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Bowie band alumni celebrate his legacy with tour
Mike Garson’s final conversation with David Bowie was unsettling.
It took place during the fall of 2015, after the keyboardist — who recorded and performed with Bowie throughout his career and now leads the all-star Celebrating David Bowie tour — compiled a song-by-song commentary about all the tracks he played on Bowie’s albums for an updated version of his 2015 biography “Bowie’s Piano Man.”
“It was pretty profound,” Garson, 72, recalls by phone. “So I wrote David instantly and said, ‘I can’t believe this.’ And he called back within 10 seconds and said, ‘Mike, we did an amazing body of work together.’
“And the way he said it, I got off the phone and said to my wife, ‘I’m never gonna see him again or play with him again.’ It was the strangest feeling. I didn’t know he was sick with cancer. It was like, ‘Thank you for this work, and goodbye. ...’”
Bowie said farewell to the world not long after — on Jan. 10, 2016, dying of cancer at the age of 69, just after the release of his final album, “Blackstar.” Bowie had kept his illness secret and his passing came as a shock. Garson, like so many, is still grieving.
But he’s happy to do that as a communal experience via Celebrating David Bowie, which features other Bowie band alumni.
“I think it’s a collective healing,” Garson says. “I know sometimes I tear up, and I never know if it’s the audience or a composite feeling. It doesn’t feel like just my grief. It feels like we all lost him maybe earlier than we thought.
“But, you know. Life does what it does. The bottom line is that people didn’t get enough of him and they want to hear these songs. And since we’re the alumni we can make them real.”
Garson launched Celebrating Bowie last year and has taken the concept on the road in both North America and Europe. The current tour lineup features guitarists Earl Slick, who played with Bowie from 1974-76, on 1983’s Serious Moonlight Tour and during the early 2000s, Mark Plati from Bowie’s ’90s groups and Gerry Leonard, who led the band on the A Reality Tour during 2003-04, as well as mid-’80s bassist Carmine Rojas. The roster is rounded out with Rolling Stones backing vocalist Bernard Fowler and singer Gabby Moreno, while other guests are dropping in on various tour dates.
“We have great players who were all his music directors at different times,” Garson says. “The respect that his people have for David’s music and how well they own it and deliver their parts, and it’s kind of startling to me and fascinating and it shows the depth of David’s music and layers that he had to impart to his public.
“It’s so much deeper than a rock star. He was a real force of nature, a renaissance man, and we’re just trying to honor him and what we did.”
For Slick, meanwhile, Celebrating David Bowie — whose repertoire mixes big hits with deeper fare such as “Quicksand,” “Stay,” “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul” — fills a primal need.
“We’re doing it because we just miss doing this with DB and this gives us an opportunity to fill that void,” says Slick, 65. “And even though the boss isn’t here, it’s an opportunity to give the audience the closest thing we can, and they go home feeling good. We give, they get and we get and they give and it’s great. And we have fun, like we always did before.
“It’s just an opportunity to go out and do songs I miss playing and hang with my buddies.”
Garson does share a particularly harrowing tale from hanging with Bowie during the late ’70s. He says Bowie visited a psychic at that time who accurately forecasted his January 2016 passing.
“(The psychic) told him he was going to die exactly when he died,” Garson remembers. “There are a lot of psychics who are out of their minds and full of it, but this one was real. David knew it and didn’t doubt it for a second. He told me about (the reading) with certainty, accepted it and planned his future out based on that. He had 30, 40 years to plan out his life.”
There’s no formal plan for Celebrating David Bowie, however, other than to keep doing it. The current tour runs through March 19, and Garson says requests are coming from around the world for more shows with support from other Bowie alumni who are happy to jump on board as time permits.
“I don’t know what the shelf life is on this, or what’s going to happen next,” Slick notes. “I guess in its own way this is a tribute tour, but I like the fact there are bands out there of unknown guys that learn this music note for note and get the costumes and the clothes and everything and just is it. It keeps it alive, y’know?”
• If You Go: Celebrating David Bowie is Monday, Feb. 19 (doors open at 7 p.m.) at Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St. Tickets are $35-$65. Call 248-399-2980 or visit royaloakmusictheatre.com.
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