It's been a fortnight since I saw Holy Holy performing at the prestigious London Palladium. There is sadly no more frustrating an existence than that of the writer who is too busy scratching a living to have the time to write. Fortunately (for me), performances like this one are not quickly forgotten.
Holy Holy is led by Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, the legendary drummer and sole surviving member of The Spiders From Mars, the quartet fronted by David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period in the early 1970s. The band's description of itself as a "supergroup" is audacious and assertive, but entirely justified. I've seen a whole bunch of tribute bands, some of them very good, but this is something so immeasurably different as to be off the scale.
For starters there is Woody himself, who was there when it all happened the first time. One can hardly be a tribute act to oneself. On bass is Tony Visconti, who played on The Man Who Sold The World and went on to produce around a dozen of Bowie's subsequent albums as well as scores of others for such artists as T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Morrissey, Iggy Pop and The Moody Blues to name just a few.
AN IMPRESSIVE LINE-UP
On guitars are James Stevenson (The Alarm, Generation X, The Cult) and Paul Cudderford (Ian Hunter, Bob Geldof) - both proud Mick Ronson devotees. On keyboards is Heaven 17's Berenice Scott and on guitar, sax and backing vocals (and occasionally lead vocals) the very talented Jessica Lee Morgan, daughter of Visconti and Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin. With such an impressive line-up fronted by the ferocious vocal talents of Heaven 17's Glenn Gregory, Holy Holy is clearly no more a tribute group than the Rolling Stones is a pub band.
In all of this Glenn Gregory himself deserves a special mention. Whilst his vocal range and power are beyond dispute, when I saw Holy Holy for the first time just over a year ago I felt he looked just a little awkward, his hand gestures and body language ever so slightly self-conscious. Of course it may just have been my imagination, but in any event this was entirely understandable - rock frontmen by their very nature exude ego every bit as much as ability, demanding ownership of the stage as well as of the songs they sing. When their raison d'etre before an audience is as an act of homage to another frontman, especially one of such immense stature as Bowie, ego is not an option.
Nevertheless, at the Palladium not a hint of awkwardness reported present. Gregory commanded the set from start to finish and, just like a certain man, he never lost control. My wife Caroline, not a Bowie fan but there to keep me company and to enjoy a night out in London, singled his out as the best and most memorable performance amongst some very stiff competition.
HARD ROCK ETHIC
The set itself comprised a complete and sequential performance of two of Bowie's early albums, The Man Who Sold The World and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. The former, released in 1970, had been the first to involve something approaching what was to become the iconic Spiders line-up, although with Visconti on bass rather than Trevor Bolder, who arrived a little later. As a progressive rock enthusiast Woodmansey was much at home with its hard rock ethic, although curiously it was never actually toured by Bowie and the band. Woody's eagerness to make up for lost time with his present company was lovable and infectious.
From the raw and racy excitement of The Width Of A Circle, through After All with its eerily Gothic fairground vibe, the throbbing percussion sound of The Supermen and the recurring faux-Latin backdrop of the title track, Holy Holy delivered the first instalment with power and authenticity. Then it was time for Woody's patient yet strangely haunting drum intro to Five Years to lead us into the second.
The band's interpretation of the whole Ziggy Stardust playlist was similarly faithful to the original with which, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of the audience were as familiar to the last note as I was. Any rare deviations had a relevance all of their own; for instance the guitar play-out at the tail end of Moonage Daydream was recognisably that of Ronson's climactic finale during the historic Ziggy tour of 1973. When Jessica Lee Morgan took lead vocals for Lady Stardust it was almost like a signal to the crowd that the dancing was soon to begin and, sure enough, by the time the group had launched into Star the first among our fellow old-timers in the Royal Stalls were on their feet.
A SHORT CHAPTER
Almost half a century on from the halcyon days of the early seventies Woody Woodmansey is conspicuously an even better drummer than he was in those far-off days. He did little wrong when he wielded the sticks for Bowie but there is an authority about his playing now which just keeps on growing. I would love the opportunity to ask him just how he processes the surreality of performing the same numbers on stage this second time around, probably before many of the same people in the audience, with the other Spiders gone and a whole new gang playing in front of him.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of The Spiders From Mars to the whole Bowie story. And yet, chronologically speaking, they were but a short chapter in a long, almost Tolstoy-esque epic which held the reader's attention to the last through the novel expedient of changing the characters repeatedly throughout.
I will simply say this though as if to illustrate my point. I have watched countless documentaries about Bowie's career and a whole lot of them have survived the omission of Diamond Dogs, the Young Americans plastic soul period or even the Thin White Duke in the interests of maintaining brevity. But try relating the story of this extraordinary man's artistic career without any mention of Ziggy or the Spiders and see where that lands your credibility. Bowie made some wonderful music post-Spiders with the help of some of the very best musicians, but there was something about the two years or so that he spent in the company of Ronno, Bolder and Woody that stands apart, and tells a tale all of its own.
I read somewhere that in a moment of reflection Bowie once wondered aloud what direction his career would have taken had the band remained together. I have often found myself reflecting upon this too. Personally I consider it doubtful that Ziggy would have maintained his mystique for half a century, with middle-aged ladies hurling their substantial corsets at a much filled-out Ronson as he struck arthritis-defying guitar-god poses about the stage. But Bowie changed, constantly, and there is no good reason why the band could not have changed with him. It is a tantalising thought, but sadly one which will never progress beyond our imaginations and our dreams.
But we do have Holy Holy, the evergreen supergroup performing the music of a departed hero, filling venues and wowing audiences on a scale that many "stand alone" acts equipped with their own material and owing nothing to anybody who went before would kill for. Other than perhaps the price of the beer, there was absolutely nothing about the whole evening that I would have preferred any other way. I missed it, but when Caroline told me that Woody had thrown his drumstick at the end of the set I was momentarily overcome with an uneasy sense of deju vu, but it would seem it was simply done in happiness, and perhaps relief that the night had gone off so swimmingly.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
At the end of the evening, and with the two playlists completed to perfection, the band allowed itself a little time to unwind with a few bonus Bowie numbers which didn't belong to the sequence. Before Rebel Rebel provided us with a lively, hand-clapping final encore I was surprised to hear them perform Where Are We Now? - not only because it was a much later number, released in 2013, but also because it was a melancholy lament the mood of which was much in contrast with what we had been listening to earlier. But Glenn Gregory nailed it, and I found my inner nostalgic being summoned from the depths of my soul as he pined for days gone by, with images of the Brandenburg Gate and Richmond Lock flashing through my subconscious.
When I saw Woody and Tony Visconti last year at a presentation at the latter's Kingston studio I wanted to ask them during their brief Q&A session whether they had considered writing and adding some of their own material to their repertoire, not of course as a separate venture from their core business but as a compliment to it, something maybe which paid homage to Bowie, to his work, to the Spiders, to the seventies or whatever. For whatever reason my nerve failed me, worried perhaps that I would be misunderstood either by them or by their devoted audience, or indeed by both. The question still nags me, and I wish I'd persisted.
Holy Holy are truly a unique act, there to honour the genius of another man who left us much too soon, and yet a phenomenon in their own right. I'm impatient to see the band realise its absolute best potential, which despite the huge triumph of the Palladium and of the tour I feel is yet to come.