Since the unexpected passing of the Thin White Duke in 2016, the industry of Bowie tribute show supply has been booming. A quick scroll through the Fringe catalogue will find at least four have been scheduled at this year’s event, possibly more. This tsunami of Bowie impersonators and tribute bands means that you have to have a specific angle on the great man’s music to really stand out from the crowd and earn your share of punters through the door.
The Thin White Ukes schtick is, of course, that their renditions of songs from the Bowie canon are played exclusively on ukulele, something which does set them apart from others cashing in on the superstar’s demise and the emotional and musical vacuum that this sad event created.
The novelty element of this show has been one part of its success to this point, but musically it has, in theory, also offered people a chance to hear these great songs deconstructed and rebuilt as interesting new acoustic entities, where, perhaps, their previously hidden complexities can shine through.
This year’s show, however, fell well short of the promise of such expectation, and also exposed more than a few flaws in the approach.
Saturday’s show at the Spiegeltent, I would safely assume, was not the trio’s greatest performance. There were some missed cues, some fluffed lines, and some awkward playing that highlighted the fact that the ukulele, whilst often feted for being the instrument of choice for those with basic musical skills, is an unforgiving instrument in the hands of those who aspire to play more complex arrangements. Every erroneous pluck or strum is starkly amplified.
The show started well enough. Lady Stardust worked in this minimalist form, just as it did, sans uke, on Bowie’s original Ziggy Stardust album. Then, The Ukes played up the simple riff repetitions of The Man Who Sold The World for some gentle comic effect, and this also worked well. So, at this early point in the set, it seemed the crowd were definitely in for a great show.
Let’s Dance. Not really a great choice of song, as it is definitely not suited at all to this type of instrumentation. And, unfortunately, this version was simply a dog’s breakfast. The complexity of their chosen arrangement required some precise interplay between the three ukuleles, but no-one seemed to be able to successfully hook into the rhythms the others were playing for long enough to bring the song together cohesively. Add some flat vocals to the unintended cacophony and you can start to imagine the aural discomfort that the band created.
This song seemed to throw the performers into a hit or miss cycle for the rest of the show, with the misses heavily outscoring the hits unfortunately.
After a passable Space Oddity, the medley of Rebel Rebel, Moonage Daydream & Golden Years, as incongruous as that sounds, did go a long way towards redeeming the Let’s Dance disaster. But, apart from a pleasant but unambitious version of Sorrow, which was not actually a Bowie song, no other song escaped from the plague of flat spots that had seemingly infected the performance.
Credit must be given for looking beyond the obvious song choices for the show though, but whilst it is usually a joy to hear Lady Grinning Soul referenced in any form, here the ukulele’s blunt and muted sound stripped the song of its essential sensuality. And the other unexpected choice, The Secret Life Of Arabia, was spoiled by some occasionally off key vocals.
Betty France, Rob Stephens and Michael Dwyer do not have powerful or overly distinctive voices, whereas Bowie certainly did, and to therefore attempt a song as vocally challenging as Life On Mars? was also more than a little foolhardy as it was never going to be possible to hit the highest range and attain the full dramatic effect which is the actual heart of the song.
Even more disappointingly, France’s fractured vocal on ‘Heroes’ meant that, despite the ukes adopting the meatier rhythms favoured by Bowie in later live versions of the song to good effect, it was an unpleasant listening experience. The rough and ready vocals on Queen Bitch were also difficult to endure.
The closing song, a version of Where Are We Now? was another misstep. Instead of making any attempt at imbuing the song with the heartbreakingly nostalgic emotion of the original, the trio’s interpretation came across as little more than a perfunctory, uninventive run through of the tune, completely stripping it of its emotive dynamism.
The power of David Bowie’s songs resides in their ability to take us into unexpected, unique places, and in their tendency to subvert the popular song form in order to create new understandings of what rock and pop music can be. The Thin White Ukes attempt to deconstruct these songs and remove the songs’ more eclectic and exotic elements in order to render them as simple, light entertainment has won them their share of fans and followers, but somehow, for me, this seems to work against the soul of the original music and has become a joke that has long worn out the impact of its punchline.
Rating: 2 stars
The Thin White Ukes: A Bowie Odyssey was performed at The Fortuna Spiegeltent in The Garden Of Unearthly Delights on Saturday February 23, 2019.