Bowie by Proms review: progressiveness for progressiveness's sake

Six months and three weeks after David Bowie died, musicians still feel compelled to give their tributes, to sing those songs that shaped their lives. It was almost unsurprising when the Bowie prom was announced, promising Bowie with a twist – but who really wants Bowie with a twist? Bowie was the twist: the wayward Bromley boy who turned himself into a peculiar pop art project, perfectly.

Bowie generally treated reverence with contempt, too: he’d probably have shivered at the idea of a night like tonight. Before the gig, though, signs look promising. Berlin-based conductor André de Ridder is the evening’s curator and director, and has reworked music by other, younger wayward musicians like Deerhoof and Efterklang with his experimental collective, stargaze (who are centre stage tonight).

Bowie’s gig in front of the Reichstag was also one of de Ridder’s life-changing rock experiences, although that was the 1987 Glass Spider era, where bloated silliness outweighed Our Dave’s more superlative stuff.

But de Ridder has also been thinking about Bowie the contemporary musician, goes the programme, and the legacy of his last album, Blackstar. So when tonight starts with the band standing erect, and effects raging round the room that sound like mad birds or insects circling, hopes are high.

The next 20 minutes become a disappointing variation of a jukebox musical, however, with a fairly straight orchestral rendering of Warszawa from 1977’s Low, and 1976’s Station to Station sung faithfully by Neil Hannon and Amanda Palmer. Nothing new, unexpected or dynamic is brought to the mix. This continues for much of the night.

The first welcome shock is the inclusion of This Is Not America, Bowie’s 1985 film track with the Pat Metheny Group – although a new middle-eight rap by Elf Kid feels like progressiveness for progressiveness’s sake. Other artists push things further, and better.

Anna Calvi delivers a brilliantly bombastic Lady Grinning Soul, oozing Scott Walker-style drama – she’s the first singer tonight not to appear afraid of the material. The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan makes a rare and beautiful appearance, particularly on a stunningly vulnerable take on Blackstar’s I Can’t Give Everything Away. Laura Mvula’s vocals also give guts and edge to Girl Loves Me, while Palmer and Almond’s singalongs through Heroes and Starman feel far too obvious, like funeral karaoke. Most of the audience adore both, though, clapping wildly along.

Maybe this is the Bowie many fans crave. Two other interpreters feel much more in tune with the spirit the maker of Blackstar left behind as the concert passes midnight.

Counter-tenor Phillippe Jaroussky’s take on Always Crashing In The Same Car is sparse and challenging, reinventing the song entirely. Then John Cale arrives, wearing an overcoat, scarf and a skirt. In the hands of a Velvet Underground member who influenced Bowie in the first place, Valentine’s Day becomes a dark, electronic elegy, Sorrow a buzzing, gothic anthem, and Space Oddity an excursion into trip-hop, lifted high by the House Gospel Choir.

Bowie’s star burns the strongest here tonight, and the blackest, into the next day.

Powered by article was written by Jude Rogers, for The Guardian on Saturday 30th July 2016 01.14 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010