Musicians from Perry Farrell to Bettye LaVette descended on Carnegie Hall Thursday night to pay tribute to the late David Bowie. The concert, part of an annual charity series produced by Michael Dorf, was in the works well before Bowie’s January death, but gained additional notoriety when the New York Times coincidentally announced its lineup the morning that news of the rock icon’s passing broke.
“I’ve been trying to get permission from David Bowie’s camp for many years,” Dorf told the crowd. (Previous honorees include David Byrne, Prince, and Bob Dylan.) And while fans audibly groaned when Dorf confirmed that the Roots wouldn’t make an appearance — and that Patti Smith was a late scratch due to sickness — excitement was palpable when he ceded the stage to Cyndi Lauper for the evening’s first performance.
EW was on the scene: Read on for the gig’s standout moments and a complete setlist below.
Most Experimental: Gogol Bordello, “Breaking Glass”
The show began with staid renditions of Ziggy Stardust-era tunes, with Lauper delivering “Suffragette City” and British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock giving a standard — though still enjoyable — treatment to “Soul Love.” So it was refreshing when Laurie Anderson brought her electric violin to Low‘s “Always Crashing in the Same Car” — and downright exhilarating when Eugene Hütz and Sergey Ryabtsev of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello followed her with a wild version of “Breaking Glass.” Cacophony reigned as Hütz shrieked, “You’re such a wonderful person / But you got problems,” and Ryabtsev shredded an electric violin of his own. They channeled Bowie’s manic late-’70s persona so heavily that house band leader and longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti remarked, “That was crazy — crazy good.”
Most Controversial: Joseph Arthur, “The Man Who Sold the World”
The 44-year-old singer-songwriter gave the evening’s first solo performance when he emerged armed with only a loop pedal and his orange Fender Stratocaster, to share a lengthy, distortion-drenched version of 1970’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” His mysterious take on the song was likely was a curveball for anyone who had watched Tuesday’s Tonight Show and expected former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe to sing the tune — and Arthur’s farewell to the crowd proved more memorable than his performance itself. After playing the final notes, Arthur unveiled an American flag with massive letters scrawled across it spelling “F–K TRUMP,” to massive applause from the audience.
Most Poignant: Michael Stipe & Karen Elson, “Ashes to Ashes”
Stipe appeared two songs after Arthur, telling the crowd, “David was a hippie before he was a spaceman,” before singing 1980’s Major Tom eulogy “Ashes to Ashes.” Joined by surprise guest vocalist Karen Elson and a piano accompanist, Stipe’s aching version of the song accentuated its dark character, while Elson’s impressive pipes added color to a sparse piano arrangement. Given how much “Ashes to Ashes” resembles a proto-R.E.M. song — the seminal group would make their debut three years later — Stipe’s interpretation was unexpected. It also proved to be the evening’s most hypnotic.
Most Understated: J Mascis & Sean Lennon, “Quicksand”
Lennon and Dinosaur Jr.’s Mascis brought the unassuming humility of Bowie’s first classic album, 1971’s Hunky Dory, to their performance of “Quicksand.” Armed with acoustic guitars — and with Mascis on the 12-string — the duo began by riffing on the spooky “Andy Warhol” lick, before jamming into the pensive song about how “knowledge comes with death’s release.” Bowie became known as a consummate showman, but in his trucker hat and jean jacket, Mascis gave a glimpse into an alternate reality where the rocker had stuck to his folk-rock roots.
Most Confusing: Pixies, “Cactus”
Bowie had a lengthy history supporting artists from Iggy Pop to Arcade Fire. In 2002, he covered the Pixies’ 1988 tune “Cactus” for his album Heathen, so, naturally, the iconic alt-rock group made an appearance Thursday. But, given how closely Bowie’s version resembles the original, it was confounding that the band chose to cover Bowie’s cover of them. The result was essentially a one-song Pixies concert at Carnegie Hall: Not a bad thing in its own right, but incongruous with the rest of the evening’s program.
Most Spectacular: The Flaming Lips, “Life on Mars?”
That the Flaming Lips would do something wild at the denouement for the foundational figure of glam-rock was a foregone conclusion. But few could’ve guessed that that would entail frontman Wayne Coyne mounting someone in full Chewbacca garb for a cosmic version of “Life on Mars?” Coyne wore a silver wreath around his neck with light-up tendrils that draped to the ground and flashed in unison with the song’s peaks and swells. Sure, the Lips’ cover ruled, but the image of Coyne wailing from atop the famous Star Wars character is all many will remember.
Most Camaraderie: Choir! Choir! Choir! with the New York City Children’s Chorus, “Space Oddity”
Performers got the Carnegie Hall audience involved throughout Thursday’s program. Heart’s Ann Wilson encouraged fans to dance during “Let’s Dance!” and Rickie Lee Jones cultivated significant participation during her stripped rendition of “All the Young Dudes.” But every member was standing — and belting — when the leaders of Toronto’s drop-in singing group Choir! Choir! Choir! led the New York City Children’s Chorus and performers from the night in a show-closing “Space Oddity” sing-along. “Are you guys ready to take the leap?” the ensemble’s Nobu Adilman asked. Judging by the response, the crowd was.
Most Valuable Player: Mick Woodmansey and Tony Visconti (tie)
The tribute show featured a rotating cast of performers new and old. But two of Bowie’s famed musical allies gave nearly every song a boost as members of the house band: Visconti and original Spiders from Mars drummer Mick Woodmansey. Between riffing on the bass, Visconti leaned in to provide backing vocals, while Woodmansey conjured the iconic drum parts to “Soul Love” and Cat Power’s soulful version of “Five Years.”
Cyndi Lauper, “Suffragette City”
Holy Holy, “Width of a Circle”
Robyn Hitchcock, “Soul Love”
Laurie Anderson, “Always Crashing in the Same Car”
Gogol Bordello, “Breaking Glass”
Debbie Harry of Blondie, “Starman”
Joseph Arthur, “The Man Who Sold the World”
The Mountain Goats, “Word on a Wing”
Michael Stipe and Karen Elson, “Ashes to Ashes”
J Mascis and Sean Lennon, “Quicksand”
Bettye LaVette, “It Ain’t Easy”
Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, “Rebel Rebel”
Cat Power, “Five Years”
Ann Wilson of Heart, “Let’s Dance!”
Rickie Lee Jones, “All the Young Dudes”
Jakob Dylan, “Heroes”
The Flaming Lips, “Life on Mars?”
Choir! Choir! Choir! with the New York City Children’s Chorus, “Space Oddity”
Michael Dorf’s David Bowie tribute show will move to New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Friday, April 1, where it will showcase a similar lineup that also includes Mumford & Sons, the Polyphonic Spree, and the rocker’s Blackstar collaborators the Donny McCaslin Group.