Melbourne Festival – David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed

MSO David Bowie Nothing Has ChangedNothing Has Changed is from David Bowie’s Sunday, a track from his 2002 album Heathen. The phrase seemed a strange choice of title for a tribute to Bowie’s music that employed a diverse array of musicians and vocalists.

My guest and I had been looking forward to the show for some time. We were baited by the Melbourne Festival Programme: “Now artists under the influence of the great man gather to perform his music in their own unique styles, alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under conductor Vanessa Scammell and Creative Director Amanda Pelman”.

Audiences might have thought that given this framework and Bowie’s renegade spirit for inspiration, we’d experience familiar songs for which a lot has changed. There was the odd intriguing innovation, such as an undercurrent of mechanical rhythm in the opener – iOTA’s take on Space Oddity – that enhanced the feeling of artificiality and isolation of a solo space mission. Other touches, such as the upright bass section playing pizzicato, added depth and insistence to some of the tunes.

Musical performances were solid, and the orchestra gave a big, rich sound, as we expected from this type of offering. However, I was disheartened to find that arrangements generally weren’t prepared to take a more iconoclastic approach towards Bowie’s catalogue.

For all the snippets of piccolo or few strikes of tubular bells, front and centre was a traditional rock n’ roll ensemble of lead and rhythm guitar, electric bass and percussion. The dominance of this standard grouping meant that much of the time Nothing Has Changed relied rather heavily on volume to elicit a reaction from the audience.

Perhaps this approach followed from the choice of vocalists. Whilst some of these had voices that suit journeys within their own rock/pop constellation, they quite often weren’t up to the task of traversing the wide universe of The Starman. Limited ranges were exposed, and lack of breath to finish off lines strongly was evident in some quite lacklustre performances that weren’t redeemed by seemingly over-rehearsed dance moves. At these times backing singers Jade McRae and Robyn Loau made valuable contributions to fill out the vocals. The rather tepid, short-lived applause for some songs showed many in the audience felt similarly underwhelmed.

Tim Rogers acquitted himself well, a standout being the finale Lazarus where he embraced the psychodrama that lurks beneath some of Bowie’s tunes. Without a doubt, the night belonged to white-faced and red-shoed iOTA who lit up the stage on each appearance.

Quite simply, iOTA was better suited than most for the rigours of Bowie. With a wide range and penetrating vocals, he commanded attention. He didn’t just sing, he performed, from pulsing across the stage like an oily harlequin in Fashion, to delivering sombre revelations in Ashes to Ashes. After a lot of flat spots in the first act, iOTA’s (Is There) Life on Mars? was the perfect synergy of words and music to give this reviewer ripples of brain chills. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice that applause for his contributions was much more vigorous and sustained than it was other offerings.

The second act was generally stronger. Some of the arrangements were more challenging, flirting with discordant elements that made good use of the MSO’s capabilities.

I’ve recently read opinion pieces on the stifling of culture caused by obsession with entertainments of the past. That we have people who choose to look forwards is why we were blessed with artists like David Bowie. If Nothing Has Changed had channelled the ambition of Ziggy Stardust or Bowie’s other personas, it would have done much more to propel Bowie’s legacy into the future. Whilst there were some highs, Bowie, and those who draw inspiration from him, deserved a better show than this uneven effort.

Melbourne Festival – David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Monday 17 October 2016 – 8.00pm
Season: 15 – 17 October 2016

Image: David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte