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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 2, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 09
THE MUSIC LOUNGE
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Let's dance, again: Guitarist-vocalist Joe Sumner discusses upcoming 'Celebrating David Bowie' concert at Benaroya Hall, March 10

by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

It's been two years and a month since David Bowie departed this world and it still doesn't seem real. An unparalleled icon, he left us with a rich catalog of songs and films that new generations are discovering and will continue to discover in the years ahead. For those of us needing a Bowie fix, relief comes in the form of a fan-friendly performance called 'Celebrating David Bowie' featuring a cluster of musicians who collaborated with, or were immensely influenced by, his work. Among these artists is Joe Sumner, frontman for the band Fiction Plane and son of another rock legend, Sting. The show makes its way to Seattle next weekend, March 10, at Benaroya Hall; it's a must for all Bowie faithful. For tickets, visit www.seattlesymphony.org.

I spoke to Sumner via phone this week, as he was preparing for the tour. Here's what he had to share with me inside 'The Music Lounge'.

Albert Rodriguez: Can you tell us about this show - how long is it, is it interactive, are there any visuals?

Joe Sumner: It's a 2 & 1/2 hour show, which is still not anywhere near long enough to span as much of David Bowie's career as possible; it's just an impossible task. I guess we'll have to do it several times a year to make up for the rest. In 2 & 1/2 hours, it's very much just about the music. There's nothing really in the way of visuals. We don't need a hologram or a projector to explain it.

Rodriguez: In 2 & 1/2 hours, how many of Bowie's songs are you able to squeeze onto the set list?

Sumner: It's about 26 songs, I think. And then Mike Garson [Bowie's legendary touring and recording keyboardist] tells a few stories about back in the day and how some of the songs came about. There are new, interesting stories every night. He was with Bowie for 40 years, so he's definitely got a few stories (laughs).

Rodriguez: Is it a different set list for every city?

Sumner: Yeah, we move it around. There are definitely some things that are set to set, but everything is variable and we have guest artists come wherever we're playing; they'll sing a song of their choice, as well.

Rodriguez: What was your personal connection to David Bowie? Was your father really close to him, or did you meet him at an early age?

Sumner: I met him a couple of times when I was younger, but I didn't really have a personal connection with him aside from my father; they traveled in the same circles. I became a grunge addict and Nirvana was my band of choice; they really connected with me. When Nirvana did the 'Unplugged' thing ['MTV Unplugged in New York'] and played 'The Man Who Sold the World', that's when Bowie's songs made sense to me. From then on I was obsessed.

Rodriguez: I was going to ask what comes to mind when you hear the word 'Seattle', but you've kind of already answered that with Nirvana.

Sumner: Yep, Nirvana and the gentle pattering of rain. Nirvana was very, very big for me. I've been to Seattle a few times and it definitely has a special history and everybody I've met there has been really nice.

Rodriguez: So what is your personal favorite David Bowie song?

Sumner: I'll give you my top three: 'Life on Mars', 'Ashes to Ashes' and 'Let's Dance'. 'Ashes to Ashes', when my first child was being born, I was listening to it on repeat in the car as I was driving to the hospital; that song clears my head. That song represents me becoming a father, even if the meaning of the song is a little bit different. But just the feeling of it, it always reminds me of that.

Rodriguez: When I was growing up, David Bowie was a huge influence on me because I was a young, closeted gay kid and he was this captivating, flamboyant, androgynous man that I so badly wanted to be. But he was too edgy for mainstream American audiences. What was it like in the UK when Bowie gained popularity; to see this interesting man wearing women's clothes and makeup?

Sumner: Yeah, it was really interesting. There was always something different about him. He went through phases of being publicly gay or bisexual, and then not being gay but just flamboyant; he had this whole visual that was really jarring. When I was growing up in the '80s, my dad was obviously in music and my mom was in theater, so I was surrounded by gay culture and it was completely acceptable. But in the mainstream world, as an act, he (David Bowie) was just wrong. So having people who were heroes - superstars like this - just saying, 'look, it's okay to be different' - that definitely stood out. I think for people, whether it's in public or not, to be part of the gay community or not, to just be standing out there and be different, it lets everyone know that it's okay, that it can be sort of normal. Fast forward 20 years and suddenly everyone is starting to say, 'Oh yeah, that's normal. What were we worried about?' I remember gay marriage becoming legal and people were worried that something crazy was going to happen, then later it's like, 'What were we worried about?' It's very brave for individuals to stand out and be different, to make it normal and acceptable, and so there's huge respect for what Bowie did.

Rodriguez: The songs you're performing; are the arrangements similar to the originals, or have you changed them?

Sumner: They're very close, as close as you can get. Vocally, there are three singers - there's myself, Bernard Fowler, who sings with the Rolling Stones, and Gaby Moreno, who's an amazing soulful singer, like Shirley Bassey, but from Guatemala - so none of us are trying to imitate his voice, but in every other respect it's pretty bang on, exactly what you'd get from him.

Rodriguez: Is this a one-time thing, or is this something that might be resurrected for another tour in the near future?

Sumner: Personally, I'd love to keep it rolling. It's really fun; we're totally getting into it and bringing it to life. So I don't think this will be the end of the tour. Everyone who's watched it has been ecstatic about it.

Rodriguez: I'm a big David Bowie fan - had the opportunity to see him live three times - so I'm really excited about this show. I hope you guys play 'China Girl'; I'd love to hear it.

Sumner: Okay, I'm going to let them know now. (laughs)

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Let's dance, again: Guitarist-vocalist Joe Sumner discusses upcoming 'Celebrating David Bowie' concert at Benaroya Hall, March 10
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