Last night we were “jamming good with Weird and Gilly and the Spiders from Mars” – almost.
With unquestionable credentials, Holy Holy was very much Ziggy’s band and the crowd of David Bowie fans loved every minute.
For me, the gig was an oddity of the predictable and the surprising: I knew which albums were the set pieces for this tour and that the band had real pedigree, but I’m not sure even I expected quite such a rip-roaring evening.
Holy Holy features the surviving member of the Spiders from Mars, Woody Woodmansey, alongside Bowie’s long-time friend and producer, Tony Visconti.
Woodmansey was Bowie’s drummer on stage and in the studio in the period that propelled Bowie to super-stardom: “The Man Who Sold The World”, “Hunky Dory”, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, and “Aladdin Sane”.
Visconti was bassist on “The Man Who Sold The World” and produced nearly half of Bowie’s studio albums, from his second album in 1969 to his last in 2016.
Holy Holy performs with one crucial criterion: they play only the tracks that either Woodmansey or Visconti worked on. These are highly qualified interpretations of some of the best-known songs in the world, and they come from the people who helped to create them.
For this tour, the spotlight was on two albums in their entirety – “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970) and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972).
The band’s penultimate night on a 13-date UK tour took in the art deco splendour of The Assembly in Leamington Spa, voted Music Week Awards’ ‘Best Live Music Venue’ in 2010 following a major renovation, and thanks to its impressive acoustics. Close to a sold-out gig, for this 1,000 capacity (standing) room.
First surprise of the night was courtesy of the support act. Billed for this slot was John Bramwell, former frontman of the Manchester indie rockers and Mercury Prize nominees I Am Kloot, but last-minute illness left an empty stage.
With very short notice – so much so that her 12-string guitar was tuned up for the main set and a different set of songs entirely – Holy Holy band member Jessica Lee Morgan stepped in and provided an impressive 30-minute warm-up with a set mostly from her own songbook.
An early nod to Bowie with the B-side track “Amsterdam” was met with noisy approval from the crowd, but it was Morgan’s closing number that provided an unexpected bonus.
Standing alone in the spotlight with only an acoustic guitar, Morgan asked hopefully: “is there a bass player in the house?” As luck would have it there was, and Morgan’s father, Tony Visconti, stepped onto the stage for a one-song up-tempo father-and-daughter performance.
Then we were on to the main event, as Holy Holy took to the stage to a rapturous welcome (with Woodmansey wearing a natty Venetian eye mask, for reasons never explained).
We’ve established the impeccable credentials in the band, thanks to Woodmansey and Visconti, but who could fill the boots of Bowie himself?
Since his death, we’ve seen plenty try – some in respectful tribute and some in vain. And much as the love in the room for this band was palpable, the Heaven 17 frontman Glenn Gregory had an unenviable task on his hands.
To his credit, he did enough. More importantly, he didn’t try to do too much. He didn’t try to imitate or out-do. He gave a strong and credible vocal to some of this audience’s most-loved songs.
He also wore the most fascinating pair of trousers, bearing what appeared to be the face of Elvis Presley. Perhaps these are a staple in a singer’s wardrobe, but even in this we can find a Bowie connection as they both shared the same birthday!
One of the best things about an album being played in its entirety and true to its original track listing, is kicking-off a show with something that might otherwise be sidelined.
The opening bars of “The Width of a Circle” are not exactly foot-tappers, but even so I wasn’t quite expecting the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck. This gentle introduction to the Spider’s drumming was sublime, with plenty of fast and clever work to come.
“The Man Who Sold The World” is a dark album. Musically it was a heavy departure from Bowie’s folk roots and as rocky as anything he did for another 20-odd years (with Tin Machine).
Conceptually it was just as heavy: this was the first material from Bowie following his father’s death, and reflected Bowie’s preoccupation with sanity (coinciding also with his half-brother Terry’s deteriorating mental health).
Now considered one of Bowie’s most acclaimed albums, it received mixed reviews and little commercial success on its release in 1970. It spawned no singles (excepting Lulu’s UK # 3 cover of the title track four years later), and it was never toured…until Holy Holy formed for that very purpose in 2014.
Such was the reception the band has received, Holy Holy has continued and here we are again tonight: hearing songs that seem to suit a stage easily as well as they do a studio, given life by those who helped to create them in the first place.
It’s hard to over-estimate the role Woodmansey and Visconti played in creating this album…production, arrangement, instrumentation, writing and playing.
Visconti even took up arms in the form of hammer and saw to help make this album, building the makeshift studio in which some of its demos were made, at the home Bowie shared with the band at Haddon Hall in Beckenham.
To see them reunited on this stage and playing this particular album was a tremendous experience. Visconti turned to the drums to lock in with Woodmansey several times, and we all witnessed the long-lived harmony between the lad from Driffield and the boy from Brooklyn.
I don’t think I was alone in feeling a renewed grief for Bowie, and I certainly wasn’t alone in lapping up the nostalgia. If history has a vibration, we felt Bowie in the room.
Then we were transported forward a mere two years, though artistically it felt like a lifetime. Kicking off the “Ziggy Stardust” album was the last surviving Spider himself, Woody Woodmansey, with his haunting and self-arranged beat for “Five Years”.
This album set gave us a rollercoaster ride – “Hang On To Yourself” and “Suffragette City” had the house jumping, but then it felt like the air became very still in the emotional opening lines of “Rock n Roll Suicide”…before circa 700 voices joined in to declare: oh no, love, you’re not alone!
Indeed, this album provided quite a showcase for the whole band. Of particular note was “Moonage Daydream”, specifically the guitar solo that Spider and guitar maestro Mick Ronson famously made snarl and scream.
In our interview at the start of the tour, Tony Visconti assured me that Holy Holy guitarists Paul Cuddeford (whose artist client list ranges from Tom Jones to Cat Stevens) and James Stevenson (The Alarm, The Cult, and Glen Matlock among others) would make Ronson’s jaw drop if he were alive. We were not disappointed and, as the guitars howled, there were times when I felt sure Ronno’s ghost was there on the stage.
In addition, “Lady Stardust” – long reputed to be Bowie’s ode to fellow glam rock pioneer Marc Bolan – handed the vocal duties back to Jessica Lee Morgan, by now providing vocals, guitar and saxophone.
Morgan has clearly inherited musicality not only from her father, but also from her mother, folk singer Mary Hopkin, making this track her own with a rather gentle and melodic timbre.
Applause here also for Holy Holy’s final band member, keyboard player Berenice Scott (Johnny Hates Jazz, David McAlmont, Heaven 17 and one half of the duo Afterhere with Glenn Gregory – daughter of Robin Scott aka ‘M’, who had a big hit with ‘Pup Muzik’ some 40 years ago…Berenice as a baby was featured on the cover of the single’s picture-sleeve), whose playing was in the spotlight as the primary musical accompaniment to this track.
A rather unexpected close to the show, as the band returned to the stage for their encore, striking up the opening chords of “Where Are We Now”. If “Blackstar” was, as Visconti suggests, Bowie’s parting gift to us, then I believe this track is Bowie’s retrospective.
Taken from “The Next Day” album in 2013, this song centres on his Berlin years; I’ve used its lyrics as an itinerary for retracing Bowie’s own steps in that city, and I found this live rendition beyond moving. I couldn’t tell you if there was a dry eye in the house, as I couldn’t see through my own tears.
But no show is complete without a barnstorming end, and Holy Holy did not disappoint. Hundreds of voices in (almost) perfect harmony, focused on the sailors fighting in the dance hall as we helped the band with “Life On Mars” and then, staying with the wonderful “Hunky Dory” album, we raised the roof with our collective ch-ch-ch-ch-changes chorus in the track of that name.
Last but not least, and not wanting the show to end, we decided to worry about our (mostly) middle-aged knees tomorrow and, for now, dance like mad things to “Rebel Rebel”.
But not one of us expended as much energy and enthusiasm as the lynchpin Woodmansey, who looked like he was having the time of his life – and whose exertion on the drum kit belies his age (69) by decades.
At the end of the show, Woodmansey told us this had been the best show on the tour. Of course, I’m sure all musicians say that to all the crowds – but from where I was standing, I think I believe him.
By Lucy Boulter
Photos: Steve Thorne, Dan Woodmansey, Getty, PR-supplied, Holy Holy
Mobile ‘phone shots (below): Lucy Boulter: