When David Bowie hired keyboardist Mike Garson for the “Ziggy Stardust” tour in 1972, the contract covered eight weeks of shows but failed to mention Garson would play Bowie’s “guinea pig” in concert. At New York’s famed Hammerstein Ballroom in 1973, Bowie asked Garson to “test the room” and perform a solo piano cover of “John, I’m Only Dancing” for an audience that included Barbra Streisand and Elliot Gould. Much later, in 2000, Bowie did it again. Before his headlining set at England’s Glastonbury Festival, the British rock icon grew nervous backstage when told the audience’s size: 250,000 people.
“So he tells me, and he’s smiling, ‘Go out there, Mike, and play some [of composer George Gershwin’s] ‘A Foggy Day (In London Town)’ before I come out,’ ” Garson recalls with a laughfrom a hotel in Mesa, Ariz.
“I go out and play, and nothing comes out of the keyboard,” Garson says. “Can you imagine the humiliation? It turned out the mike was off, so no problem. But it’s one of my favorite moments with him, because I was his guinea pig. He was a character. Very funny, great sense of humor.”
More than 45 years after the “Ziggy Stardust” tour, Garson is still awed by his musical kinship with the late Bowie. A confidant of the singer and a longtime collaborator, the 72-year-old Garson played on nine Bowie studio albums, from 1973’s “Aladdin Sane” through 2003’s “Reality,” and toured with him until his final public performance in 2006.
Lately, Garson and key members of Bowie’s various bands have been keeping the music alive as Celebrating David Bowie, which will perform Wednesday, March 14, at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale for an evening of stories and Bowie hits.
Garson is the driving force behind Celebrating David Bowie, which formed shortly after the icon’s death in January 2016 and unites guitarist Earl Slick (multiple albums, from 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” to 2013’s “The Next Day”); guitarist Gerry Leonard (who appeared on 2002’s “Heathen” and 2003’s “Reality”); Rolling Stones backing vocalist Bernard Fowler; 2017 Grammy nominee Gaby Moreno; and a revolving door of guest performers. The Fort Lauderdale date will also feature singer-bassist Joe Sumner and Jay-Z collaborator Mr Hudson.
“We sound as good as when we backed up David, if not better,” Garson says. “We’re the real deal. It’s so exciting because the audience is singing every song and every word, and it’s cathartic, joyful and ecstatic all at once. We’re crying, and the audience is experiencing the same thing.”
Deciding which Bowie staples and deep cuts to include on tour set lists has “plagued me every day,” says Garson, who admits he restrains himself from turning each concert into a marathon tribute. As bandleader, Garson says he’s assembled every show this way. After he performed the single “Life on Mars” with Lorde at the 2016 BRIT Awards, a friend approached him with the idea to tour with Bowie alumni. “The buck stops with me,” Garson says, “and I’m still calling old friends to join us on tour.”
During the decade before Bowie’s death, the singer shied from the spotlight as his health worsened. Bowie “didn’t want me to see him sick, because we were close,” Garson says, so they communicated via email, and even planned for a recording with composer Brian Eno, a follow-up to Bowie’s 1995 concept album “Outside.”
Bowie would have appreciated the caliber of acts who have played with Celebrating David Bowie since the tour began, Garson says. Most have shown up to sound check at the last minute, including Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan and Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover.
“He was a Renaissance man, a genius, our Da Vinci, our Michelangelo, a fashion icon and a sculptor, and he meant all different things to everyone,” Garson says.
Celebrating David Bowie will perform 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $31.50-$58 via Ticketmaster.com. Call 954-462-0222 or go to ParkerPlayhouse.org.
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