Carnegie Hall’s all-star tribute to David Bowie was nearly over when Chewbacca walked onto the stage and hoisted Wayne Coyne onto his sturdy shoulders. The Flaming Lips frontman was wearing what could best be described as a long, flowing white robe that began to light up as he sang the opening notes to “Life on Mars.” It’s a song about a lonely girl with “mousy hair” who finds escape in the movies, so incorporating a Star Wars character into the act made plenty of sense, especially for a group that has been using aliens as backup dancers for years. This particular rendition of “Life on Mars” had a hard time matching the amazing promise of that intro and was a bit flat in places, but there was so much love for Bowie’s music in the room that nobody really seemed to care.
The evening was the brainchild of New York concert promoter Michael Dorf, who has honored the music of icons like Bob Dylan, Prince and Neil Young at spring Carnegie Hall shows for the past 12 years, donating the proceeds to music education. Thursday’s show went on sale just hours after news of David Bowie’s death hit on January 11th, causing tickets to vanish within seconds. The devastating news inspired a flood of big names to join the bill, including Michael Stipe, Pixies, Debbie Harry and Cat Power. Even after a second show was scheduled at Radio City Music Hall for April 1st, tickets began selling on the secondary market for astronomical prices.
Bad vibes were brewing before the show even began, with the Roots pulling out at the last minute after getting into some sort of tussle over the sharing of equipment. “We have patience,” Questlove wrote on Instagram. “But we do NOT have patience for the #Bitchassness. Enjoy your precious equipment.” Yikes. Here’s a tip: When Questlove kindly asks to borrow your drum kit to play at a charity show, you say OK. The Roots’ exit was so last-minute that the set list handed out to the press still had them down for a seven-minute medley of “Aladdin Sane” and “Fame” between 9:27 and 9:34 pm. (Patti Smith also had to bail because she blew out her voice.)
But there were more than enough amazing musicians present to make up for the absence of Smith and the Roots, and longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti was on hand to lead the house band, which included Spiders From Mars drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. Cyndi Lauper opened the show by belting out “Suffragette City” wearing a bright pink wig. She brought a lot of bombast and energy to the 1972 tune, even if she didn’t quite have all the lyrics down. Laurie Anderson also struggled with the words to “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” though her arrangement on the violin was quite novel.