Inside the Ultimate David Bowie Tribute Tour

How dozens of the late icon's backing musicians came together to pull off an ambitious live retrospective

Participants in the Celebrating David Bowie Tour discuss reviving their late employer's classic catalog onstage. Credit: Brian Rasic/WireImage/Getty

Midway through opening night of the Celebrating David Bowie tour at London's Brixton Academy on January 8th, guitarist Earl Slick, who played on everything from Diamond Dogs, in 1974, to The Next Day, in 2013, found himself so overcome with emotion he struggled to keep playing. He was backing Def Leppard's Joe Elliott on "All the Young Dudes" alongside a 20-piece gospel choir, Spiders From Mars keyboardist Mike Garson and the rest of the group assembled for the 2003-04 Reality tour, but images of Bowie, who would have turned 70 that day, kept flashing through the guitarist's head. "I was fighting it the whole time," says Slick. "I was like, 'Don't lose it, motherfucker. I know you've got dark glasses on, but don't lose it.'"

Slick managed to make it through the incredible three-hour show, which was repeated, with a slightly different lineup, in New York just two days later, on the one-year anniversary of Bowie's death. Each show of the tour (which continues in Los Angeles tonight and Wednesday, and visits Sydney on Sunday and Tokyo on February 2nd) features between 60 and 70 musicians who played with Bowie over the years, including guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Zack Alford and guitarist Mark Plati. It's the largest assemblage of Bowie musicians ever gathered in one place, a monumental task that took a year of round-the-clock work by Garson, actor Gary Oldman (a longtime close friend of Bowie) and Scrote (also known as Angelo Bundini), an L.A.-based musician who specializes in staging enormous shows. "I didn't see anybody else doing something on the level of the [1992] Freddie Mercury tribute show," says Scrote, "something extraordinarily large and international."

The Bowie estate doesn't sanction these kinds of events, but the organizers made sure there weren't any objections before they got to work. They chose early January not just because it marked Bowie's 70th birthday and the anniversary of his death, but because it tends to be a quiet period for touring musicians. Everyone gathered to in L.A. at Mates Rehearsal Studios four days before opening night in London. "You had to come prepared and hope for the best," says Belew as he rehearses "Life on Mars" on acoustic guitar backstage in New York. "There was no time to think about it too much. With this show, it's so huge in scope: You've got an orchestra, a choir, sometimes three keyboardists, two drummers, backup singers, a variety of guitar players and guests. It's a lot to account for."

Longtime Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler, who was roped into the show by his buddy Earl Slick two months before opening night, found himself occasionally frustrated with the process. "David Bowie didn't write the easiest fucking songs," he says. "Most people's songs you can kind of telegraph and you know where the changes are and the next lyric. That's not the case here. Before rehearsal, I asked what songs they were and I was sent a list, and then two or three days later the list would change, and then two or three days after that the list would change again and then two or three days after that the list changed again, so a lot of that prep went out the fucking window."

According to Scrote, there was a method to the madness. "It's intentionally set up to be fly-by-night so the energy is loose," he says. "Part of the beauty of having great artists and musicians on board is that they aren't sure what's happening, so they're really forced to bring it and be in the moment. In the end, the most important thing to me is the stage being electric and passionate. You can't get that from great players that have played with the legends of the world if its all planned and plotted just perfectly."

Along with longtime Bowie freak Joe Elliott, the London show featured Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon and La Roux singer Elly Jackson. In New York, Kate Pierson of the B-52's and Glee's Darren Criss performed. "You can tell that people love David so much," says Belew. "On 'Life on Mars,' I start it on this classical guitar, just a little intro. I thought it would just fly by and nothing much would come from it, but the entire audience sang it with me spontaneously. It's that kind of moment, where I just can't tell you how it feels. It's unbelievable." None of the guest singers at the New York show were superstars, which Scrote says was intentional. "Promoters kept telling me they needed big names to sell it," he says. "But anything that takes attention away from David Bowie dilutes the whole thing."

It worked. New York highlights included Living Colour's frenetic take on "I'm Afraid of Americans," Garson (who played more than 500 shows with Bowie beginning with the 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour) reprising his avant-garde "Aladdin Sane" piano solo and Belew resurrecting his Lodger guitar parts on "DJ" and "Boys Keep Swinging." "I felt him smiling when we were playing the other day," Garson says. "I could feel him getting a kick out of this, even the mistakes, like, 'I told you it wasn't so easy to get a show off. That's why we always rehearsed six weeks for tours, not three days!' But this is a celebration. We aren't trying to be David. How can we? Who can?"

The tour wraps February 2nd in Tokyo. It may well mark the final time Bowie's Reality band plays together, even though guitarist Gerry Leonard was only able to perform at the London show due to prior commitments. "There are some offers being thrown out our way," says Scrote. "For me personally, I was just looking to do these five, six cities and blow them out. I'm not a concert producer. Also, it would be difficult schedule-wise." Still, it was a minor miracle everyone was able to even come together for these shows. "I don't take any concert for granted," says Garson. "I hate to say it because it sounds selfish, but this has been cathartic. I never realized how good we were as a band. As soon as we started playing it was like being back in time 12 years. It didn't even take a day. And with these shows, you never know what's going to happen next."

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