs faithfully isn’t enough anymore.  There has to be an experience!

P.S.  My queen enjoyed herself, we were very happy we went, grateful to Ben and the DSO for the tickets.  And ultimately, we found an upside to being one of the last to arrive…we were one of the first cars to get out of the parking lot!

DSO Does Bowie Set List

Rebel Rebel
Ziggy Stardust
Changes
Blue Jean
Suffragette City
Under Pressure
China Girl
Starman
Heroes
(Intermission)
Modern Love
Fashion
Space Oddity
Young Americans
Ashes to Ashes
Golden Years
Let’s Dance
Fame
Life on Mars?

John Kay
blog@therealjohnkay.com
TheRealJohnKay.com

Music: http://johnkay.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @therealjohnkay
InstaGram: @therealjohnkay
Facebook: /therealjohnkay

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