David Bowie: A year of changes in tribute to musical hero

Published date: 10 January 2017 |
Published by: Jamie Bowman 
Read more articles by Jamie Bowman  Email reporter


 

A year on from the death of David Bowie, many of the musician's fans still feel raw.

But what must if feel like for someone whose job it is to 'be' Bowie night after night?

Jamie Bowman spoke to the lead singer of Absolute Bowie who play Chester's Live Rooms later this year...
 
LIKE most Bowie fans, John O’Neill can remember exactly where he was on January 10, 2016, when he heard that his hero had died aged 69.
 
“I share a birthday with Bowie on January 8 and we always play a gig in London on his birthday,” explains John.
 
“It always goes down a storm and last year we played gigs on the eighth and ninth and I had a birthday meal afterwards at the hotel.
 
“I woke up the next morning and I had 47 text messages so I thought ‘something is going on here’.
 
“It was such a shock at first – he was my mentor for years and even though I never met him I looked up to him as a father figure because my own father was never really around in my life.
 
“He was the closest I had to that and you share a lot through music. Over the years he’s stayed with me through the songs and then suddenly he was gone.
 
“Nothing prepares you for death."
 
For John, the close connection he felt with Bowie is hardly suprising as for the last eight years he has spent night after night performing as his hero in the acclaimed tribute act Absolute Bowie.
 
The five-piece has toured all over Europe during that time, faithfully performing the music of Bowie with uncanny accuracy with John taking on the different personas of Bowie, from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane through to The Thin White Duke and his 80s years as a pop superstar.
 
“The first gig we played after his death was on the 16th at the Garage in London and it was packed,” remembers John.
 
“There were people crying at the front of the stage and it was a really mad atmosphere and I had to try and keep my emotions in check, but really I don’t think I’ve cried as much before in my life as I have done this year.”
 
Despite the shock of Bowie’s death overshadowing 2016, John and his bandmates have used the loss as a springboard to investigating further the artist’s extensive back catalogue.
 
“It’s compelled all of us,” he says.
 
“We can easily get stuck in our genre when we do a 70s and 80s set every weekend, but his death has made me look at the 90s and 00s right up to his last album, Blackstar.
 
“It’s opened up a new door for us because it’s such powerful music and now we’ve had a chance to complete doing the music he gave us and cover 50 years of music over a weekend.
 
“The texture of the music changed so much, but that was what he did – he thought totally outside the box and didn’t follow anyone.
 
“Everyone followed him instead.”
 
Despite no previous experience in bands, John has been replicating Bowie’s voice and moves for 13 years now and this is the first time he’s ever really looked at extending the setlist beyond the classics.
 
“I’m quite confident on stage, but this stuff is challenging for all of us,” he says.
 
“It’s more technical and we’re playing with click tracks and samples to make a good go of it so it’s tricky, but at the same time it’s great when you get it done and it gives you such a great feeling.
 
“When we first played Blackstar we didn’t know what the audience were going to do, but we did it as an encore and they went mad. It was epic.”
 
Bowie’s death has also brought a renewed purpose to the band who now see themselves as keepers of a very special flame.
 
“We pride ourselves on getting it right and being as authentic as possible,” says John, 51.
 
“Anyone can do a version of Ziggy Stardust, but I’ll do it in detail with the costumes and the stage look and the acting.
 
“Bowie was an actor when he was on stage and in a way it allows me to explore myself by taking on different characters. I’d never been on stage before this and I was just someone with a good voice in his bedroom listening to middle of the road rock, but I have a four octave range which allows me to hit the notes.
 
“This is my third Bowie band and I started out playing all the pubs, but this one has really taken off.”
 
With all the sadness that Bowie’s death brought, John and his bandmates have taken solace from the fact that their gigs have now become celebrations of a very special and unique life.
 
“The fans are going mad now,” he adds.
 
“I’ve really seen it in this last year and the fans really want to celebrate even more than before. We’ve always been a busy band who do about 70 gigs a year, but for us it’s still all about the music and what we give to the fans.
 
“I always try and give a good speech at the end of the gig which connects with people on an emotional level because without this guy we wouldn’t be up on stage and they wouldn’t be down there watching us.
 
“At the end of the day, it’s all about him. We’re just a vessel for his music.”
 
Absolute Bowie – Greatest Hits is at The Live Rooms, Chester on Friday, March 31, 2017 at 7pm. Tickets cost £14 from www.seetickets.com.

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