Michael Stipe recently took part in a pair of David Bowie tribute concerts – held March 31st and April 1st at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, respectively – where he performed a haunting version of the late musician’s “Ashes to Ashes.” In a heartfelt note issued Friday on R.E.M.’s website, Stipe reflected on the shows, along with his dramatic Tonight Show take on Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” writing, “In one week I got to interpret and perform two of my top 20 favorite songs of all time.”
“To play Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall is, in itself, a huge honor – they are incredible venues each with incredible histories,” Stipe wrote. “For Carnegie in particular, I wanted the room to be the main instrument. Its reverberation and energy is profoundly weighted and airy all at once – it can transform music into something holy – so that informed our arrangement choices for ‘Ashes to Ashes.’ Radio City Music Hall is a way different room, but equally resonant. It was two stunning evenings, hearing songs that I grew up with, all contributors honoring the output of such an astonishing songwriter.”
As Pitchfork reports, full footage of the Radio City performance has emerged online. The clip features a duet between Stipe and Karen Elson, backed by Paul Cantelton on piano. Stipe adopts a near-whisper over elegiac chords, adding interpretive hand movements. Elson harmonizes on the chorus, and the singers trade vocals at the climax.
“What are we here for? It’s a celebration, I believe,” Stipe says to open the performance. “It’s a gathering of a family, of a tribe, of a people all brought together by a common thing. That common thing is something that we all know. We all recognize when we hear it, when we see it, when we feel it. And there’s not many people who can embody that better than Mr. David Bowie. And that is why we’re here tonight.”