Musician David Brighton’s career began somewhat typically as a sessions and touring guitar player for a number of musicians, as well as in original bands with record deals of their own.
But Brighton was introduced to the world of tribute artists when he was hired to portray George Harrison in a Beatles tribute act called Twist and Shout.
The group spent a number of years performing around the world, but, during a four-month stint with the band in Las Vegas, Brighton saw a performance of “Legends in Concert,” which featured tributes to everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to Britney Spears.
Brighton realized that there was no David Bowie tribute in the show, which gave him an idea.
“The reason why I was wondering if they had a David Bowie was because when I was doing my own music, writing my own songs, had our own record deal, the producers and the record people used to complain that I sounded too much like David Bowie when I sang,” he said. “As hard as I tried not to, that was still a complaint. That was naturally what came out.”
Brighton began to think about putting together his own tribute to Bowie and assembled a band. With that, “David Brighton’s Space Oddity” was born.
Brighton began performing his tribute in 2001, calling it a gradual build. Over the years, the show has taken him all over the world, and he even received the seal of approval from Bowie himself, with the two appearing together in a French commercial for Vittel Mineral Water.
“He was the perfect English gentleman and quite the entertainer on set,” Brighton said. “He was entertaining the whole crew. He was simply amazing.”
Before he brings “Space Oddity” to the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday for a performance with the Spokane Symphony, conducted by Martin Herman, Brighton talked with The Spokesman-Review about all things Bowie.
Can you talk about what your research process was like in order to really embody David Bowie?
I was taught as a Beatle to put everything under the microscope, every note on the records, every photo, every video, every interview. Everything that was related to the character I was to portray, I was supposed to study. Of course it’s an enormous job. Doing George Harrison, he was a lead guitarist, I was a lead guitarist, a lot of it came reasonably naturally.
However, David Bowie was trained with a lot of performance skills that I had not been trained in. He was a professional dancer, an actor, as well as being a singer and musician. He knew mime and had all these performance skills I had never delved into, so of course that was an enormous undertaking.
To be honest, if I would have realized how difficult it was going to be, I would have run the other way screaming. But it seemed a good challenge, and I started investing in getting replicas of his costumes from all the different eras made.
And I also drove the costume makers crazy being the perfectionist I unfortunately am, and made them go running the other way screaming. I’ve got a warehouse full of insanely accurate costumes and wigs from many of his different eras and alter egos.
Were there any mannerisms of his that were particularly difficult to nail down?
Absolutely all of them. When you absorb all these things for years, and it really does take years to absorb it all and start assimilating it, there are things that are certainly more difficult. … Onstage, there are a lot of things that have taken an insane amount of work. Even if your voice sounds like someone else’s, it’s still not your voice.
You’re still putting on someone’s voice to some degree, and there will be aspects of the range that might be different. He, for example, had one particular song where he’s singing lower than probably any other rock singer would ever sing on a record, then at the end of the song, he’s singing as high, or higher, than any other rock singer would sing.
That took quite a bit to master, but the human voice is somewhat flexible if you really work with it, and it can be done if you’ve got the raw materials. It was definitely a challenge.
Before you take the stage, is there a process of turning off David Brighton and turning on David Bowie?
This was even commented on when I was doing the commercial with him. One of the costume people noticed when I got into costume, I changed personalities. Once I get into costume for a show, I feel like I’m putting on this character. There’s always going to be some of your own self in there, but you’re definitely putting on someone else’s persona.
It’s a very interesting feeling. It’s not me at all. If we talked after the show, my personality is completely different because I’m not flamboyant, outrageous offstage. And he wasn’t, either. He invented Ziggy Stardust as a vehicle and a mask to help overcome his own inhibitions and get out there and be a rock ’n’ roll mutation that people would find interesting.
I’m able to tap into that psychology myself where you are, in a sense, wearing a mask, and it frees you up to perform as someone else, which is really an adventure.
When you’ve got a guitar on, it gives you something to hold on to. When you’ve got to dance and move, all this stuff that wasn’t where you’re trained, it’s a terrifying, naked feeling that I had to really spend time overcoming.
Tell us about some of the songs Spokane audiences can expect to hear.
The wonderful thing about doing the symphony shows is they can orchestrate with the real instruments rather than using synthesizers. Getting a song like “Life On Mars” or, where you’ve got a full string section or a full horn section like on “Let’s Dance” and many, many songs where Bowie had much more orchestration than your average rock performer, and that makes it such a great fit for symphonies.
Hearing all of that played live is very magical. A lot of the songs that benefit from it are “Changes,” “Blue Jean.” He had, for example, on a lot of his records, he had wonderful string arrangements that are unique strings arrangements. Hearing those played live is awesome.
How, if at all, does the show feel different when backed by an orchestra versus you and your band?
It’s a completely different experience. There’s something about it that is very top shelf. It’s very legit. There’s something about it that is very fulfilling because you’re playing real music with the real instruments with real musicians.
Everyone is very highly trained, utmost professionals and highly skilled. We do that in rock shows, as well, but not with 40 people, with six people, and it’s a completely different experience. The symphony is a very classy show.
After all these years, what’s kept you coming back to this show and Bowie’s music?
In the beginning, it was terrifying because I had never done quite a few of those things. Now it’s incredibly enjoyable because I have such high regard for the music. I think Bowie and the musicians and the producers he worked with created music that is lasting for good reason.
They raised the bar in the whole rock world and changed the game many times, invented new genres and created songs and musical pieces that were not only epic and brilliant but completely other than anything else that was going on. It’s music that still speaks to me. I don’t get tired of it, and the people I work with I don’t get tired of working with.
The audiences, the awareness of Bowie since his unfortunate passing, sadly as humans are, people seem to appreciate things after they’re gone. The awareness of Bowie and his music continues to grow. It continues to blossom into a more enjoyable situation or part of my life. Everything about it is fulfilling.
It was never where I expected to be, but it is one of the things I do. I eventually was in the “Legends” show years later. It’s a crazy thing to do. I don’t think most people who do tributes started out saying, “I’m going to do a tribute to so and so.” It’s something that presents itself occasionally to people, and, if you’re willing to put in the hard work, you might find a market for it, which sounds very cold and clinical.
But to be honest, I don’t do music for cold, clinical reasons. I couldn’t do a tribute to an artist I didn’t believe in. I can’t just go out and play music other people wrote if I don’t like the music. I’ve got to really believe in it. That’s why I’ve only done tributes to two different artists. I believe in the Beatles, and I believe in Bowie’s music.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Bowie created so many genres of music. It seems like he has affected even music today as much or more than most. It’s still trickling down. Everyone who followed was touched and affected in some way by what he did.
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