IF YOU GO
What: Celebrating David Bowie.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 11.
Where: Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside.
Info.: (215) 572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com.
Keyboardist Mike Garson makes the unique claim that he performed with David Bowie at his first American concert and his last American concert.
“I was only originally hired for eight weeks. I didn’t know who David Bowie was when he called me. I was able to change style for him, and he loved that,” he said. “He kept you on your toes and didn’t want the music to get stale. Just when you were getting comfortable with a song, he’d tell you to do something different.”
Bowie, who forged a career as an actor and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, died from liver cancer in 2016, shortly after the release of a new album.
The leader of a band called Celebrating David Bowie, Garson is like the president-by-default of a virtual Bowie alumni association. He’s in touch with 50 people that recorded, wrote and toured with the shapeshifting British artist over the course of about a half-century.
“Over the next few years, I’ll get them all” to play in the rotating lineup of Celebrating Bowie, Garson boldly proclaimed in a phone interview, in the middle of a Los Angeles traffic jam.
Like any good reunion chairman, Garson seems well-informed on the whereabouts and comings and goings of the significant contributors in Bowie’s creative circle. For instance, did you know Luther Vandross and David Sanborn helped make the classic album “Young Americans” at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios?
“David was the ultimate casting director. He was a genius in who he found. That whole Philly soul thing was what we were going for. David was a sponge (of musical styles). I remember him listening to Aretha Franklin in his headphones. He was always on the edge and didn’t like to live in a comfort zone,” Garson said, adding that “Young Americans” forced him to trade the “crazy” style he played on the “Aladdin Sane” sessions for a gospel and pop hybrid.
For a Celebrating Bowie U.S. tour that comes to the Keswick Theatre Feb. 11, Garson has rounded up Bowie collaborators Earl Slick (guitarist, 1974-76, 2002-2013), Carmine Rojas (bassist, 1983-1987) and Gerry Leonard (guitarist, 2002-2013). Doing the singing will be Bernard Fowler, who is known for his work as a backup singer with The Rolling Stones, and 2017 Grammy nominee Gaby Moreno.
During Celebrate Bowie’s performances — which Garson descbribed as “karaoke on steroids” because of the emotional audience sing-alongs — surprise guests often step on stage. They’ve ranged from singers that are stars in their home countries of France and Holland, to internationally famous names like Sting, Simon Le Bon, Joe Elliot and Gary Oldman. Not revealing who might show up on the 11th, he said that all a guest star has to do to join in is show up during the soundcheck.
The band knows 40 of Bowie’s songs by heart, ranging from “Changes,” “Let’s Dance” and “Life on Mars?”, to “Quicksand” from 1971’s “Hunky Dory,” “Lady Grinning Soul” off “Aladdin Sane” and “Can You Hear Me?” from “Young Americans,” to tracks from 2013’s “The Next Day” and the final David Bowie album “Blackstar.”
Garson said that the addition of Slick means they’ll explore tracks from “Station to Station,” like the signature song “Golden Years.”
In a press release, Slick said: “I’m happy to announce that I am officially joining my longtime DB band mates starting on the February leg of the ‘Celebrating David Bowie’ tour. So put on your red shoes (a reference to the hit ‘Let’s Dance’) and I’ll see you all then.”
The show also includes Garson sharing his David Bowie stories from the stage. One memory he has from the sessions of “Earthling,” during Bowie’s ‘90s industrial period, involves the song “Battle for Britain.” “He decided he wanted a piano solo in the middle. This was the age of record stores ... Tower Records. He says: ‘Go down and buy this record where (composer Igor) Stravinsky is recording one of his octets’,” he said.
Garson said: “It’s bigger than me, and the music is bigger than all of us.”