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Holy Holy mesmerizes fans, honors Bowie

Sharlene Celeskey, Contemporary Culture, Puma Press

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When an old friend posted an announcement for Holy Holy’s tour on my Facebook page, I was thrilled they were coming to Scottsdale on April 22. I knew immediately as a longtime Bowie fan I must attend this concert. Holy Holy is fronted by Woody Woodmansey, who is the last surviving member of David Bowie’s, The Spiders from Mars. I hope to recapture some of the magic I felt when I first experienced the Spiders from Mars’ performance in 1972. What a great opportunity to witness legendary producer Tony Visconti playing live. Visconti played bass with Bowie in the early ‘70s and continued to work with him throughout his career. Visconti produced 14 of Bowie’s albums, including his last album, “Black Star.” When I viewed Holy Holy on YouTube, I was blown away by their fantastic sound and excited for their upcoming show.
Currently, Holy Holy performs Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” from front to back. Woodmansey, who played on five Bowie albums, became part of Bowie’s band, which included Visconti and guitarist extraordinaire Mick Ronson in 1970. Visconti and Woodmansey decided to perform “The Man Who Sold the World” in it’s entirety because although they played on the album, they never performed it live. When it was released, Bowie was trying to find new management, so he never toured in support of it. Woodmansey said, “We’d always really got off on that album because it was heavy, oblique and there were some pretty weird concepts for the songs. We threw in everything but the kitchen sink.“ Holy Holy also includes other early Bowie songs in their setlist. Bowie gave the band his blessing when he learned they would play his “The Man Who Sold the World” live.
Woodmansey recalls how unusually dressed Bowie was when he first met him. He said, “Bowie had on a rainbow shirt, bright red corduroy trousers, wrist full of bangles and blue shoes with red stars painted on them.” His look was shocking to the drummer who stood there with long hair down his back, T-shirt and ripped jeans, which was the common hippie look of the time.
“The Man Who Sold the World” was the first album Woodmansey played with Bowie. He says that he found recording it exciting but equally nerve-racking: “Bowie kept us in a creative mood by recording our freshness because he was opposed to repeating song takes over and over. The band had to learn quickly and capture the song immediately as Bowie wanted the music to sound alive. We might do one take and Bowie would say, “That’s it – you’ve captured it, that’s what I want,” Woodmansey said. And then he would suddenly change song direction.” But Bowie always knew exactly what he wanted and needed for each song. Woodmansey believes this is why the artist’s music is still around today because few artists possess Bowie’s acute awareness.
Woodmansey, Ronson and Trevor Bolder (who replaced Visconti as bassist) had played together in the Yorkshire and were already a cohesive band when they became The Spiders from Mars in 1972. They were on Bowie’s landmark album “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” The group’s popularity skyrocketed in Britain after they performed on “Top of the Pops,” and then they embarked on a month tour. I saw the band when they toured the United States that fall and was mesmerized from the moment they took the stage. Woodmansey believes they gained fervent fans and drew amazing audiences because the band was definitely different. He felt the profound effect they had on their audiences and said, “Our shows were mystical because we put all our passion and chemistry into each one.”
Woodmansey forms Holy Holy
London’s Institute of Contemporary Art organized a Bowie tribute show in 2013 and asked him to speak at the sold out event. The show featured a band of musicians influenced by Bowie’s early songs. As Woodmansey watched Blondie drummer, Clem Burke, play the songs he originally performed, he caught every wrong note played. Woodmansey laughingly said, “ I wanted to throw him off the kit and take his place.” After the show, Woodmansey decided he wanted to perform the Bowie songs he had originally played. Holy Holy was named for the single released after “The Man Who Sold the World” was completed. They toured the next year and then Visconti decided to join the band. The current line up includes Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory and keyboardist Berenice Scott, Gene Loves Jezebel’s guitarist James Stevenson, guitarist Paul Cuddeford, sax player Terry Edwards, and Visconti’s daughter, vocalist Jessica Lee Morgan.
Holy Holy chose “The Man who Sold the World” because Woodmansey said, “It is quite a musical album and we wanted to play with the same spirit we had when we first played it.” He explained the original band was never self-indulgent and performed with a great sense of integrity.
They began their tour on Dec. 31, 2015 and played New York City on Jan. 8, Bowie’s 69th birthday. Visconti phoned the artist and the crowd sang Happy Birthday to him. Woodmansey said, “Bowie told us good luck and asked how the crowd liked ‘Black Star.’ The crowd just went mental.”
Two days later the band and the world was shocked when Bowie passed away. Woodmansey got a 5 a.m. call and was half awake when told the news. He said, “It was surreal.” The band quickly gathered to decide if they should stop the tour out of respect for Bowie. Visconti suggested they should carry on because Bowie continued working when he was ill. Woodmansey said, “Even when he had the flu he pushed through, performed, then he collapsed after the show. David worked right up to the end with his last album and had the attitude ‘the show must go on’ so that’s what we’re doing.”
Holy Holy played their next show in Toronto, two days after Bowie’s death. They were mourning but wanted to perform for the audience as well as for themselves. Woodmansey pointed out the songs on “The Man Who Sold the World” were pretty emotional anyway. The crowd at the Opera House was as depressed as the band. Before the show they band saw at least a dozen rows of people crying and clutching Kleenexes, so they ventured out into the crowd and talked to them. Before starting the show, Visconti told the audience the best way to work through the grief was by celebrating Bowie’s life with his music. Then Woodmansey said, “I know we all feel the same.”
I wondered for four decades why David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars grabbed me hard and shook me into a new reality? Finally, I knew when Woodmansey, said, “Bowie and the Spiders’ music was fresh, modern and filled with forward themes like science fiction.” He explained Bowie injected color into the current music scene, which had become bland and gray. Their type of energetic rock was in sharp contrast to the overindulgent hippie stoner music. What Bowie set out to do was create a new contemporary sound. That is why they were and continue to be so important in music.
Holy Holy Concert
Nothing prepares me for what I will experience at Holy Holy’s live show. I hold high expectations after I watched live footage on YouTube and read many positive reviews of their shows as they toured North America.
As I enter Talking Stick Casino in Scottsdale on April 22, I feel excited to hear drummer Woody Woodmansey again (after almost 45 years) and incredible record producer Tony Visconti perform Bowie. Visconti has produced more of my favorite albums than any other producer. I wore out my long play of Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” in the ‘80s, so I am so thrilled to see their marvelous vocalist, Glenn Gregory, sing Bowie. I know James Stevenson is an excellent guitarist because I have experienced him play a dozen times in one of my favorite bands, Gene Loves Jezebel.
The theater is intimate and filled with mostly older Bowie fans dressed in a variety of Bowie T-shirts. Most are die-hard fans and I catch their excitement as I patiently wait for the show to start.
Then Visconti comes out and says, “It is a celebration,” while Woodmansey tells the audience, “Anything Goes.” Then band hits the stage and begins the bombastic “Width of A Circle,” and I am sucked into the dark, heavy intense world of Bowie’s brilliant album “The Man Who Sold the World.” All performers are spot on with their playing: Woodmansey powerfully plays all the parts he knows so well; Gregory comes on with a forceful voice that is perfect for Bowie’s vocal parts, and has a magnificent stage presence; Visconti adds the balance with his confident style of playing bass; and Stevenson thoroughly throws himself into the complicated guitar parts that Mick Ronson once played. When he and fellow guitarists Paul Cuddeford perform a mock dueling guitars part, it is a standout in an already amazing show. One of the biggest surprises of the night is vocalist Jessica Lee Morgan’s inspiring performance on “Lady Stardust.” (She played a soulful acoustic set with as the openers) Heaven 17’s keyboardist Berenice Scott’s playing is intricate to this show.
This concert is absolutely amazing in all aspects. It is very emotional. As I listen to songs, I mouth the words, too, as memories of my first Bowie concert with Woodmansey flood my mind. It is not just the nostalgia that moves me but hearing some of the best music ever made being played by true artists and musicians that understand how to interpret Bowie’s genius.
After the emotional, masterfully crafted “Man Who Sold the World” ends, the band lightens up a bit to play other early Bowie classics. The perfect setlist draws from, the eclectic “Hunky Dory,” the breakthrough “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” and through the rock sounding “Aladdin Sane.” I dance when Holy Holy performs my favorite songs and don’t want this show to end as it is definitely one of the best shows I have ever witnessed.
If the concert experience is not remarkable enough, a double live CD mixed by Visconti is for sale at the merch table. Woodmansey will be on hand to autograph it. My excitement surges because now I can relive this amazing concert over and over. A line forms at a table with tour T-shirts and the coveted CD. Woodmansey, Stevenson and Morgan make their way to it, talk to fans and autograph memorabilia. When I speak to Stevenson, he says, “Ronson was my guitar hero since I was 13.” This explains why he tackles the complex guitar parts so enthusiastically and proficiently.
Woodmansey attentively listens to all the fans and signs all types of Bowie recordings that he drummed on, smiling the entire time. He poses for a photo, then graciously signs the live CD and shakes my hand as I tell him how intense and passionate tonight’s performance was. I add that it was almost as amazing as when I saw him with Bowie in ‘72. Woodmansey created musical magic once more.

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Holy Holy mesmerizes fans, honors Bowie