Peter Ormerod reviews Holy Holy at The Assembly, Leamington
It may have taken a while but perhaps the harsh reality has finally sunk in. There will be no more David Bowie concerts. The chance to see one of the greatest figures in rock history has passed. Those of us who saw him in concert were fortunate to do so; but that time is gone. The songs, however, remain, and people still want to hear them live. What to do?
There are various possible answers. There are the tribute acts, essentially impersonators bestowed with a talent for particular form of mimicry; they may well be impassioned fans of the artist, or lucky enough to share a resemblance with him in voice and appearance. Squint a bit and it could almost be him; that's the idea, anyway. Bowie tribute acts are legion and some, by various accounts, are very good at what they do.
But for a career as varied and mercurial as Bowie's, this is not enough. So we also have the spectacle of various touring ensembles of musicians who played with him, in concert and on record. There is room for them all, of course, and the players can hardly be blamed for making the most of their connections with the singer. The difficulty here though is that they may not actually have had anything to do with the writing or recording of many of the songs they play, essentially rendering them a superior sort of covers band, however sincere and earnest they may be.
Then we get to Holy Holy. They are something else entirely. Their drummer is Woody Woodmansey and their bassist is Tony Visconti. Between them, they worked on the albums Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Low, "Heroes", Lodger, Scary Monsters, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day and Blackstar. But it's not just their lineage that sets them apart: they formed the rhythm section for the second of those albums. Bowie never toured that record himself, so was happy to give his blessing to the band in 2014 when they formed to do just that. Five years later, and three years after Bowie's death, they're still going; they have lasted longer than the Spiders from Mars themselves. And in that time, it is plain to see that they have found a particular way of doing things; they have an integrity of their own.
It is always a treat to see musicians of such calibre and heritage in one's own town. But it was soon evident at a packed Assembly that they do not rely on reputation alone. The Man Who Sold The World is the closest Bowie came to a big hairy prog-rock album (although, it being him, he wears a dress and reclines louchely on the cover) and Holy Holy attack it ferociously. Visconti and Woodmansey are joined by two lead guitarists, James Stevenson and Paul Cuddeford, who replicate Mick Ronson's distinctive double-tracked work on the album with a winning blend of accuracy and freedom. Jessica Lee Morgan's rich 12-string acoustic lends some authentic texture to the sound; her backing vocals and occasional sax work bring depth and colour, as do Berenice Scott's keyboards, which range from sinister synths to mellow piano. And at front and centre is the commanding presence of singer Glenn Gregory, frontman of Heaven 17, who demonstrates complete mastery of his brief. There is no attempt to imitate, no outlandish attire, no especially flamboyant dance moves (bar the occasional high-kick, perhaps referencing an alternative cover of the album), no mime. He performs the songs in his own way; his vocals pack wall-shaking power and every note of every tune is hit with precision and affection. There is nothing sentimental or cloying; and his dignity and depth are allied to a sprightly energy. He is a great flatterer, too, endearing himself to the crowd from the outset, always encouraging and cajoling. It makes for what builds into a heartening atmosphere of communality and warmth.
From the thunderous opening of Width of a Circle, it is evident that their sound carries heft enough to demolish tower blocks. They barrel through its shifts of style and tempo with aplomb, its mischievous mood and devilish grandeur expressed impeccably. The mood changes to the eerily melodic for All the Madmen, disconcerting recorder sounds, spooky spoken-word interlude and all; Black Country Rock, perhaps one of Bowie's more minor compositions from the era, chugs along sweetly. Hearing the Aleister Crowley-referencing After All in the notorious occultist's home town was a treat indeed, its queasy, shadowy charm intact. Running Gun Blues sounded witty and wicked, its twisted humour if anything coming across better live than on record. She Shook Me Cold sounded like an immense beast of a song. Maybe the band's approach suited the title track a little less well, blasting away some of its oddness and mystery; but a towering The Supermen ended that part of the set on a high, evoking the decrepit, doomy majesty of the beings it describes.
Many in the audience would have been satisfied had the gig ended there. But no: next up, it was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, played in full. And so Woodmansey's drum intro to Five Years, surely one of the great album openings, heralds 45 minutes or so of dramatic crowd-pleasing singalongs aplenty. The album's songs, expertly crafted as they may be on record, need to be heard live and loud to be appreciated fully; and Woodmansey's drums, which perhaps were never captured as well as they should have been in the studio, provide them with added punch here. Guitars sear and chime as required, while Jessica Lee Morgan takes lead vocals for a graceful Lady Stardust. A glorious romp through Suffragette City and an intense Rock 'n' Roll Suicide bring the set to a rousing and spectacular conclusion.
And still that's not all. The encore begins with Where Are We Now?, Bowie's haunting and haunted comeback single from 2013, his last top-ten hit and a late-career masterpiece. Perhaps a slightly looser, gentler approach might have suited it better, but there was no denying the emotional fervour. Then Life on Mars?, Changes and a storming, stomping Rebel Rebel ensured even the most casual fan went home happy.
It is strange in some ways to call Holy Holy an 'authentic' Bowie experience; after all, Bowie spent much of his career dismantling common perceptions of artistic authenticity. But in heart, spirit and devotion, they are impossible to fault. We won't see Bowie ever again; but there can be no doubt that Holy Holy are the next best thing.
* Holy Holy played at The Assembly on Saturday February 23. Visit www.holyholy.co.uk for future tour dates.
* Read our interview with Woody Woodmansey
* See our gallery of striking pictures exploring Woody's work with Bowie and the legacy of Ziggy Stardust