Sometimes it pays to sit in the cheap seats. From high in the Rausing Circle of the Royal Albert Hall, Prom 19 was an ultimately rousing celebration of David Bowie’s life and work. Under the direction of André de Ridder, Stargaze, their collective swelled by an eclectic line-up of guest singers, performers and composers, delivered arrangements of Bowie classics and the odd surprise track full of the wit, (re)invention and unpredictability associated with the artist himself.
Not every experiment worked well. Marc Almond did well to recover ground after a nervous and flat start to Life on Mars, in which he struggled to recall the lyrics, while John Cale, who played three tracks, injected energy of good and bad kinds, the latter in a lengthy, mournful version of Space Oddity that the House Gospel Choir could do little to resuscitate.
But the hits outweighed the misses, so it was momentarily surprising then, to return home on a high to read muted reviews on social media from those who had had to content themselves with watching the live TV broadcast. Until, that is, one saw a recording and was reminded that in the translation from big stage to small screen, a little magic is always lost. It can be hard to capture on television what makes the Albert Hall a special live venue.
Neil Hannon gave the evening a safe start, performing arguably the most passable Bowie impersonation of the night in duets of Station to Station, with Anna Palmer, and This is Not America, an unexpected inclusion that featured a rap from Elf Kid. But it was Anna Calvi, with a confident version of Lady Grinning Soul, the sole track from Aladdin Sane, who really set the precedent for the night.
In short, the female performers stole the show from that point. Laura Mvula nailed Fame and Girl Loves Me, the latter with Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, Palmer caught the passion and intoxication of Heroes, and Calvi and Palmer, sporting crowns of thorns, duetted on the most moving performance, an epic rendition of Blackstar. Indeed, the title track and the three others from Bowie’s final album (Girl Loves Me, I Can’t Give Everything Away and Valentine’s Day) were among the strongest pieces.
If the women hit all the right notes, the highest ones of the evening came from Philippe Jaroussky, the French countertenor, with a version of Always Crashing in the Same Car, from Low, specially composed by David Lang, the American. Before the concert, Jaroussky said: ‘We always say about Bowie that he has this very androgenic character but his voice is super low and super male. It’s not an androgenic voice; I have a much more androgenic voice than him, so it makes sense for me to sing between male and female.’
And that he did. Given perhaps the most sparse arrangement of the night, Jaroussky again made what he does look utterly effortless. In the same way that Bowie’s remarkable modulation gave his voice its distinction, so Jaroussky guarantees purity, clarity and sincerity. De Ridder had introduced the Frenchman by suggesting that his classical background might make him stand out. He was right.
Cale, dressed in a skirt (it was a muggy night in London) performed a vibrant Sorrow and that sorrowful Space Oddity then, after an ensemble rendition of After All, Stargaze brought the curtain down with an instrumental version of Let’s Dance, for which the crowd supplied the vocals. It was a fitting end; the Berlin-based collective had been the most important players, as Cale had generously acknowledged, and for all the star voices, the crowd, as always at live concerts, had been the most important guests.
Prom 19: David Bowie tribute
Friday, 29th July, Royal Albert Hall
1 Warszawa (arranged by Stargaze)
2 Station to Station (Amanda Palmer, Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien; arranged by Stargaze)
3 The Man Who Sold the World (Conor O’Brien; arranged by Josephine Stephenson)
4 This is Not America (Neil Hannon featuring Elf Kid; arranged by Michel van der Aa)
5 Life on Mars (Marc Almond; arranged by Anna Meredith)
6 Lady Grinning Soul (Anna Calvi and Jherek Bischoff; arranged by Jherek Bischoff)
7 Ashes to Ashes (Paul Buchanan; arranged by Jherek Bischoff)
8 Fame (Laura Mvula; arranged by Greg Saunier)
9 Let’s Dance (instrumental version arranged by Greg Saunier)
10 Girl Loves Me (Laura Mvula and Paul Buchanan; arranged by André de Ridder)
11 I Can’t Give Everything Away (Paul Buchanan; arranged by Josephine Stephenson)
12 Blackstar (Anna Calvi, Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff; arranged by Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff)
13 Heroes (Amanda Palmer; arranged by Jherek Bischoff)
14 Always Crashing in the Same Car (Philippe Jaroussky; arranged by David Lang)
15 Starman (Marc Almond; arranged by Anna Meredith)
16 Rebel Rebel (instrumental version arranged by Greg Saunier)
17 Valentine’s Day (performed and arranged by John Cale)
18 Sorrow (John Cale and Anna Calvi; arranged by John Cale)
19 Life on Mars (John Cale and House Gospel Choir; arranged by John Cale)
20 After All (Conor O’Brien, Philippe Jaroussky, Marc Almond, Amanda Palmer and House Gospel Choir; arranged by Josephine Stephenson)
21 Let’s Dance reprise (instrumental version arranged by Stargaze)
Image credit: screengrab from the BBC live broadcast, no infringement of copyright is intended