- Alex Toth
Since David Bowie's death in January, countless tributes have been made to the Thin White Duke — the man, myth and legend. Entire encyclopedias could be filled with the amount of copy that has eulogized David Robert Jones, analyzing every fantastical nook and cranny of his music, acting and personal life. And there have been musical tributes galore, from dance parties and cover nights at small local clubs to star-studded blowouts on the grandest stages in the land. The latter include David Byrne, the Roots and Kimbra opening the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2016 concert with a cover of "Fame," and last month's two-night extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
This Saturday, May 21, at the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, Burlington will experience a Bowie tribute unlike any that have come before it: "Farewell, Starman: The Music of David Bowie Re-imagined."
The show is a collaboration of Rubblebucket's Alex Toth — who performed with Mumford & Sons at the Radio City Bowie tribute — and Kimbra. Toth is spearheading the project and has enlisted several of his Rubblebucket mates, as well as guitarists Steve Marion and Christian Peslak (Delicate Steve) and drummer Jason Nazary (Bear in Heaven).
Local guests include vocalist Kat Wright and the drum and dance collective Sambatucada!, among others. Signal Kitchen is presenting the show as part of the Full Moon Masquerade series. That means that all manner of other musical, theatrical and artistic oddities await costumed revelers — and, yes, masks are mandatory. In other words, it's a tribute fit for a Goblin King.
Seven Days recently caught up with Toth and Kimbra by phone to talk about the show.
SEVEN DAYS: The project is described as "reimagining" the music of David Bowie. What does that mean, precisely?
KIMBRA JOHNSON: We wanted to be able to take liberties with the songs and not just play them straight. But what I think connects all of us as musicians is that we're all producers as well; we make our own records. Doing Bowie songs is one thing. But I think where we have the most fun is writing and translating on our own records. So we thought, How do we approach that same mind-set on these Bowie songs? We're using them more as motifs and hooks. We're using lyrical phrases we liked, but we've joked that it's almost like we're doing remixes. It's all in the spirit of doing honor to Bowie. And, hopefully, we're approaching the songs in a way that evolves them even further. I would love to think that, after I'm gone, someone would be able to take those liberties with my music, as well. I think it's a beautiful thing to continue the work when you retranslate music.
ALEX TOTH: For a specific example, Kimbra took the song "Bring Me the Disco King," which I'd never heard before. Bowie was a pretty jazzy guy, and the recording had this brushy, jazzy drum thing with jazz piano chords. So we're doing a funk-driven version of it. So far, we're up to six local saxophonists on it. [Laughs] And then Dre Idle is making a big Disco King puppet, and she's got six Bowie-esque silver-clad lackeys that are going to accompany the puppet. I don't want to give too much away, but it's kind of a séance for the Disco King.
SD: Really, it sounds like you're filtering Bowie through the prisms of Rubblebucket and Kimbra.
KJ: [Laughs] Exactly.
SD: Nifty. Are you focusing on specific eras of Bowie?
KJ: I feel like we're covering a lot of eras. One of my favorite albums is Reality, which I don't think anyone knows, so I thought this would be a cool opportunity to dig into that. But we're doing some of the classics, as well. And I think we both have had different entry points into his music.
AT: Definitely. We're doing a song from his most recent album, as well. And I think we might be covering the weirdest Bowie song ever released, "African Night Flight." It's insane.
SD: And it sounds like you're not just reimagining the music, you're reimagining Bowie's theatrical qualities, too.
AT: One of the things about Bowie is that his acting and performance is completely inseparable from the music. I've always been really interested in that.
SD: You were both part of other Bowie tributes recently, correct?
AT: Kimbra did "Fame" with the Roots and David Byrne at the Hall of Fame thing. And last minute I was asked to play with Mumford & Sons at the Radio City thing. It's been cool to see, like, Kronos Quartet covering Blackstar with Amanda Palmer. Michael Stipe did the most moving version of "Ashes to Ashes."
SD: On a more personal level, what are some of things you appreciate most about Bowie's music and life?
KJ: There's so much. You develop a new appreciation for David Bowie when you start analyzing him in this way, sitting there learning his lyrics. I've always found his lyrics provoking and interesting. But I've never sat down and really worked out what he's saying. And it's been fascinating analyzing that side of what he did, and how he could be quite abstract and random, yet hit these profound moments of clarity. So I appreciate him even more now.
I also appreciate the freedom in his music. He's all over the spectrum and exploring so many different things. There's a fearlessness in so much of his work. And the more I see that, the more I get inspired to be like that myself in my work.
AT: I had never dug this deeply into Bowie before, because he was always this mystical figure to me. And when you dig into how it all works and explore it, you see that he was uncompromising from start to finish. He always knew what he wanted to do, and it's fucking wild. It was always cutting edge, and that's really inspiring.
- Alex Toth and Kimbra
SD: Kimbra, you're opening the show with a "space moon jam." Tell me about that.
KJ: I started doing these improvisation sessions last year in LA, and then I brought it to New York. And I found musicians who were into that spirit of improvisation. So I write some music the night before and then kind of go into the spirit of writing a song in the moment, taking random ideas and really trying to find some structure in them. It's sort of a quantum physics experiment: What happens when you put hundreds of people in the room, and how does that affect the content? So I'll be doing that with Alex and the band. And I think that's a fun way to celebrate Bowie, as well. Because I think that was so much of his spirit, there was such playfulness in his music.
AT: Oh, and there's a full moon that night. So we're all gonna howl at the moon.