“Celebrating David Bowie” at Anaheim’s City National Grove

So a few weeks before the election, me and Donna headed down the street to the Grove to watch the tribute band “Celebrating David Bowie” – we’d decided a few months earlier it’d be worth the few hundred bucks for the tickets, and we’re glad we did. WAIT – a few hundred bucks to see a fucking TRIBUTE BAND? Well, when the tributaries are stars like Adrian Belew and Todd Rundgren (and, we’d later learn, Fishbone’s Angelo Moore and Spacehog’s Royston Langdon) and the artist being celebrated is BOWIE – Donna’s favorite and one of mine – then YES!

But first, a word about “SCROTE.” (Pictured at left.) Overshadowed all night by the four charismatic faux-Bowies was this rhythm guitarist at the left of the stage, somewhat resembling that band leader David Letterman used. The others often mentioned him respectfully, and he introduced some of the songs. Once he even boasted, “I’m the RINGLEADER.”

Well it turns out this guy, an LA musician who really calls himself “Scrote,” is the musical director of Celebrating David Bowie. It was all his idea. He wrote the arrangements. And some of them actually sounded better than Bowie’s originals. So, PROPS TO SCROTE!

I guess I mostly came to see Adrian Belew – a “musicians’ musician” that many of my musician friends had long admired. (Hi George!) Throughout the years he had added his blistering, imaginative guitar playing and chameleon-like vocals to Frank Zappa in the late 70’s until Bowie came along heard him and stole him (Frank could only respond “Fuck you Captain Tom”), then later the Talking Heads, Nine-Inch Nails, and most notably 80’s-era King Crimson. You might wanna check out:

But you GOTTA see Adrian’s singing and guitar playing in Zappa’s “City of Tiny Lites!” (Yeah, this is a digression from the 2022 Anaheim Bowie concert, but we’ll get back there….)

Anyway, when we got in, a few minutes late (the Grove wouldn’t let Donna bring in her purse or bottle of water) Adrian was in the middle of singing “Sound and Vision” from my favorite Bowie album Low. “Blue, blue, electric blue, that’s the color of my room…” As you saw above, Adrian used to look like a less-freaky Jordan Brandman or Jim Carrey; now at 73 he looks like Congressman Furlong from Veep. , or maybe Mr. Green Jeans if you can remember Captain Kangaroo. Still everyone looked forward to each of his volcanic guitar solos, and he has no problem sounding exactly like Bowie, getting to sing “Starman,” “Sound and Vision,” and “Fame,” among others:

So as Donna and I found our seats while Adrian sang “Sound and Vision,” we asked, “Where’s Todd?” Donna has been a big Rundgren fan since his 1973 hit “Hello it’s Me” (which, seems to me, is the song of a guy breaking up with a girl but hoping he can still sleep with her “if you think we should” – what a guy!) In fact that’s the only song I can think of that he did, although I understand he was a very talented and prolific pop star.

But we didn’t have to wait long for “Bearsville’s Boy Wonder,” who came prancing out in a bright yellow suit to sing the second song, “Young Americans.” We laughed and laughed even though it was great; it was just so funny to see this shaggy-headed 74-year old in THAT SUIT singing that song.

It was the most we laughed until later, when Todd played the astronaut Major Tom in “Space Oddity.” But Todd sang fine, and he was the biggest star on stage, so he got to sing all the beloved classics: “Changes,” “Life on Mars,” “Heroes,” “All the Young Dudes” most of which he performed while celebrating his right to Bare Arms.

But, as we were to learn, Adrian and Todd were not the only Faux-Bowies on hand. There were two others, one of ’em being one Royston Langdon originally from Spacehog – an English glam-rock band that was big in the 90’s. Some people evidently remember their 1995 hit “In the Meantime.

On the night in question, 2022-era Royston, now 60, short and chunky, dressed in a white suit and funny white-rimmed glasses, looking like Elton John to me (and Kid Rock to Donna) mostly jammed on the keyboards at stage right. But when it was his turn to sing a song, he’d sling an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and strut across the stage – thus he sang “Ziggy” (played guitar), “Rock & Roll Suicide,The Man Who Sold the World,” and other tuneful fables of doomed special people.

Also, Royston sang “I’m Afraid of Americans.” And in the chorus of “Let’s Dance,” – “If you say run, I’ll run with you….” – he lay on the stage and held audience members’ hands, which is exactly how that should be done.

But, Angelo Moore.

But everything went to a new level when this hyperkinetic, sexually ambiguous, bald black guy flew onto the stage, wearing an afrocentric lab coat, suspenders, and BLACKFACE, cartwheeling, dervish-whirling, and blasting out “Moonage Daydream.” “I’m an alligator – I’m a Mamapapa coming for you – I’m a space invader – I’ll be a rock-&-rolling bitch for you!” Fishbone’s Angelo Moore actually, for the first time, made these lyrics credible.

A black Bowie wearing blackface! But this is not to suggest that Angelo Moore did not come out a little later in WHITEFACE to perform “Ashes to Ashes” (singing AND theremin.)

(Whoops, OUR first video messed up – but I’m keeping it up cuz it shows Angelo’s theremin. Here he is doing the same weird-ass song in Akron, Devo’s hometown and the Rubber Capital of the World.)

“John, I’m Only Dancing” was a very early Bowie song I never thought much of, and wasn’t included on any Bowie albums. But Scrote’s driving arrangement and Angelo’s wild performance bring it to life! As you may have gathered, this Angelo would vanish from the stage during the songs he wasn’t singing, and re-appear in an ever-trippier costume. Over the evening we became familiar with his admirable collection of fezzes, kilts, crowns, courtier vests, clown suits, and so much more! For this delirious, gender-bending ditty, Angelo rocked a sailor cap, a knee-length skirt, goofy high socks, and some kind of revealing possibly S&M top. Checks out…

Again our video stopped early. But you can take our word for it that Angelo pranced and twirled, vamped and mugged. It was even the case occasionally that he would stomp spread-legged in his skirt like a peasant woman trying to give birth. Also, being much blacker than any of the other faux-Bowies, he would sometimes wail forth a Stevie-Wonderesque melisma or two. Well, here’s another earlier performance in San Jose. (Sorry, I just don’t get tired of these)

Here’s a better video we caught, of a 1995 song I’d never heard called “Hello Spaceboy.” I liked this one cuz it shows the theremin-playing clearly.

Wait, “What the fuck,” you cry out, “is a THEREMIN?”

Angelo Played the Theremin

(jamming good with Todd & Adrian)

It’s actually a real early, primitive sort of synthesizer, which the True Bowie liked to use on stage as well. You don’t even touch it, but you use your hands at slight, varying distances to elicit different pitches from the thing. The Celebrating David Bowie (CdB) theremin was situated front and center like some kind of totem or talisman, and the decision had been made – which may have been a rash one – to entrust the theremin to Angelo Moore.

Vested with awesome ineffable powers, this theremin had the ability, yea the propensity, to possess a man’s soul, to make his eyes bulge, to vest in him the mannerisms of a mad scientist or a Colonel Kurtz, and to make him forget the world around him and miss his cues.

Just so did Angelo Moore, in the throes of weaving spiraling webs of white noise (with the help of Adrian’s waves of feedback), forget that this was all an intro to the epic “Station to Station,” and miss his cue to sing “the return of the Thin White Duke…” (Angelo made it clear twice that he considers Todd to be the “Thin White Duke,” which is a little funny cuz it’s been years since Todd was thin.)

Yes, there were a lot of missed cues throughout the show and disagreements on how many times to repeat what – and that was always due to the two space cadets Todd and Angelo – but I actually enjoyed those screwups because I liked watching how quickly the rest of the band caught on and compensated.

If I had any complaint about “Station to Station” (probably my favorite Bowie piece) it was how, in the second half, this live version didn’t quite have that crisp, piano-driven, syncopated beat we all loved from the studio recording. (Click below, I’ve got it all cued up to “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine…. it’s TOO LATE!”)

So now we’ve met Angelo, Scrote, Todd, Adrian & Royston, but not the fine musicians of the rhythm section – a great drummer from Nashville named Michael Urbano, and a long-haired, swaying California girl named Angeline Saris who rocked the bass expertly. Last but not least was the brilliant Filipino-looking sax player RON DZIUBLA. Ron’s greatest moment was the long, intense, tenor-sax improvised intro to Space Oddity. Witness how Ron works that E-minor-7th tonality from the ground to the heights, until the guitars come in strumming F-Major-7 and Major Todd floats in cloaked in a tinfoil spacesuit. All of that was memorable, to those of us assembled:

The penultimate song in their long two-hour set was rock anthem REBEL REBEL. I didn’t notice until putting up this video how Scrote was ABSOLUTELY SHREDDING IT at the end of the piece – I don’t think anyone noticed what with Angelo’s jumping, shouting, and getting passed through the crowd:

And then they ENDED their set with ALL THE YOUNG DUDES – great choice! This was a song that Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople, and David sometimes sang it live, but Mott made it famous and added a lot to it themselves. And I was glad to see/hear that these Celebrating David Bowie guys agreed with me – it became Celebrating Mott the Hoople when Todd emulated Ian Hunter’s shouting during the chorus – “Hey! Dudes! I want to talk to you! I want to know you! ALL of you!” etc. – and Adrian played Ariel Bender’s great introductory fanfare tune:

…which sounds like this:

That’s all I’m gonna post of “All the Young Dudes,” because Rundgren is actually no Ian Hunter, and said some very goofy things. But I’ve got a special fondness for Mott the Hoople, “Roll Away the Stone,” “All the Way from Memphis” and ESPECIALLY “The Golden Age of Rock and Roll.” And I always remember how the Clash’s Mick Jones talked about them back when he was a poor troubled kid in London, how they were just as much a group of SOCIAL WORKERS as they were a band – any kid who was hungry, or in legal trouble, or having trouble at home, Ian Hunter and his guys would do what they could to help them. I like that.

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So. Is there anything I would bitch about? The show coulda been maybe half an hour shorter. They did a lotta songs from the decades since the late 80’s on, when I just don’t think David’s songs were as good those years. Three things I hasten to add:

  1. That’s just me, and I’m probably wrong.
  2. Now I’ll probably get bad karma and write a bunch of shitty songs in MY twilight years. (Although if I do anything as bad as “Modern Love” or “China Girl” I won’t make you listen to it.)
  3. 1969 to 1981 is a long-ass run to have created a GALAXY OF UNFORGETTABLE SONGS, EACH OF THEM A FEBRILE PLAYGROUND FOR OUR IMAGINATIONS.

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But wait, there’s more!

Of COURSE there was gonna be more, they hadn’t even done “Heroes” yet. Scrote came out and was all, “We got a couple more in our pocket,” and they launched into “Suffragette City!” I just learned recently that David ALSO wrote Suffragette City for Mott the Hoople but they didn’t wanna do it because it was too silly. Yes, Suffragette City IS a silly song. But in what other context does one get to yell “Wham! Bam! Thankyou Ma’am!” without the world looking down its nose at you?

And then, naturally, they ended the night with “HEROES,” which seems to be most people’s favorite Bowie song. It has burrowed its way into the collective subconscious, and I think it’ll be the last song a lot of people hear in their heads when they die. With its simple melody, elliptical lyrics, and haunting Fripp-Eno instrumental counter-melody, it could kind of be about anything. I think it’s sort of about MEANING, and ASPIRATION, with an injection of the Cold War, alcoholism, and dolphins. It is used in way too many movies, usually at the end, because somehow it packs so much emotion to folks.

What I like is the SOUND, the torn-back, ghetto-rigged SOUND of the original studio recording, and it’s fun to watch producer Tony Visconti explain how the whole thing came to pass (when you’ve got the time.) Scrote called dibs on singing the first two verses, starting off with a minimal “Bang the Gong”-type accompaniment, and then handed it off to Todd to do the histrionic honors while gradually adding in all the other instrumental parts. Mira nomas

Well, if as they say, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, that’s the best I can do.

ALL THE OLD DUDES

Donna joked that that’s what the 60-to-70 year olds on stage should have sung, “All the Old Dudes” instead. Looking around us, it seemed 55-year-old Donna was probably the average age there – nobody really looked under 40. Why were there no younger people in the audience? Don’t they love David Bowie too?

So after the show, as throngs of us middle-aged men waited impatiently on queue to relieve our prostate-tormented bladders at the City National Grove – you know me – I sang, loudly, “All the Old Dude, carry the news…” and the Grove erupted in laughter. As so many times before I got credit for a Donna joke.

But serio, you young dudes missed a good show. For sure, youth is wasted on the young. But if Celebrating David Bowie comes back to town, I highly recommend it. Especially if Angelo Moore is part of it!

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.