Absolute non-beginners – David Bowie’s heroes keep his legacy alive

All-star alumni band led by longtime pianist Mike Garson coming to Israel for two shows

David Bowie (photo credit: REUTERS)
David Bowie
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a child in Brooklyn, Mike Garson showed an aptitude in both Hebrew and piano. In fact, his high school Hebrew teacher was so impressed that he recommended Garson for a scholarship to study in Israel, where he spent a few months in 1960.
If his piano skills hadn’t proved to be even sharper than his Hebrew, Garson might have stayed in Israel instead of returning to New York and eventually becoming David Bowie’s longest-standing accompanist.
“My connection to Israel is pretty strong. I’ve been back to Israel six or seven times and I love it there,” said the 74-year-old Garson, who performed on 20 Bowie albums and appeared with him in over 1,000 concerts throughout the British legend’s illustrious pop career.
“I was here in 1996 with David when he played at the park in Tel Aviv [Hayarkon] – that was a great show I remember – and I also played in Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem in 1980 with Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Most recently, after David died, Aviv Geffen invited me to Israel to do a Bowie tribute on Aviv’s 25th anniversary of his career. He’s a big Bowie fan.”
Garson will be making the trip back here next month as the band leader for A Bowie Celebration-The David Bowie Alumni Tour, a musical extravaganza that has been performing over the last four years, featuring accomplished players who have accompanied Bowie at various stages in his diverse career. Shows will take place on January 30 at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv as part of the Third Winter Festival and January 31 at the Haifa Auditorium.
Joining Garson in Israel will be an array of virtuoso heavyweights: guitarist Gerry Leonard, who was Bowie’s band leader on his 2003 Reality World Tour and played on albums including: Heathen and Reality and The Next Day; bassist Carmine Rojas, who played on the ‘80s hits “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” and was part of Bowie’s 1983 Serious Moonlight and 1987 Glass Spider tours; drummer Alan Childs was Bowie’s Glass Spiders drummer; Charlie Sexton, who played guitar on Bowie’s 1987 Never Let Me Down album and has performed many years with Bob Dylan; and guitarist Kevin Armstrong, who played on Absolute Beginners and was band leader for Bowie’s 1985 Live Aid performance.
“It’s a great honor to join Mike Garson and my Bowie brothers to help bring David Bowie’s amazing legacy to new audiences,” said Armstrong in a statement, echoing what Garson calls Bowie’s past collaborators’ desire to keep his music alive.
“This is my fourth year of putting together the band, and each year the band has been different. Everyone seems to love his music,” Garson told The Jerusalem Post. “The band has changed over the years depending on musicians’ availability, but the fact that all of them played with him at some point gives us real credibility as something more than just a tribute band.”
“It’s kind of exciting, but the music sounds like I remembered, although I played with 13 different Bowie bands, so it always sounded kind of different.”
Garson played pivotal roles on some of Bowie’s most enduring albums, including Aladdin Sane and Young Americans. But surprisingly enough, when he was approached to join Bowie in 1972 on an American tour by the Ziggy Stardust-era Spiders from Mars, he had never heard of the British chameleon-like performer.
“I was giving a piano lesson in Brooklyn and got a call from his manager, and I had no idea who he was,” said Garson, who had evidently caught Bowie’s attention with his playing on two albums in the early ‘70s with the jazz/rock band Brethren.
“I THINK David liked that ‘this guy doesn’t know me and he has no agenda.’ I went down and auditioned for Mick Ronson, the great guitarist who was his bandleader. He put the music to ‘Changes’ in front of me, and I played for about eight seconds and he said, ‘You have the gig.’
“I didn’t understand how that could be, and Mick just said, ‘I’m also a piano player, and I just know.’ Ironically, ‘Changes’ was the first song we played together and at the last show Bowie ever did in 2006, he, Alicia Keys and I performed ‘Changes.’ A complete circle.”
Garson was a mainstay of Bowie’s 1970s bands, even as the singer was replacing musicians left and right.
“Over the first two years I was with him, he fired five band and I was the only one he kept – not because of friendship but because I had studied so many different kinds of music,” said Garson.
“He was always searching, so I could play gospel, or avant-garde or straight ballads. Bowie was changing a lot in those years.”
When the singer took a break to act in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, Garson went back to performing jazz, working with the likes of Stan Getz, and on his own.
“Then, one day in the early ‘90s, 18 years after we had last played together, I got a call and the voice said ‘Hi Mike, it’s David,’ like we had just spoken yesterday.”
Garson rejoined Bowie for his 1995 album Outside and remained with him in the studio through 2003’s Reality, and onstage until Bowie stopped touring in 2006.
“We did 113 shows and had 13 to go, and David had a heart attack onstage in Germany,” said Garson. “We got him to a hospital and saved his life, but we never finished that tour.”
After Bowie died of cancer in 2016, Garson said he toyed with performing “some quiet shows – Mike Garson plays Bowie – which I did a little of. But because I was the longest-standing band member, it sort of fell in my lap to do something bigger.”
Previous incarnations of the alumni band have also included some celebrity fans, like actor Gary Oldham and actress Evan Rachel Wood, who sang with the band and wrote: “It’s not a cover band. It’s the actual band. It’s as close as you’re going to get to Bowie.”
Handling the vocals in the band’s current incarnation are guitarist Sexton, and Sass Jordan, an accomplished Canadian singer who has performed with countless luminaries.
According to Garson, one of the biggest challenges of taking the show out on the road is deciding what songs from Bowie’s vast catalogue to perform.
“There are certain hits we have to do, and there’s a reason they’re hits – they’re great songs. I’m talking about ‘Let’s Dance,’ ‘Life on Mars,’ ‘Changes,’ ‘Suffragette City.’ But I also like to go for the deeper cuts, like ‘Quicksand’ [from 1971’s Hunky Dory] and ‘Lazarus’ [from the 2105 album of the same name.]
“We have so many potential songs, I’ll sometimes surprise the band in our sound check. It keeps things fresh. Out of a pool of maybe 175 songs, we’ll probably do 70 over the course of a tour.”
“People still love David. I meet them and they tell me their Bowie stories, and in the audience every night everyone sings along to every song. His music needs to be kept alive.”
Garson and the rest of the Bowie alumni band are out there proving they’re up to the task.