Tony Visconti's Holy Holy Concert Becomes Strange, Mad Celebration After David Bowie's Death
There was a strange, mad celebration in Toronto Tuesday night (Jan. 12) for music chameleon David Bowie, whose death Sunday after battling cancer has shocked and saddened the world.
Although it had been booked at Toronto's Opera House since December, Tuesday's Holy Holy concert took on new meaning since the passing of the ever-evolving, boundary-kicking artist. Holy Holy -- a band formed by Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti and his one-time drummer Mick (Woody) Woodmansey, named after an obscure 1971 Bowie single -- was originally brought together to play 1970's The Man Who Sold The World front to back (something Bowie never did), in addition to performing classics from Bowie's Ziggy era.
Minutes before the sold-out set started, Visconti came out to talk, among 900-some friends.
“Thank you for coming out in the cold,” he said on stage. “Listen, yesterday was the worst, well, almost the worst day in my life and I think it was for most of you here, too. We actually had to talk about whether we were going to perform more on this tour, but there’s no better way to work through grief except through music.
”Music is magic. It's better than any pill you can take. It's better than any drug and this music is some of the best music that’s ever been written. I’m so glad to see you are so upbeat. I didn’t want to see a sea of sad faces," he said, the crowd yelling "no" in approval. "I’ll tell you, David wouldn’t like that either. We have David’s total approval on this tour. He saw the videos; he heard the music; and he’s so happy you’re doing this and I want you to know too, so we’re going to celebrate the life of David Bowie.”
Woody then stepped up and added, “We really appreciate it. It’s good for us, as well as you. I know we all feel the same in this room, so as Tony just said it’s a celebration of David and his music. So you’re supposed to have a good time tonight. So that’s a fucking order, alright?”
The next two hours did seem to provide comfort for everyone. It meant something to be in a room full of people appreciating the legacy of one untouchable artist, particularly for Visconti, who appeared tearful at times. The band -- rounded out by frontman Glenn Gregory (of Heaven 17), guitarists James Stevenson (Gene Loves Jezebel, Gen X), Paul Cuddeford, sax player Terry Edwards, keyboardist Bernice Scott, and Visconti’s daughter Jessica Morgan on backing vocals -- kicked right into The Man Who Sold The World from lead track “The Width of a Circle,” then “All The Madmen, “Black Country Rock,” “After All” and “Running Gun Blues.”
At the end of “Savior Machine,” Gregory hugged Visconti. It was a genuine blink-of-an-eye gesture before the band fiercely attacked “She Shook Me Cold." Holy Holy is not a tribute band, but a group of world-class musicians, two of whom played on the original studio recording. They continued with “The Man Who Sold The World” and “The Supermen,” and just as the song wound up -- the final song on that album -- Visconti said “one more time” and Gregory sang the final lyrics again, which took on a whole new meaning this night:
“Far out in the red sky / Far out from the sad eyes / Strange, mad celebration / So softly a super-god dies.”
The audience erupted in cheers. Visconti, calling it a celebration, folded his arms across his chest, fists closed. “The reason why we’re doing this is about 46 years ago Woody and I were the original musicians who played this album, so technically we’re not a tribute band; we are the real deal.
“And well, we couldn’t have done this without two people and the first one I’m going to mention is the fabulous guitar player that changed our lives, Mick Ronson and we couldn’t have done it without David Bowie."
In a touching moment, he stretched both arms out to the sky, held them there, then gave a kiss, clasping his hands back in front of him. By now we are all familiar with the opening lines of Bowie’s “Lazarus” -- “look up here, I’m in heaven.”
Visconti then quickly moved the show into part two. “We're going to do some songs I know you’ll sing along,” he said
Gregory -- who did justice to the songs and even possesses a tinge of Bowie’s style vocally -- got up from his spot on the drum riser. It was his turn to say a few words. “This was a very emotional night this was. We debated whether to carry on with this and Tony and Woody spoke and decided to carry on with the tour and I’m really glad we did. Seeing you all tonight we know we’ve done the right thing.”
The next part of the show began with “Five Years,” “Soul Love,” “Moonage Daydream,” and a medley of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” “All The Young Dudes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things” that included “Changes.” When it was time for the next song, Visconti said, “This is always going to be one that’s difficult for me because it’s one of my favorite Bowie tracks. So I don’t know if I’m going to get through this completely in one piece, but ‘Life on Mars.’”
He made it through.
Next, a powerful “Ziggy Stardust,” and a couple of those lyrics had poignant meaning, too: “Became the special man/then we were Ziggy’s band" was fitting since Visconti and Woody were Ziggy’s band. “Rock and Roll Suicide” also got twisted to provide comfort: “oh no love, you’re not alone,” and in this room of 900 people celebrating Bowie, we did not feel alone in our grief.
The night also included “Lady Stardust” (sung by Visconti’s daughter) and “Watch That Man.” For the encore, two songs: “Time” with its lines “perhaps you’re smiling now/smiling through this darkness” and “Suffragette City.” People threw red roses. Gregory and Visconti each picked one up.
Woody then came out from behind the kit and thanked everyone for coming. “I can tell by your faces that you had a good time because we did completely. That’s what Bowie would have wanted.”
Iman, Bowie’s widow, recently wrote on her Instagram, “Sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Anyone at the Opera House for this special tribute knows of what she speaks.