January is named after the two-headed Roman god Janus, who looks to both the past and future and represents time and transition. The first month of the calendar year brought with it the anticipation of what’s to come, and for music fans the release of David Bowie’s long-awaited 25th studio album “Blackstar” was at the top of the list. No one could predict it would be his last and that he’d be dead two days later at the age of 69.
The shocking news was first thought to be a hoax. Bowie’s official Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts posted: “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer.” His son, Duncan Jones soon confirmed the grim announcement tweeting: “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true.”
Long before these social media sites were conceived of or launched, Bowie recognized the “unimaginable” societal possibilities for the Internet and predicted it would forever change communication and the relationship between artist and audience. That interconnection reached its apex Monday, January 11th. According to Billboard, 35 million Facebook users shared an unprecedented 100 million Bowie-related exchanges within 12 hours of the legendary rock star’s reported death. Twitter UK noted there were “More than 8 million Tweets about David Bowie in the past 24 hours as fans pay their respects.”
Annapolis artists and musicians quickly joined the online collective commiseration over the fallen “Starman” and took the startling news as a call to action. Local singer-songwriter and guitarist, Dan Haas, mentioned the Annapolis Musicians Fund for Musicians (AMFM) in an early morning tweet: “I think you know who the ‘In The Vane of’ artist should be . . . If it’s already decided, perhaps ch-ch-change it to David Bowie. RIP.” AMFM Vice President Sean O’Neill and Secretary P.J. Thomas fielded calls and messages from area musicians throughout the day who shared the sentiment. Twelve hours later, with the hashtag #MusicHeals, AMFM announced that on January 20th they would present a special David Bowie Tribute show at Rams Head On Stage. Graphic designer Laurie McDonald created the Aladdin Sane themed accompanying poster art.
“We sold out this event in record time,” said Thomas, who is also a musician. “Tickets went on sale Tuesday at noon and all 350 were gone by Friday.”
The excitement was palpable as audience members arrived at Rams Head that Wednesday night. Elvis Presley’s rare 1960 track “Black Star” – a song about a man’s attempt to deter death, largely thought to have influenced Bowie’s final record – accompanied a slideshow of 28 Bowie album covers prior to the show’s official start. The legendary pair shared birthdays and a respect for each other’s work. O’Neill, who co-emceed the show with Thomas, said that although he found the content’s parallel “eerie,” the song choice was an intentional and relevant prelude to the night’s eclectic showcase.
Lynda Wood, 52, of Centreville, drove 40 minutes across the Bay Bridge to “be here for Bowie” and immediately felt “surrounded by kindred spirits” before the concert even began. A fan since 1975 she lamented, “It’s unfathomable that he’s gone. It’s cliché, but his music was truly the soundtrack to my life. It feels like such a personal loss.”
The “In the Vane of . . .” concert series was launched in 2014 as the brainchild of O’Neill, who saw Bowie perform with the Nine Inch Nails in 1995 as part of the Outside Tour. The philanthropist and music enthusiast explained: “What we do is have local artists play a cover song of the featured band and then also play an original song in that band’s style.” Song choices were allocated on a first come basis. With only a week’s notice, the night’s 15 acts had little time to rehearse, let alone write new material. “So tonight was exclusively a tribute,” said O’Neill. And in an exceptional case of synchronicity, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio had declared that day, January 20th, as “David Bowie Day.”
Paying homage to one of the world’s foremost musical innovators was no small undertaking and Annapolis musicians did not disappoint. The fact that people are still talking about the show two weeks later is testament to the talent in Maryland’s historic capital city.
Kirk Moyer, 50, of Annapolis, first checked out Bowie’s music in the 70s and admired how the singer made the concept of being different relevant. “He was an icon whose lyrics transported you to another world. The tribute show took you back there,” he said. “The musicians truly outdid themselves (one of which was his wife, Carolyn Krohn Moyer). It was by far one of the best shows I’ve ever been to hands down and totally worthy of something you’d see on network TV.”
Twenty-four of the night’s 26 songs were Bowie-specific covers. The show spanned nearly three and a half hours and included a brief intermission. In between sets, O’Neill and Thomas regaled the full house with noteworthy Bowie-related anecdotes and facts, including the entirety of Madonna’s 1996 speech accepting Bowie’s Hall of Fame award.
“It’s all up to interpretation when it comes to David Bowie,” said Angie Miller, who sang and played guitar with her longtime musical partner Meg Murray on “Dollar Days” and “Boys Keep Swinging.”
For some acts, this meant stripping the original down to its essentials. Jimi Haha Davies chose to tackle Bowie’s 1970 classic “The Man Who Sold the World” – a song Nirvana famously introduced to a new generation of fans during a 1993 taping of MTV’s Unplugged. Even though Kurt Cobain stated, “That was a David Bowie song,” people to this day attribute it to them. Despite the repeated confusion, multiple sources reported Bowie thought it “a good straightforward rendition [that] sounded somehow very honest.” I’d argue he’d say the same about Davies’ “appropriate” approach, which relied solely on his voice and acoustic guitar. Davies slowed the song down and did the chorus in half time, bringing the audience “face to face” with its “visionary” subject matter in an unconventional way. He further reinvented the song and honored Bowie with the solemn new opening: “I am. I am not. (x2) I am not of this earth. (x4)” and closing: “With the man who unfolded his world. With a man who was bold in our world.”
Fate played a hand in some artists’ successful covers. “Heroes” was not the first choice of Aaron Yealdhall, aka “Skribe.” Even with the distinctive sound of Gingerwolf (Thom Beall)’s lap steel guitar, Skribe admitted being a little “nervous” attempting such a “huge and powerful ocean of a song as only a duo.” He didn’t even fully understand the deeper meaning behind the lyrics until he formerly sat down to learn the track. On the day of the show Marty Bouchard joined on drums and Eric Bouchard provided backing vocals and bass guitar. While the resulting stripped down version is faithful to Skribe’s overall sound, it was also very much a result of the four having not performed “Heroes” together until that night. “I consider myself to be very lucky to be part of such a thriving music scene.” Bowie once explained that “Heroes” was about “facing reality and standing up to it,” about achieving a sense of compassion” and “deriving some joy from the very simple pleasure of being alive,” according to author Nicholas Pegg. This song truly epitomized the night’s resolve.
Alternatively, performing Bowie’s music meant also adopting his fashion-forward signature style. “Ziggy Stardust” was an understandable favorite, with Doug Segree’s dyed red hair and extensions and Gina Cottey’s (Swamp Candy) one-shouldered silver sequined leotard. A blindfolded Ruben Dobbs (Swamp Candy) embodied “Lazarus” in a black suit and white shirt with distressed cuffs. The Suffragettes and other female singers bent gender roles by imitating the Thin White Duke. Pompeii Graffiti even donned matching Team Zissou uniforms saluting “The Life Aquatic” movie featuring Bowie’s songs. “It really felt like David Bowie was in the room,” proclaimed Chanssez, who with his band roused the seated audience with “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance.”
Monday, January 18th, two more rock industry pioneers died seemingly within hours of each other: Eagles’ guitarist Glenn Frey and Mott the Hoople’s drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin. Both were age 67 and founding members of their respective bands.
Haas, who was one of the earliest to publicly recommend the tribute show, covered two songs from his favorite Bowie album, Hunky Dory. In an effort to teach the crowd how Bowie originally wrote a number of his songs, he very briefly mimicked the master on a 12-string guitar. He closed his set with a spirited rendition of “All the Young Dudes,” a song written by Bowie for the Seventies glam rock group Mott the Hoople.
Thomas memorialized Glenn Frey by reading a portion of celebrity biographer Marc Eliot’s online social commentary piece and joined a cover rendition of the Eagles’ 1976 track “New Kid in Town.” Kajun Kelley and Eric Bouchard – without rehearsing – provided one final nod to Frey as they melded the outro guitar solo of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” with the Eagles’ “Hotel California” chord progression. The similar song keys and tempos lent itself to a seamless exchange, resulting in a resounding standing ovation.
Kelley, a self-described “HUGE” Bowie fan, admitted, “As a child, I played air guitar while listening to one of his 45’s in my bedroom and pretended I was playing in front of a sold out crowd.” The tribute show served as the catalyst for making his “childhood fantasy a reality,” he exclaimed. Kelley applauded his fellow acts, noting that some bands borrowed each other’s musicians. “It’s so great to see so much talent and true camaraderie among all the Annapolis musicians.” It couldn’t have been a success without the teamwork from the Rams Head staff, the sound crew, and the organizers. Kelley believed it was “a fitting tribute to Bowie’s legacy” and he – like all the other night’s players – was honored to be apart of it.
“Tomorrow isn’t promised,” said David Bowie to an intimate VH1 Storytellers audience at Manhattan Center in New York City August 23, 1999. “If we move one grain of sand, the earth is no longer exactly the same. “
“Human beings are always going to create, express, and observe, and thus, always move forward,” said Murray, founding and former AMFM board member and self-proclaimed music “lifer” who – like many – didn’t grasp the full extent of Bowie’s influence on her life until he was gone. “What’s important about events like these it that it brings people together in a transcendent way. I still really believe music can change the world.”
For those unable to score one of the coveted tribute show tickets, a video collaboration is in the works, so stay tuned for a release date.
100 percent of the proceeds raised from the David Bowie Tribute show directly supported the nonprofit AMFM. It is an organization focused on aiding professional Annapolis musicians with temporary financial relief when they are unable to perform. Additional funding goes to music education and scholarships. For more information, including volunteer opportunities visit: www.am-fm.org.
The next “In the Vane of . . . ” artist is Fleetwood Mac and is slated for March 14th.