When the news of Todd Rundgren’s acute laryngitis dropped Friday afternoon, social media was set ablaze by fairweather concertgoers asking how they could go about getting a refund for a show that never hinged on his participation to begin with. They appeared to be miffed as to how the band could carry on without a marquee member yet never stopped to consider that the catalog itself might be the star of the show. For as much attention as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic attracted earlier this year, David Bowie’s oeuvre transcends the generation gap in a way that The King’s never will, so, if anyone actually got their money back prior to Saturday night, the lack of breathing room inside Town Ballroom made it nearly impossible to notice.
Was Rundgren’s absence felt? Perhaps, but not as much as one might think. The rest of the lineup adapted on the fly to deliver a set that was tighter than Florida’s 2000 electoral vote and culled from all corners of the catalog.
Spacehog’s Royston Langdon emerged as the MVP of the evening with his ability to find the caustic humanity in Bowie’s lyrics while also winning over the crowd with his stage moves and attentive eye contact. His renderings of “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Life on Mars?,” and “Panic in Detroit” were all stunners, but it was his evocative wail of “You’re not alone” during “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” that still lingered in my consciousness the next morning. The band even acknowledged the fact that Langdon learned additional material when it was decided that the Buffalo show would carry on as scheduled, so they must have been ecstatic to see him rise to the challenge.
Former Zappa/Talking Heads/King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew was another heavy hitter featured throughout the set on “Sound and Vision,” “Fame,” and “Pretty Pink Rose.” Because he actually played with Bowie for 18 months from 1978 to 1979 and again in 1990, he provided a link to the man himself that the others couldn’t and let his six-string wizardry shine on “Fashion,” “D.J.,” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” Vocally, he captured Bowie’s tone and cadences soundly yet never came off as trying too hard, which can be an issue when dealing with tribute performances.
Despite Belew and Langdon being the known commodities, the overall execution proved to be a group effort. Vocalist Jeffrey Gaines left his mark on “Moonage Daydream” and “The Jean Genie,” guitarist/Celebrating David Bowie creator Angelo “Scrote” Bundini crushed it on “Stay” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” and the rhythm section of bassist Angeline Saris and drummer Travis McNabb kept things grooving all night long. Ron Dziubla even came out from behind his keyboard to seize the moment and serve up a sizzling saxophone solo leading into “Space Oddity,” which solidified the idea of this tour being a true ensemble achievement.
A slew of tribute acts roll through town on a yearly basis, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than what we saw in Buffalo this past weekend, let alone one that the original artist would approve of.
Somewhere, the Starman is smiling.