Words and photos by Yousef Hatlani
Where were you when David Bowie died? A universally affecting shock recalling the deaths of John Lennon and Michael Jackson, news of Bowie’s death seemingly froze everyone it reached—forever crystallizing the moment they were in. More so than many iconic presences, David Bowie occupied a heavenly reverential—and, evidently, quite personal—space in the minds and hearts of just about everyone; whether it was the first time Aladdin Sane’s sleeve gazed back at you in its face-painted glory, or his groundbreaking mid-70’s partnership with Brian Eno, or his memorable role in Labyrinth, or the myriad of artists who’ve openly revered him for the last forty-five-plus years, Bowie’s myth thoroughly penetrated aspects of culture ranging from the minute to the mainstream. And like Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, whom we also paid tribute to last month, he was around just long enough for you to feel like he could almost be with us forever.
Perhaps, then, that is why David Bowie’s passing was so hard to process; his reach was so vast for so long, it was hard to picture a world without his familiar presence. At the time, it was effectively so difficult to put into words that we at Faces on the Radio could not fathom summarizing the man’s career in an eight or nine hundred word missive; it would surely not even scratch the surface of his influence. Even listening to his back catalog as a means of grieving was a challenge. Tributes poured in immediately: innumerable magazine covers, acknowledgements from every late night talk show on television, a Bowie-themed march in New Orleans hosted by Arcade Fire and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that attracted thousands, and a decree from New York mayor Bill de Blasio that January 20th, 2016 was David Bowie Day.
It wasn’t long before Portland would get its own batch of Bowie tributes, ranging from added showings of the 1976 cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth at the Academy Theater to an upcoming Ziggy-centric evening at the Mission Theatre, hosted by the Parson Red Heads. On Wednesday night, Holocene held its own night honoring the Starman—with a portion of the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society.
This was the latest chapter in Holocene’s successful history of tribute shows; the venue has held themed homages to several artists in just the last two years, including Sade, Kate Bush, Drake (on his twenty-ninth birthday, no less,) and, most recently, Janet Jackson. The enthusiasm for Wednesday night’s tribute to David Bowie carried on with this tradition; in addition to Labyrinth and other archival Bowie footage being projected over the bar all night, special commemorative posters were designed for the show by local firm Obitay Designs—the proceeds of which also went to the American Cancer Society. Moreover, the evening boasted short sets by no less than six bands—each of them touching on visual elements Bowie held throughout the years.
The Heavy Hustle kicked the night off, performing from the venue’s dance floor stage. Band members had specially made black shirts emblazoned with the group’s logo in gold, featuring a star cut out in the middle and ‘The Stars Look Very Different Today’ printed below. Opening with “Rebel Rebel,” continuing with “Fame” and ending with “Let’s Dance,” the band properly set the tone for the evening with sheer funk and fervor, drawing an impressive crowd. After them, on the primary stage, was quintet Haste—surprisingly the only group of the night that attempted “Space Oddity,” before ending their set with the night’s second “Rebel Rebel” (prior to which their guitar player donned an appropriate eyepatch.)
Back on the dance floor stage, local quartet The Breaking (whose vocalist was in full Pinups era facepaint) began with “Ziggy Stardust” before delving into two somewhat deeper cuts: “Where Are We Now?,” the lead single from 2013’s The Next Day—which featured an extended outro that made for one of the most memorable performances of the night, and a rock-centric version of the IDM-flavored “Dead Man Walking,” off of 1997’s Earthling.
Returning to the main stage, disco/dance troupe Gold Casio took on Station to Station’s “Golden Years,” the undying choruses of “Under Pressure” and the brute rock stylings of Hunky Dory’s “Queen Bitch.” PWRHAUS then continued the show with three more Hunky Dory cuts—“Life on Mars,” “Kooks,” and “Fill Your Heart”—before ending their set with “Starman,” eliciting a chorus that made for arguably the best singalong of the evening, lifting Holocene into blissful refrain.
Perhaps the highlight of the show was supergroup Boys Keep Swinging, a ten piece ensemble featuring members of several notable local groups—among them Wampire, Blouse, Appendixes and the Gossip. With a set consisting of seven songs, the group took full advantage of its instrumentation with many of Bowie’s more sonically diverse works—including “Station to Station,” “Young Americans” and “Oh! You Pretty Things” (the night’s fifth Hunk Dory track)—capping an evening of consistent showmanship with pomp and splendor.
David Bowie’s influence was as evident in life as it is in death; he lived as a legend, and literally was the “What Could Have Been.” He did this through generosity and a strikingly uncompromising vision—not to mention a professionalism and rigor that never let up during his storied career, even as he was approaching his twilight. If Holocene’s tribute was any indication, those exalting Bowie the most often have powerful artistic visions of their own. As time passes, the full extent of that influence will reveal itself still—our hearts and minds forever richer for it.