Looking like a member of Bauhaus, vocalist Tony Vincent cut a unique figure on Pearl Street this past Sunday afternoon, carrying a Peppercorn bag after shopping there with his parents – in town from Albuquerque – the day after slaying David Bowie hits with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra at Macky Auditorium.
The 45-year-old Vincent – made famous by starring on NBC’s The Voice and in the first national tour of Rent – emerged onstage at Macky in a choker necklace, a black dress shirt, tight blue pants and black leather shoes Saturday night, leading the Boulder Phil and members of Windborne Music. The ensemble’s “Music of David Bowie” production was able to fill about three-fourths of Macky’s 2000 capacity, and those who snoozed on the event missed some incredible moments.
The setlist was not deep, focusing on Bowie’s most well-known pop classics, and not many to which an orchestra could lend much creativity or power. But when the juxtaposition of the rocking and the symphonic was magical, such as on the glam-rock standard “Starman,” the sparks that flew lived up to Macky Auditorium’s timeless façade.
Falling just short of the filthy distortion and energy that early Bowie axe-man Mick Ronson brought from the working-class Rats of Hull to the Spiders from Mars, Windborne guitarist George Cintron did his best Earl Slick impression leading the evening’s initial tunes – “Rebel Rebel” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Conductor Brent Havens quipped, “Is this what you expected?” to the mostly stilted, older and white audience, and Vincent aptly complimented Bowie for always “keeping us guessing” before the orchestra launched into a beautiful version of “Changes.”
Vincent went on hit-or-miss tangents between tunes, focusing on his self-professed lifelong “nerdy” obsession with “countless” interviews with and biographies of Bowie, perhaps the most renowned iconoclast in rock history. This worked when Vincent, for instance, glowingly introduced “Fame” – Bowie’s hit 1975 collaboration with John Lennon. But Vincent’s purported encyclopedic knowledge of Bowie’s catalog and legacy also missed the mark a few times, such as when he stressed that a “longing for love” was the common thread in Bowie’s nearly half-century catalog, stating, “that’s probably what he was getting at with this next song” as a set-up for “China Girl,” a cheeky and somewhat racist 1983 hit for Bowie that was actually written by Iggy Pop in 1976.
No matter – the Boulder Philharmonic’s arrangements were the real star of the show, which got better after intermission, not just because the song selection become more ambitious (with slightly more obscure songs like “Fashion” and “Young Americans”) but because I moved from the fifth row all the way to the balcony to hear and see the orchestra much better.
Windborne (which will return to Macky next February to present a highly anticipated night of Queen songs with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra) and Vincent were flashy and powerful, but it was the Boulder Phil’s soaring additions to on tunes like the funky 1980 mindbender “Ashes to Ashes” that made the evening truly memorable. Hopeless Bowie nerds might have flinched at Vincent’s occasional missteps on tiny details in lyrics, like singing “billions of swastikas in my head” instead of “visions of swastikas” in “China Girl” or “need an axe to break the ice” rather than “want an axe” in “Ashes to Ashes,” but when the orchestra came together with otherworldly dynamics and artistry on “Space Oddity” and “Changes,” to name a few, the heavens opened.
Vincent sang everything with talent and grace, but part of Bowie’s importance was bringing the vulnerable and the avant-garde to the pop and refined worlds and vice versa, so the most striking moment of the evening was watching a senior-citizen in the balcony break down in tears when the orchestra nailed a complex arrangement of 1972’s campy but genius and poetic “Life On Mars?”
New Mexico native Vincent’s appearances in Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Idiot and We Will Rock You make him a perfect fit to sing certain classics from Bowie’s diverse career – such as “Changes” and “Life On Mars?” However, it’s admittedly impossible for anyone, even dozens of dazzling musicians gelling in a giant orchestra, to do justice to the pinball-style catalog of Bowie, who once sang, “Until there was rock, you only had God.”
Coincidentally, Sunday morning in Boulder featured a 90-minute Bowie tribute concert for children and their parents at the Boulder Theater, and the contrasts were interesting and hilarious. Cover-band Loving the Alien – which jubilantly regaled a couple hundred locals with fun-loving Bowie tunes and crowd-participation treats like a parachute, sing-alongs and glow-stick jewelry – not only dug deeper into Bowie’s catalog than the Boulder Philharmonic, with tunes like the very orchestral “The Man Who Sold the World,” but (unlike Vincent) also didn’t cut out risqué Bowie lyrics like the line about Quaaludes in “Rebel Rebel.”
As Bowie’s diverse catalog grew, even the Thin White Duke himself, and the countless versions of his backing band, could never perfectly capture all of his unique eras of iconoclastic music in one evening. Vincent, Windborne and the Boulder Phil did an entertaining and memorable job trying to – at the very least – lend an energetic and symphonic angle to Bowie’s hits. It will be fascinating to see what they do with Queen’s catalog next year as well.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artist featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.