If you’re a David Bowie fan, there’s a must-see show happening in Portland on Thursday night. It’s not a tribute show or a cover band. Holy Holy is one degree of separation from Bowie himself.
In 1970 Bowie released his third album, “The Man Who Sold the World.” Two key players on it were drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey and bass player Tony Visconti, who also produced it. Woodmansey would go on to play on Bowie’s next three records and Visconti produced several subsequent Bowie albums through the years, including “Young Americans,” “Heroes,” “Lodger,” “Scary Monsters” and “The Next Day.”
Let’s take a listen to the studio version of the album’s title track.
Visconti also produced Bowie’s brand new record, “Blackstar” (stylized as a black star), which drops on Friday, Bowie’s 69th birthday.
“The Man Who Sold the World” never got its own tour and that has bothered Woodmansey ever since. In 2014 Woodmansey decided it was time for the nine songs on “TMWSTW” to finally get their due in a live setting. Bowie himself wasn’t interested but Tony Visconti was all in. Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory was recruited along with guitarist James Stevenson (The Cult, Gene Loves Jezebel, X), guitarist Paul Cuddeford (Ian Hunter, Bob Geldof), keys player Berenice Scott and Terry Edwards on sax and acoustic guitars.
Woodmansey dubbed the band Holy Holy after a Bowie song. They played four shows in the UK that received huge accolades. A double live album that includes “TMWSTW” and several classic Bowie tunes were released and the band decided to keep Holy Holy going. A 12-date North American tour starts in Portland.
Visconti’s daughter Jessica Lee Morgan is opening all the shows and performing backup vocals in Holy Holy as well as taking lead vocals on “Lady Stardust” during the show’s second set.
I spoke to Tony Visconti from his home in New York City.
What was your reaction when Woody reached out to you about Holy Holy and performing “The Man Who Sold the World?”
I didn’t answer him at first. I was busy. I just smiled and said, ‘Yeah that’s not gonna happen because it’s too much work.’ But he got back to me and he said, ‘Will you please read my effing email (or something like that) and give me an answer?’ And I said OK. I said yes before I even understood what I was getting myself into. And I adore Woody.
It brought back some good memories. I loved making that album. We were inventive and creative. We didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of us. So I said yes and then I realized I had to learn that album. This was early 2014. I started practicing and by the time I got to London I was in good shape. We rehearsed for about four days and did four gigs in the UK and we knew we were onto something. The audiences went nuts.
As a huge Bowie fan, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like hearing the first few bars of “The Width of a Circle.” What’s it like for you?
Every show we’ve done we’ve looked at each other almost incredulously, thinking “is this really happening?” It’s an absolute joy. It’s like being able to travel back in time and put things right. It sounds better now. Glenn Gregory has a very strong baritone voice. I picked him personally because I didn’t want anyone who resembled Bowie vocally or physically. It’s a reworking of the album; a reimagining, and Glenn is perfect because no one can say he’s copying Bowie, yet he’s perfect for it.
Without giving away everything, can you talk about what the Portland show will include?
It’s all Bowie. We go into some “Ziggy Stardust” material, as well, because Woody’s the original drummer on that. We only play songs that Woody and I were part of. It’s not tribute; it’s us. It’s what we did, what we created. In the second half we play “Ziggy Stardust,” “Changes,” “Life on Mars,” “Watch That Man” and “Moonage Daydream.”
You guys sure know how to pick them.
People go crazy in the first half, but the second half they go twice as crazy. It just keeps building and building and building.
Is there a particular song on “The Man Who Sold the World” that gives you extra heart palpitations?
“After All” almost brings me to tears even when I’m playing it on stage. It’s so beautiful. The music is so evocative alone, but the lyrics are beautiful, too. I was there when he wrote that song and it really moved me. I like, for pure testosterone, “The Width of a Circle” and “She Shook Me Cold.” Those are really cool to play. I spread my feet a little wider on those.
How does it feel knowing that there will be people at the show like me who are such huge fans of this album who have never heard these songs live before? The freak-out factor is pretty high for this show.
That’s what turns me on, that I’m freaked out that I’m doing it. It’s so cool. This is almost like “Back to the Future” or something like that for us. It’s so cool because it’s a chance to finally do it. We never did it. It’s even more than a bucket list wish. It’s something like science fiction that we’re getting out and we’re able to play it.
Woody and I are fit. He’s drumming every bit as good as when he was 22 years old. He’s in fantastic shape. And I must admit, my hands are fast. You need to have fast hands to play this show. It’s really going to be great sounding. You’re not going to hear a pale version; you’re going to hear an improved version of the album.
Seeing that you’re playing on the eve of Bowie’s birthday and on the eve of the release of his new record, which you produced, can you give me just a couple of adjectives that you would use to describe it?
Iconoclastic. It’s so different. Wait until you hear it. It’s so different. He’s broken through his barriers with this one. He’s batted the ball out of the park. It’s fantastic. Iconoclastic is right for that. Full of surprises.
Holy Holy, 8 p.m. Thursday, Asylum, 121 Center St., Portland. $20, 18-plus. portlandasylum.com
Aimsel Ponti can be contacted at 791-6455 or at: