Tony Visconti (bass)
Mick “Woody” Woodmansey (drums)
Glenn Gregory (vocals)
James Stevenson (guitar)
Paul Cuddeford (guitar)
Terry Edwards (12-string guitar, saxophone, percussion)
Berenice Scott (keyboards)
Lisa Ronson (backing vocals)
Jessica Lee Morgan (backing vocals)
Hannah Berridge (backing vocals, keyboards)
Philip Rambow (vocals, guitar)
Jessica Lee Morgan (vocals, guitar)
Chris Thomas (bass)
Norwich Arts Centre
51 St. Benedict’s Street,
Released in the very early 1970’s (November 1970 in the U.S. and April 1971 in the U.K.) by Mercury Records, David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” album was his third studio recording and the musicians involved were, essentially, the buildng blocks of the “Spiders From Mars”, made famous on that other classic Bowie album (with a need to be specific here as they are all classics in their own right – in my opinion of course!!!) “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. “The Man Who Sold The World” saw Bowie departing from his previous album’s (“Space Oddity”) more folkier leanings and presenting a seriously heavier suite of hard rock songs that is deemed to be where the David Bowie story really started, and some say, spawned a new cult of music – Glam Rock (it can be argued that Marc Bolan started the Glam thing, but that’s a discussion that’s not for here). With it’s political-ish/sci-fi-ish/Lovecraft-ish lyrics, rock guitars and tight production, it cast the mold for successive Bowie albums, a template for what was to come.
“The Man Who Sold The World”, interestingly, didn’t enjoy the kind of commercial success in the U.K. that it did in the U.S. despite reasonably favourable reviews from the music press of the time, there were no singles released from it and the album was never played live at the time of it’s issue. All that said, and taken into consideration, it is often cited as being one of Bowie’s finest albums and influenced a new generation of bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Nine Inch Nails.
Jumping into our musical time machine and forwarding ourselves to 2014, the album’s producer and bassist Tony Visconti and drummer Woody Woodmansey, joined forces with Woodmansey’s Holy Holy, Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory and an ensemble of high calibre musicians to play a small U.K. tour performing “The Man Who Sold The World” album in it’s entirety and throwing in a few Bowie songs from the same era. It was very well received and so in June 2015, Visconti, Woodmansey, Gregory and crew once again took to the road on a lengthier tour of the U.K., and yes, you’ve guessed it, this review covers their appearance in the fine East Anglian city of Norwich on the 17th June.
The venue for tonight’s performance was the Norwich Arts Centre, a small, independently run venue with charitable status, sited close as it is, to the centre of Norwich. The NAC is located in a converted church (originally called St. Swithin’s, built in 1349 and with many of it’s original features still intact) and has an auditorium that can hold both seated and standing events. Considering it’s size, it hosts a surprisingly diverse and vibrant mix of live music, theatre, live art, comedy and live literature, actively supporting creativity and creating opportunities for the development of new talent. There is also a highly cultural mix in their programming, offering as they do a wide range of presentations that cover rock and pop, world, jazz and folk music, alongside rising comedy stars, performance opportunities, children’s theatre and creative workshops. It has a very intimate, but engaging atmosphere and creates a cool feeling of involvement when watching a performance, such is the close proximity to the stage.
The support for the evening consisted of two half-hour performances from Philip Rambow and Jessica lee Morgan.
Canadian singer/songwriter Philip Rambow quietly came to the stage for a one man and his guitar performance – and what a performance. The quality of Philip’s set comes as no surprise when you take into account his background, his original U.K. band, The Winkies, influenced The Clash and he has collaborated with the likes of Kirsty MacColl, Brian Eno, Mick Ronson (a name that will surface again in the coming paragraphs) and Ellen Foley, in a career that has, according to Philip’s website, been an “eclectic and exciting musical journey”. His style of a cross-fusion of rock and folk really worked well in the context of the headline act with good songs and a great voice.
Next up was Jessica Lee Morgan. And what an interesting lady she was too. The daughter of Tony Visconti and singer Mary Hopkin, Jessica was joined on stage by bassist Chris Thomas, effortessly performing a memorable collection of acoustic folky songs with sincerity, a smile and an obvious passion for what she does. All in all, quite delightful. Jessica later joined the headline act as one of the three backing vocalists.
The turnaround between the support acts was quick, so there was no lengthy waiting and this continued through to the headline act. A few restrained bars of classical music (it sounded like Beethoven) played as the band came on stage, picked up their instruments and played their hearts out for the best part of two hours. The line-up was what one could only describe as high calibre and as impressive as the evening’s performance. It was also a line-up that was definitely something of a family affair, as you will see!!! Up front was lead vocalist Glenn Gregory (lead singer with Heaven 17 as you probably already know if you follow this website), on guitars were Paul Cuddeford (who has played guitar with Sir Tom Jones, Sir Bob Geldof, Ian Hunter, McFly, Cat Stevens and Paul Young to name but a few) and James Stevenson (having played guitar with amongst many others Chelsea, Gen X, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Alarm, Kim Wilde and The Cult). On bass was the legendary producer Tony Visconti who, alongside producing artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, The Moody Blues, Ralph McTell, Sparks, Thin Lizzy and the Kaiser Chiefs, also produced and played bass on “The Man Who Sold The World” album as well as producing much of the rest of David Bowie’s catalogue. On drums was Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, who played on a number of David Bowie’s earliest albums and, along with guitarist Mick Ronson, was a member of the original Spiders from Mars who backed David Bowie on the corresponding album and subsequent tours. And speaking of the late great Mick Ronson, he was very well represented by his daughter Lisa Ronson and niece Hannah Berridge on backing vocals (Hannah also playing keyboards), alongside Jessica Lee Morgan (Tony Visconti’s daughter – see, I told you it was a family affair). On 12-string guitar, percussion and saxophone was the very talented Terry Edwards (worked with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Department S, Lydia Lunch, Tom Waits, The Blockheads and Hot Chip) and on keyboards was Berenice Scott (keyboardist with Heaven 17 and daughter of Robin Scott who enjoyed success with the iconic “Pop Muzik” in 1979 under the moniker of “M”). A line-up such as this carries a lot of promise, and let me tell you before I go any further, that promise was delivered, and then some.
The evening’s performance was basically split into two, the first half being the tracks that made up “The Man Who Sold The World”, performed in the same order as they were on the album. So, things kicked off straight away with “The Width of a Circle”, played fatihfully to the original with the feel and spirit of a Bowie performance, not least because of Paul Cuddeford’s guitar. And Glenn Gregory had this audience on side from this first song, his interpretation spot on because he sung it, as he did the rest of the set, as Glenn Gregory and not David Bowie, something that people I spoke to after the gig really felt was a massive plus for the evening. Following this was “All the Madmen”, deliriously performed by Glenn, capturing the lyrically manic nature of the original and a splendidly crunchy rendition of “Black Country Rock”. “After All” was perfectly handled, the near-gothic weirdness of the original captured with Glenn’s vocal hitting that “on the edge” feel, one of a number of highlights for this reviewer. I was impressed with Glenn Gregory’s note perfect handling of “Running Gun Blues”, singing rock vocals was something I had never really considered hearing from him, but tonight was an eye-opener in the most positive sense. “Saviour Machine” was one of a number of tracks that I had been looking forward to hearing, being a fan of sci-fi (the song is about machines controlling society etc). It’s a complex piece with time signatures and chord structures that challenge the listener and the performer alike, so it pleases me to say that it was right on the money. Another song that really suited Glenn Gregory’s vocal – again I have to emphasise that he did not perform it in any way as a kind of Bowie tribute, but as himself. The next track was “She Shook Me Cold” – another highlight for me. Guitarist James Stevenson really blew the whole thing onto another level with his Ronson inspired solo during this song, throwing himself into it with much harmonically screaming gusto – I was standing in front of him at the time and it was seriously top drawer stuff. And then the title track. Another highlight. Glenn Gregory’s performance, stage presence and vocal intonation (that again did NOT copy Bowie) really made this song stand out for me, as well as the ethereal backing vocals from the Ronsonettes or perhaps Viscones, they didn’t quite decide on what they were called. The last song on the album and for this part of the set was, of course, the fabulous fabulous fabulous “The Supermen” (yes I like this song), gloriously and shamelessly Lovecraft throughout. And it was brilliantly performed by everyone; Glenn captured the maniacal edginess of the original (still not being Bowie, but being Gregory), the guitarists relentlessly drove it forward, Tony Visconti’s insistent bass provided a solid underpin, Woody Woodmansey worked it like a demon and the backing vocalists sold the near operatic backing. A really cool ending to this first part, a small group of people close to where I was standing enthusiastically claimed it sounded better than the original. Me? I could have listened to it all over again, along with the rest of this part of the evening. “The Man Who Sold The World” was a tragically under-rated album, it was where Bowie found his voice and everything fell into place for the Ziggy Stardust era. Tonight’s ensemble gave it new life and made a 45 year old collection of songs sound fresh whilst still staying true to the original arrangements.
But it wasn’t over.
Not by a long chalk.
We now went into a kind of “greatest hits” of the 1969-1974 Bowie era with, it seemed at one point, a lot of emphasis on “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album – and why not, it’s another Bowie classic (perhaps even another tour?). “Five Years”, “Soul Love” and “Moonage Daydream” exploded from the PA, hands were in the air and the audience was singing-along-a-Glenn, the already electric atmosphere turned up a notch. Another highlight followed in the form of a medley comprising “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (from the “Space Oddity” album), “All the Young Dudes” (the audience nearly drowning out the band with “that” chorus and in my opinion, much better than the Bowie/Mott the Hoople versions) and “Oh! You Pretty Things” (from “Hunky Dory” and showing again how tight the band was). Then another highlight – Lisa Ronson taking lead vocals on “Lady Stardust”. Her vocal was perfectly suited to the song and it was quite an emotional performance. Glenn Gregory returned to the stage and introduced a very interesting young lady called Vita Ross (from up-and-coming electro-pop/rock band Vita and the Vicious), before they performed a positively blinding rendition of “Watch That Man” (from the “Aladdin Sane” album). Vita gave a very assured and confident performance, positively sizzling and clearly enjoying every single moment of her time on stage – and with that line-up who wouldn’t!!! The chemistry between Glenn and Vita was electric and with it possibly being something of a one-off, I for one, was very glad to have been there to enjoy it – the response from the crowd was nothing short of positive and I heard a lot of good things being said about Vita – a nice one for young lady’s CV methinks. The opening bars of “Life On Mars” (from “Hunky Dory”) brought the place down and we all had no choice but to join in, once again giving the band a run for their money in the volume stakes, the nostalgia factor running high on this one before we got another highlight. “Ziggy Stardust”. As soon as that guitar riff played and Glenn Gregory “oooh’d” before singing that classic first line……”And Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly and The Spiders from Mars”, the Norwich Arts Centre became a place of pure time travel as we experienced 1972 in 2015 – I found it interesting that this song, along with pretty much the whole of the rest of the set, didn’t sound dated unlike many other songs from the 1970’s and other eras such as the 1980’s, interesting in that these arrangements were the same as the originals and not re-hashed to suit modern tastes/styles etc. Obviously this is why these songs are true classics as they are proving quite timeless. Anyway, I’m digressing. The nostalgia vein continued with another crowd pleaser in the form of “Changes” – that opening piano/string phrase never sounded so good. This was another iconic Bowie song that Glenn Gregory, again, made his own, his stagecraft as well as his vocal undeniably good. And yes, we all j-j-joined in with the chorus. After this, Glenn informed us that this was the point at which they would normally go off stage whilst we, the attended throng, would shout, yell and clap for more and they would return with a couple of songs to finish the evening off. However, the Norwich Arts Centre isn’t a big place and the area to which they would go whilst we shouted, yelled and clapped, was quite small and would take too long to do. So, he told us that they would turn their backs to us whilst we shouted, yelled and clapped for more, and if it was loud enough, they would turn around and do another couple of numbers. So, they turned around with their backs to us. We shouted. We yelled. We clapped. They turned around then started with perhaps the most emotionally charged song of the night, “Rock and Roll Suicide” from the “Ziggy Stardust” album. Closing in on two hours, Glenn Gregory’s voice wasn’t faltering, something I picked up on when I saw him with Heaven 17 a couple of weeks back. Another crowd pleaser with hands in the air, the audience singing at some volume and the immortal line of this song, the screamed “you’re not alone”, was probably heard in Wales. The last two songs came in the form of a medley. First up was “Time” (from the “Aladdin Sane” album), executed with precision and capturing the fabulously manic feel of the original, providing the perfect lead into the final song of the night. The guitarists kicked it off with Terry Edwards’ persistent sax adding to the tension before Glenn Gregory launched into “Suffragette City”. It was raw, dirty, aggressive and full on, the volume cranked up to 12 and no prisoners being taken. I bloody loved it. And I just don’t know that any other song could have finished off this incredible evening of music. Talk about “wham bam thank you ma’am”!!!
Okay, I’ve waxed very lyrical in this blow-by-blow account of the set, which is all very well, but I feel a certain responsibility to explain why I was so impressed by this gig. For one, great support artists that had connections with the headline act and performed music that provided the right kind of pathway to the final destination. Secondly, an ensemble of revered and highly talented professionals, all connected and all pulling in the same direction. Thirdly, this wasn’t a cheap tribute act, this wasn’t about a group of aging musos trying to recapture/cash in on past glories and this wasn’t a gig that was trying to pretend that it was anything other than what it was – this was a group of seasoned professionals playing timeless songs their way whilst keeping to the original arrangements. And lastly, my three-part equation to the secret of a successful gig – style, performance and presentation. These are three things I will always bang on about, because I genuinely believe that to miss just one of these, which I have seen so many newer, as well as established, bands doing, leaves a gig wanting. Tonight, the style was there – these people looked good, plain and simple. The performance was without question the whole way through. Of note were Glenn Gregory (naturally) who has a certain stage presence that demands you look at him and he carried off the songs like they were his own; guitarists James Stevenson and Paul Cuddeford giving it good with their performances, both of them throwing the kind of the shapes (I swear I will soon have Tim Dorney charging me royalties for that expression!!!) you want to see from a rock guitarist; Tony Visconti playing it cool throughout, yet throwing the shapes when you least expect it; the one song appearance of Vita Ross who came a little bit close to stealing the show, she was loving it, it showed; and of course, Woody Woodmansey, every inch the rock drummer and completely at one with his drum kit throughout the evening. And so to the third part of my gig formula – presentation – this was a show with no flashy lights or video backdrops (not that there’s anything wrong with flashy lights and video backdrops), this was a show that relied completely on the music and the artists. It scored on both points – lights and video weren’t necessary. But the one thing really that stood out for me most of all and that was very apparent all the way through the evening, was that these people were really enjoying what they were doing – they smiled, they laughed and they got into the music, unafraid to let it show – that’s seriously infectious stuff.
So, another fantastic evening of quality music, professionally presented and expertly executed. I was fortunate enough to have a quick chat with Glenn Gregory just before he went on stage. I said that “The Man Who Sold The World” was one of my favourite Bowie albums, and he laughed telling me that he didn’t want to hear that because of expectations, well Glenn, no need to worry, from the people I spoke to after the gig, it’s fair to say that their expectations were exceeded. I also asked him how he felt the tour was going at this stage, of which he was very positive, telling me that he was enjoying it all and that he felt it was a great show. Well I have to disagree, it isn’t a great show, it’s a fantastic show, and you need to go and see it if you can.
Concert Images (courtesy of Neil Fellowes Photography):
Visconti/Woodmansey/Gregory and support