The conductor held up his baton, and made eye contact with those in his orchestra most key to beginning the piece of music, then began his count-in, “…One, two, three…”


Groans from all, another frustrated frown from the conductor. A ready young comedian standing at a snare drum delivered a quick rimshot directed sarcastically towards the red-faced saxophonist who, once again, jumped the gun.

Eighth-grade band practice, 1975. Most days, taken up by teaching the assorted young musicians how to play nicely together, how to manage timing and pitch and dynamics, and the conductor yelling at the drum section to settle down back there. The comedian, none other than yours truly, one day after practice borrowed an LP from Maureen, who played the flute. It was David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” and I kept it on my turntable for almost a full year. Maureen was very nice about that, too, when she finally asked for its return.

This was the memory that came back to me yesterday night as I sat in the Moore Theater (courtesy a ticket giveaway from the wonderful KEXP—thank you!), watching the Seattle Rock Orchestra and several excellent guest vocalists perform “A Tribute To David Bowie.” The combination of Bowie’s early-‘70s glam rock period songs and a traditional orchestra is not such a funny mix, although some might raise an eyebrow. So many of his songs have that orchestral grandness to them, with sweeping emotions and terrifically-intelligent construction. Almost all truly great pop songs can well handle nearly any interpretation: sparse, layered, or wildly out of their genres. What is so good about them always remains. And if you poke around a bit, you will find many rock musicians who first learned to play an instrument in their school bands. Imagine little Gwen Stefani on flute, Steven Tyler and Flea on trumpet, Peter Hayes and Nelly Furtado on trombone, Aretha Franklin on tuba, and Tommy Lee and Trent Reznor back there in the percussion section, no doubt delivering rimshots. And of course, David Bowie’s first instrument was…the saxophone! It is not at all uncommon to find your shredding guitarist was once squawking away on a tiny violin, or your glamorous rock vocalist was once Queen of the Bassoon.

After seeing this teaser promo clip from the SRO, I was confident that their take on Bowie would be solid. Good buzz and a lot of nice advance press brought out an enthusiastic crowd to the Moore, with a bit of a fashion nod to Bowie noted as well. I wore my silver high-heeled sneakers.

As the show opened strongly with “Five Years,” I thought about my own early days in band and how much time was spent just teaching us all how to play together. The Seattle Rock Orchestra has managed to do something rather extraordinary in bringing together assorted Seattle-area musicians, both professional and amateur, all unpaid, all united in their love for all kinds of music and the desire to play. Do you know how hard it is just to co-ordinate getting 70+ people in one space even once, much less have them all coalesce on a new musical project?? Hats off to director/conductor/bassist Scott Teske, who has in a short 18 months made the Seattle Rock Orchestra a delightful and welcome addition to our already-rich musical community. Add in a guest choir of 30 happily-swaying singers, and that is a lot of people on one stage, for one night. It is a measure of the talent of the performers and Teske’s leadership that the evening was such a success.

I had wondered about the vocalists selected for the performance, as I was only familiar with one, Jon Auer of the legendary power-pop band the Posies. Would they try to sound like Bowie? Would they try to sound very different from him, or re-stylize the melodies? I think there is a distinction within the title given to the evening: “A Tribute To David Bowie.” If you are simply playing covers of someone else’s work, your audience wants to hear as faithful a reproduction as you can manage, down to the last note and a scarlet-red shag wig. A “tribute” to me means raising the bar higher, saying you wish to honor the songs by not only doing them well and faithfully, but adding your own talents and interpretations into the mix a bit more. It is something like saying to the artist, “I love your songs. This is how they came into me, how they changed me, and this is how I can bring that out again to show you.” It’s a valuable thing, and it was definitely expressed by Teske, the orchestra members, and the vocalists during the evening. Londoner-turned-Seattleite Tom Beecham (The Raggedy Anns) was the closest in vocal and physical resemblance to Bowie, but Jon Auer, David Terry (Aqueduct), Tim Kelly (Discs of Fury), Ian Williams (The Thoughts), and Alessandra Rose (The Kindness Kind) all did fine jobs with the material. The only real falter in the night was in the two songs done by Nouela Johnston (People Eating People) – both were simply past her range, the high notes falling flat despite her forceful push to make them otherwise. She seemed out-of-place in the evening for it, and would have fared much better given songs that would have highlighted the soulful smoky quality of her voice, rather than the shortcomings.

I especially loved the re-arrangement of what is probably my favorite David Bowie song, “Heroes.” It was simple and folky, just hovering under jaunty, with a quiet electric chug behind it and a passionate and sharp vocal from Ian Williams. The original version was all cold electronic angst, with Bowie’s desperate yelping, almost-operatic style underscoring the fatalism and longing in the lyrics. The SRO spins it, years later, into a sadness that contains more of a wistful, bittersweet smile, somehow less tragic and more accepting of loss. It is a wonderful example of “tribute” that added something unique and cool to something that is already a classic. You can hear this version of “Heroes” as performed in KEXP’s studios this week right here, along with “Moonage Daydream” (featuring Jon Auer), “Oh! You Pretty Things” (featuring Alessandra Rose), and “The Man Who Sold the World” (featuring David Terry).

EDIT 4/14/10: KEXP has put up the in-studio video here, and here's "Heroes!"

Killer perfect vocals of the night went to Jon Auer. What a beautiful voice he has. Here he is during the encore with “Quicksand.” Visual quality is so-so from Row T, but the sound is purty good.

Last song of the night went to Alessandra Rose with “Life On Mars?” Her singing is slightly mannered to me, in that nouveau-Billie Holiday-quirky way that is hot now in the indie world, but no matter. She hit those big notes strong and well and she added a lot of fun to the night.

At one point in the evening, I imagined David Bowie sitting in one of the ornate balcony box seats watching the performance, and I thought, yes, he would be pleased, charmed, and maybe even a little verklempt – all these people coming together to play from so many different backgrounds, nodding their heads and smiling, all for the love of the songs he wrote. And not a single “FFRRHONKK!” Pretty cool.

Thank you, SRO and guests, for a lovely night.