Pianist Mike Garson knows a great deal about David Bowie, having played more than 1,000 shows with him stretching back to the early 1970s. So when he said at the beginning of “A Bowie Celebration” on Thursday night that these shows are “the best way to keep David’s music alive,” we’re inclined to follow him.
Hundreds of Bowie’s die-hard fans did just that for two and a half hours at the Paramount Theatre, singing along, dancing in the aisles and just generally rocking out as nearly a dozen players and singers did their best to honor the music of the legendary London rocker who’s now been gone for three years.
Austin was a special gig for this tour because one of the key participants is guitarist Charlie Sexton, a hometown hero who got to know Bowie while they were both living in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Trading hot guitar licks all night with Earl Slick, a mid-1970s-era Bowie bandmate who later played on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” album, Sexton helped to kick the evening’s energy up several notches.
He also took vocal leads on several key numbers. We’d seen him do that before, with the grade-school Barton Hills Choir on “Starman” and “Golden Years” at the 2017 Austin City Limits Music Festival. On this night, Sexton got a big hit up front with “Space Oddity,” and he was a natural to step out on "Let's Dance," which featured his long-gone Austin guitar pal Stevie Ray Vaughan on the recorded version. But he also pushed far further into Bowie’s identity with “Lazarus,” the dark but fascinating lead track on Bowie’s 2016 final album “Blackstar.”
That juxtaposition reflected the night as a whole, with obvious hits giving way to much deeper dives into Bowie’s catalog. Three distinctly different singers — longtime Rolling Stones backing vocalist Bernard Fowler, Living Color frontman Corey Glover and Guatemala native Gaby Moreno — helped the show cover the considerable range of Bowie’s career oeuvre.
Fowler commanded the stage for some of the best moments, most notably a stunning piano-and-vocals-only “Life on Mars” with Garson to open the encore (before the full cast returned for the obligatory “Heroes” closer). Glover brought sheer energy and excitement to “Suffragette City” and “Ashes to Ashes.” Moreno impressed as the best pure singer of the show, drawing a standing ovation for her performance on the powerful “Five Years” and teaming with Sexton on a rendition of “Time” (from 1973’s “Aladdin Sane”) that was equal parts high drama and outlandish whimsy.
Indeed, several of the night’s best moments came on songs that were performed as duets. The show touched on political territory by including Bowie’s pointed 1997 hit “I’m Afraid of Americans,” rendered with passion and purpose by Glover and Fowler together. They paired up again near the end of the show for the obvious duet “Under Pressure,” which originally teamed Bowie with Queen’s Freddie Mercury; it was one of the show’s peak moments until Glover and Sexton brought the house down at the end of the main set with “All the Young Dudes” — featuring a surprise guest on guitar in Charlie’s son, Marlon Sexton.
With performances that were often loose and jammy, and a less-than-full room of revelers who often stood to dance or applaud, the show felt at times like it might be better suited to a large club than a historic theater. For Bowie fans who got their Thin White Duke on for a night, though, it didn’t matter much. In the end, it was just as Garson had said at the start: They were happy simply to keep Bowie’s music alive.