David Bowie Prom: There was brilliance at work – but the experiment never quite lifted off

Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, Amanda Palmer, Marc Almond, Paul Buchanan, Velvet Underground's John Cale and Laura Mvula "reinterpreted" Bowie's biggest hits at the Royal Albert Hall

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Love David Bowie? Were you ever going to love this Prom? Mmm… 

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Let’s be clear, it was billed as a “reinterpretation of the music of David Bowie” and put together by a mismatch of musicians who loved/respected/wanted to honour the spirit and avant-garde creativity of Bowie. To that extent it might be deemed a success.

The event was masterminded by German conductor André de Ridder and his eclectic “collective” Stargaze – or s t a r g a z e as they style themselves, a “network of European musicians”. They numbered no more than a dozen, some doubling on backing vocals, one chap clambering between stage piano and the Albert Hall’s magnificent organ. You couldn’t fault them. They created a grand, Hall-filling sound and were up to the challenge of some highly peculiar arrangements.

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Amanda Palmer, Marc Almond, Conor O’Brien and Philippe Jaroussky perform with the House Gospel Choir and musicians’ collective s t a r g a z e 

“We feel like this is not a wake for David Bowie,” announced Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, one of the night’s star vocalists (also the wife of Neil Gaiman). She went on: “This is an amazing secular celebration of some of the most incredible music in the world.” If you say so. My friend and I had just sat through 100 minutes of Mahler (Prom 18 with the indefatigable Bernard Haitink, 87) so we were ready for anything.

And some outstanding moments came in quick succession. Conor O’Brien (aka Villagers) bathed us in a beautiful, yearning rendition of The Man Who Sold the World. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy (looking, from where I was squinting, like Martin Freeman) captured better than anyone the chilly otherworldly timbre of Bowie on This Is Not America. ShalalalaLA.

Next on, Marc Almond. For me, he’s a bit of a pop god in his own right. Different camp, different calibre to Bowie but still a class act in his own milieu. Sadly, this wasn’t it. Almond was gifted with Life on Mars but looked tormented by it. The arrangement sounded as though it had been filtered via Holst, beamed to the red planet then drifted back. Not a success. 

Worse was to come. Paul Buchanan essayed a ramshackle Ashes to Ashes – a maiden’s water dilution of the neat-absinthe original. At times he emitted harsher sounds than I’ve made after stubbing a toe.

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Laura Mvula performs at Prom 19

The much-vaunted Laura Mvula finally sauntered on amid a discordant but not displeasing arrangement of Fame and had a fair stab at Bowie’s idiosyncratic flat vowels.

De Ridder then introduced a trilogy of songs from Blackstar, Bowie’s final album. Notwithstanding the novelty of hearing squeaky-clean Mvula redialling, “Where the f**k did Monday go?”, it seemed to be doing little to win any converts to the later works. Until it closed on the title track – a duet between Anna Calvi and Amanda Palmer, with a dude on guitar. (He called himself Jherek Bischoff but I’m sure it was Dot from Line of Duty back from the dead.) It was as if these three had prized open the doors of a desperately sad and eerie crypt and lured us inside. Totally captivating. And when the organ thrummed in… well, it blew my socks off.

Marc Almond trolled back on for his Big Track Number Two, Starman, and harked back to seeing Bowie perform it on Top of the Pops in 1972 – “a life-changing moment to so many teenagers such as me”. More relaxed, the Tainted Lover tried to work the crowd and almost managed to lift the mood. I sang along, as did others beside me, but by now the atmosphere was ink-black with gloom.

Cue the night’s last big turn, John Cale, alumnus of the Velvet Underground. He had great, staggering stage presence – in the sense of the Dark Lord Voldemort channelling Mollie Sugden. He lapsed into Space Oddity – but Ground Control to major Prom! We now needed a gear change. A bit of uplift. A scintilla of joy. The House Gospel Choir filed on beside him but rather than elevating us to the heavens and casting us adrift in space, Cale hauled us through the seventh circle of hell.

Amanda Palmer was right. It was not a wake. Wakes are often jolly and celebratory. This Prom was Gloom Central. Don’t get me wrong: there was brilliance at work and s t a r g a z e scored a bone-shaking reverb in the Hall. And perhaps Bowie would have approved of their experiment. 

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