Fate turned the first David Bowie tribute show by the Band That Fell to Earth into something deeper and more emotional than just a showcase of Bowie’s music and career.
On Jan. 8, 2016 — his 69th birthday and weeks before the tribute at the Uptown Theater — Bowie released “Blackstar,” his 25th studio album. Two days later, Bowie died after an 18-month battle with cancer.
His death aroused gales of profound grief worldwide and, locally, stirred even more interest in the tribute, which was moved from Knuckleheads to the larger Uptown to accommodate a crowd that would exceed 800.
“When we started working on this project a year ago, we obviously had no idea he was going to leave us,” said Steve Tulipana, one of the band’s vocalists. “When he did, it was really heavy. We almost decided not to do it. But we’d put so much work into it, we decided we should.
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“He’s one of the biggest music influences in my life. So it kind of felt like losing a family member — someone who’s been connected to you for almost your entire life. So we dug even deeper into his art, which feels even more inspiring now.”
This year’s tribute will be performed Saturday night at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd., and many of the musicians who participated will return for the event. Michelle Bacon, the band’s leader and the event’s organizer, said this year’s show will take a slightly different tack.
“Last year, Bowie’s passing brought out a wide range of people who were eager to hear his songs performed live,” she said. “This year’s show will be attended mostly by long-time fans, so we’ll be playing a few of the deeper cuts.”
Last year’s show also had heavy effects on those in the band, many of them long-time Bowie fans who immersed themselves in his music. That includes Bacon, the band’s bassist, who was 18 when she was introduced to Bowie through the “Ziggy Stardust” album.
“I adored Bowie’s ability to design an entire universe through his music, but even more admired his audacity to destroy those constructs with each phase of his career,” she said.
“As I moved on to his other material, I realized he was unlike any other artist I had been exposed to. He never fell into conventions; he was constantly taking chances for the sake of creating art.”
Unpacking and closely examining that material and all its components was revealing.
“As band leader, I also felt responsible for delving into the songs and familiarizing myself with each part,” she said. “That really helped me to understand how deliberate and effective a part can be, whether it was a melodic bass line or a weird vocal phrase or a harmonic embellishment. It gave me a better understanding of his language as an artist and of my purpose as an instrumentalist and part of an ensemble.”
Kyle Dahlquist, who plays keyboards and horns in the tribute band, said the experience further illuminated the depths of Bowie’s creative genius.
“When we started digging into his catalog and figuring out what would make the set list, I was floored by the breadth of his recordings,” he said. “I hadn’t fully appreciated what a prolific songwriter he had been and that he was absolutely an artist. He shifted through so many eras: singer/songwriter, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, Tin Machine. And while every one was a stylistic leap, his voice stayed consistent.”
That voice and that catalog ended with the release of “Blackstar,” Bowie’s farewell, his bold, emotional perspective on mortality and an album that has been heralded as one of the best of 2016. It’s a record that can be hard to digest, but one that deepens Bowie’s legend.
“At the moment, my favorite (Bowie) album is ‘Blackstar’ and my favorite song is ‘Lazarus,’ ” said Alex Alexander, guitarist for the Band That Fell to Earth. “I took a break from listening to ‘Blackstar’ most of 2016 because it has such a heavy and emotional vibe, but lately I’ve embraced its brilliance.
“Bowie’s catalog of music is beloved, but I think his ability to make great music well into his 60s is underappreciated. Both ‘Blackstar’ and ‘The Next Day’ are remarkable albums.”
Dahlquist said the release and revelations of “Blackstar” took his breath away.
“I think that it can’t be appreciated enough how he looked his impending death directly in the eye and, while his body was failing, made an incredible piece of art about it,” he said. “He just went to the studio and quietly did his work knowing that he’d never see its effect.”
Last year’s show was a fundraiser for the Midwest Music Foundation. This year’s show will be a benefit for the AIDS Service Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
“Bowie was committed to HIV/AIDS awareness for years,” Bacon said, “and we wanted to give to a cause that was important to him.”
In addition to Bacon, Tulipana, Dahlquist and Alexander, the core band includes Nathan Corsi on guitar and Stephanie Williams on drums. Auxiliary members include backing vocalists Camry Ivory and Havilah Bruders, saxophonist Rich Wheeler, violinist Betse Ellis, cellist Christine Broxterman and percussionist Matt Ronan. Several other guests will also perform.
Tulipana said the show will open with a piece of recorded music, a remix by a “very famous” friend and collaborator of Bowie’s, music that has not yet been released. That will be one of what Bacon said will be “special, exclusive surprises” for Bowie fans.
Saturday’s show will come three days before the first anniversary of Bowie’s death and will reinforce what everyone involved is feeling: His is a life that deserves to be remembered and celebrated, regularly.
“Through the end, he consistently challenged his audience in the best way, pushing boundaries with the intent of pulling everyone behind him in his wake,” Dahlquist said. “He was a cultural ice-breaker.”
The Band That Fell to Earth: A Tribute to David Bowie begins at 9 p.m. Saturday at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd. Admission to the 18-and-older show is $15. A VIP package is also available for $50. The show is a benefit for the AIDS Service Foundation of Greater Kansas City.