Sympathetic Vibrations | Let's Dance
Local David Bowie tribute supergroup gearing up for fourth annual performance
Ask 10 different music lovers about David Bowie’s legacy, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. But if you’re trying get a better grasp of his enigmatic persona, maybe that lack of agreement about Bowie’s wide-reaching impact is as good a place to start as any.
Bowie remained musically active and culturally relevant all the way up to his death in 2016 at the age of 69, shortly after the release of his final full-length opus, “Blackstar.” And while Bowie’s career earned him worldwide adoration, it has also inspired a group of local musicians to showcase Kansas City talent through The Band that Fell to Earth – a tribute team whose annual performances have become among the area’s most anticipated shows of the year.
The band will celebrate its fourth anniversary next week with the largest lineup yet and two shows at the recordBar, the first on Friday, Jan. 18 and the second on Saturday. Jan. 19. The band was initially formed in 2015 by Michelle Bacon (bass) and Stephanie Williams (drums). (Full disclosure: Bacon is the radio content and database manager for 90.9 The Bridge.) The two had been itching to do a project together, and the allure of a tribute to Bowie was too tempting to ignore.
“He was an iconic artist, but he also had a really active career for six decades, so there was so much you could do with his catalog,” Bacon said. “And with all the talented musicians we have here in town, I knew that we would be able to execute that really well.”
The Band That Fell To Earth's 2016 inaugural performance at Uptown Theater. | Videos: John McGrath, KCPT – Kansas City PBS
Bacon and Williams set out to organize an event to celebrate the singer’s then-upcoming 70th birthday. Along the way, Bacon enlisted Steve Tulipana (vocals), Nathan Corsi (vocals, guitar), Alex Alexander (guitar), Kyle Dahlquist (keys) and, later, Katy Guillen (guitar), who were all eager to pay homage to the icon.
However, the spirit and significance of the event were altered on Jan. 10, 2016 – just weeks before the inaugural tribute performance – when Bowie passed away after an 18-month fight with cancer.
Thereafter, what was initially intended as a humble tribute show morphed into part-funeral, part-raucous celebration of an artist whose local fans yearned for their own sense of closure. And due to the high demand for tickets, the band was forced to move the show from its original venue at Knuckleheads to the Uptown Theater.
Since then, the group has maintained an annual event, modifying the set list each year and inviting guests from across the local music spectrum to take part in the revelry. And the breadth and diversity of the artists involved over the years stands as glittering evidence of Bowie’s widespread reach as an artist.
“Our band comes from so many different areas of music, but we all feel the same way about [Bowie’s] music – there is something unifying about that,” Corsi said. “It wasn’t that he was different. It was that everyone could relate.”
Guest performers for this year’s events include Julia Haile (Hi-Lux), Rachel Mallin (Rachel Mallin & the Wild Type), Wick Thomas (Wick & the Tricks), Michael Tipton (Found A Job), Ben Grimes (formerly of Soft Reeds), Slim Hanson (Slim Hanson & the Poor Choices), Jeff Harshbarger (People's Liberation Big Band), Miki P (Two Lions) and Madisen Ward (Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear). This is in addition to the band's auxiliary musicians — Havilah Bruders and Camry Ivory (backing vocals), Betse Ellis (violin), Christine Broxterman (cello), Rich Wheeler (saxophone) and Matt Ronan (percussion).
Together this veritable Voltron of local musicians will set out to recreate tracks from across Bowie’s catalog. And to do that, the core group delicately and thoughtfully arranged the tracks with more of a respectful nod to the original recordings than any sense of role-playing.
Each night’s show will feature different artists and set lists, so audiences from years past can expect fresh material. Regardless of which show audiences attend, they will get a good survey of local talent.
“Everyone really puts their heart and soul into this and practices their asses off to get the tones right. But at the same time, we never wanted to be a mimic band,” Tulipana said. “Of course, you’re going to embrace some of the elements, but we don’t think of it as a theatrical show.”
Bacon said she has wanted this event to be a celebration of not only Bowie’s work, but of the wider KC community. That idea extends beyond the realm of music, as the event has partnered with a nonprofit in each year of its performances.
This year’s event will benefit KC for Refugees – an organization that aids refugees who have relocated to the area – by providing resources, education and a sense of community. Bacon, who is herself an immigrant, said she wanted the show to aid an organization where the money would have a real-world impact.
“Yes, this is a tribute band, but each one of these people has an original project, and I want people who come to these shows to see how much Kansas City is thriving,” Bacon said. “It’s not just us playing a bunch of covers. We want to make it something special for everybody and to lift up this groundbreaking artist who has had a very deep and personal impact on a lot of people’s lives.”