All photos by the author
When David Bowie died of cancer just two days after his 69th birthday and the strategic release of his 26th studio album Blackstar in early January, fans around the world mourned with emotional, life-celebrating tributes, covers, thinkpieces and other gestures in honour of his prolific output and the indelible, ubiquitous marks he left on the culture.
But perhaps the largest, most distinctly vulnerable of those public celebrations of life happened at a sold out show at Toronto’s Opera House, where just a day after long-time Bowie bassist/producer Tony Visconti heard the news and took to Facebook to confirm the circumstances surrounding Blackstar, about 900 fans gathered to see Visconti and Bowie's former drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey’s Holy Holy band knock out a fully-realized live performance of the 1970 album they worked on with the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Sold the World.
That gig was scheduled months earlier as part of an 11-date tour originally intended simply as a means to give audiences a chance to hear an underappreciated album in its entirety for the first time; Bowie didn’t have the audience to warrant such an undertaking when it was released. But in the wake of the icon’s death, for mourning fans and Holy Holy alike, it took on a bigger meaning. After restaging the gig for a second, consecutive night at the request of a promoter and completing that set of dates, Holy Holy since embarked on another six-week circuit, and last night they circled back to conclude that tour in Toronto, bringing this specific journey full-circle at the Phoenix.
Walking out to the bouncing futuristic pomp of a synthesizer and vocoder reworking of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (curious fanfare Bowie himself would have approved of, no doubt), like all the dates before, guitarist James Stevenson sent “The Width of a Circle”’s album-opening squeal cutting across the room, and the band leaned in to play the album from top to bottom. Fronted by Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory, who dug into the record’s glam metal sensibilities and spent the set prowling the stage rubbing elbows with the band—filled out by guitarist Paul Cuddeford, keyboardist Berenice Scott and Visconti’s daughter Jessica Lee Morgan on guitars and saxophone—it was all high kicks and showmanship, building a scene that most classic album performances bank on but few are able to execute.
That said, balancing the album set out with a second set and encore built on the early Bowie repertoire was a good move. The material drew from 1969’s self-titled release, 1971's Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, including a revival of the “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” / “All the Young Dudes” / “Oh! You Pretty Things” medley once performed in 1973. Saving these classics for last was smart.
Raw energy defined the first batch of songs, but after six weeks of touring this show, the group was getting worn out in the second hour, Gregory even botching a first shot at “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” before the encore. And that was okay, because the audience could pick up the slack on hits like “Starman” and “Life On Mars?” Besides, as Visconti indicated in the interim following the album set, this band is now less about celebrating a specific album and more about observing a career of greatness: “The only way to work through this grief, I think, is through the joy—the celebration—of David’s life.”
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.