Thin White Duke – Royal Oak, Hampton

When you try to cover a musical career that spans nearly 40 years – it takes a special kind of imitation to be able to pry the delicate creature from the shell. I recently saw Elton John on his ‘Red Piano’ Tour and it was evident that he could not now sing ‘the high notes’ any longer   (the likes b-b-b-bennie and the jets are well beyond him.) So Elton cannot even impersonate himself anymore!  It is the same thing with Bowie. Back in the early seventies that distinctive voice laced with cinnamon and vapour rub (rather than sandpaper and glue) was also launched – at times – teeteringly high as if Bowie’s voice was on tippy-toes performing a high-wire act (consider “Lady Grinning Soul” 1973.) At other times, back then, we got the cheerful, jokey smiley, quirky Bowie.  This was the sneering sardonic voice with a touch of irony about it. It shone through on wisecrackin’ tunes like “Kooks” or “Oh! You Pretty Things”.   So it is no surprise that  ‘covers bands’  these days often have some difficulty negotiating  the early Bowie  catalogue.   In the end they tend to dwell on the “Heroes” period onwards, with those darker tones, gloomy Berlin passages and ponderous rhythms – or the easy-to-lick disco type sounds from the Let’s Dance era.

Sure, Dave the lead singer of ‘Thin White Duke’ is able to provide a fuller, rounder, more robust performance on those post-Heroes tunes, but at least he also investigated into the depths of those old Bowie albums, pulling out a few well-worn classics for the happy crowd at The Royal Oak, Hampton.

Starting with a strong and vibrant “Rebel Rebel”, the band made a smooth transition into the chugging rug of a song “The Jean Genie” before giving us a real nostalgic kick in the crotch with “John, I’m Only Dancing”.  It was quite interesting to note the happy shining faces of those beer guzzling punters in the boozer, as they quite cheerfully sang along to this ditty.

I can only describe the general look of the average punter in The Royal Oak to be approx 6 foot, 15 stones, beer gut, whiter than white, 40 to 45 years, wearing a sports shirt and track-suit bottoms, tattoos around the knuckles, bald-headed, thick neck etc.  You get the idea. But geezer…. but that did not stop ‘em … “She turns me on, but I’m only dancing”.  They sang together innocently and without a trace of irony.

Bowie is a multi-instrumentalist, but Dave of the Thin White Duke takes on the role of frontman / singer in the same way that we tend to now think of Bowie in more recent times – as an actor, a serious fellow, a soul ‘singer’ .  I remember when Bowie started to come out in front of his period microphone to sing for “Young Americans.” It was then that we kinda lost that more playful muso, the ziggy figure,  with his gift for guitar, keyboards and above all sax. It was the sounds of the sax and most especially the alto saxophone that were missing from the Thin White Duke set.

But having said that, the textures and moods were presented and reinforced by the classically trained Simon on keyboards. From fanciful motifs to stirring grandiose imaginings – the keys provided depth and a myriad of global sounds to the Bowie compositions.

But what elevates Thin White Duke above other ‘Bowie Tribute Acts’ ain’t the singer (sorry Dave) and it ain’t the keys  (sorry Simon) – it is the man Ben on his lead guitar. Those ear-catching melodies, fresh and urgent lead guitar breaks, and lyrical cries- add emotion and gut-wrenching rockiness to the pieces.

He has that sadly missed and hugely influential Seventies guitar-man “Mick”
Ronson off to a tee.  (Though Ben is slightly less hairy and slightly more cuddly than his hero.)  I was happy with the cartilage cracking choppiness of Ben’s guitar – with the frequent meanderings into flowery jazz-like territory – all the way through the first set – but at the song “All the Young Dudes”  (made more famous by Mott the Hoople)  I realized that the guitar of Ben transcended far beyond my expectations of what a guitar would or even should sound like in a common-or-garden ‘Bowie Tribute Band’.   Ben played that nostalgic opening with a glorious style.  Love even.  Yes, he became the special man.

As expected, the pub audience was, at times, a little crass. “Have we got any Bowie fans in tonight?”  Yelled Dave.  Silence. Yep, golden silence.  But he smiled, being the showman that he is, and the band got on with the set.  At other times the punters yakked and yammered all through those stunning guitar breaks. (By the way, I reckon that the main difference between a man and a woman is that women ALWAYS want to say something to you during a guitar break – men wait until the verse before chatting to their mates.)  But the amiable and workaholic band knocked out hit-after-hit, evoking memories good and bad from the astonishing chameleonic career of Bowie.

Eventually, all the pubsters were conquered by Dave and the lads, and they sang and swayed together, as true fans of The Thin White Duke.

A quality act and well-worth seeking out if this superb band are playing near you. A splendid evenings entertainment.

© Neil_Mach
February 2010


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