Interview: Mike Garson of Celebrating David Bowie details North American tour and shares his experiences playing with the iconic artist
Mike Garson/YouTube

On Jan. 10, 2016 David Bowie took his rightful place among the stars. In these turbulent times the world could certainly use his insight, his forward thinking, his daring, passion and creativity. But what's important to remember is that Bowie left all of those things in his amazing body of work, perhaps more so than any other artist. Recently, a group of musicians who played and collaborated with Bowie have taken up the torch he held so high.

Led by longtime Bowie collaborator and keyboardist Mike Garson--who played with Bowie longer than any other musician--Celebrating David Bowie returns to North America after a critically acclaimed run in 2017. “For me, it’s the ultimate sing-a-long," Garson told AXS. “That’s where I get my joy because I know this music and I enjoy playing it, but the added factor is you look out there and see people smiling or crying or screaming every word to every song. Sometimes we stop playing and let them sing. It’s like karaoke on steroids.”

For the North American leg of the tour the band includes guitarist and Bowie collaborator Earl Slick along with his son Lee John on drums, former Bowie bandleader and guitarist Gerry Leonard, and Let’s Dance/Serious Moonlight tour bassist Carmine Rojas. Tasked with echoing Bowie’s immortal words are Bernard Fowler (Rolling Stones) as well as up and coming vocalist Gaby Moreno. CDB also frequnetly welcomes guests such as Sting and Bowie's longtime friend Gary Oldman.

AXS recently caught up with Mike Garson as he was preparing to hit the road for the North American tour. The bandleader shared what goes into a such a monumental undertaking as well as some of his experiences playing and recording with David Bowie for over 40 years.

AXS: Mike, how’s it going?

Mike Garson: Pretty good, just putting the show together and working on chord charts and rehearsing. It’s a little chaotic until we get on the road but it’s what has to be done.

AXS: Bowie had such an expansive and diverse catalog. How do you go about choosing what material to play?

MG: That’s a great question. You know, I sit there and look at 300 songs or so and think I’d like to do them all. But how many hours would that be? That would take 15 hours or so. So what I do is pick out songs that people would be really angry if we didn’t do. So we do songs like “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” “Ziggy," “Changes” and “Suffragette City. And then I pick some lesser known ones like “Quicksand,” which of course is known to me but it’s gorgeous.We're going to do “Can You Hear Me” from Young Americans and certainly “Aladdin Sane,” “Diamond Dogs,” ”Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.” We’re doing an obscure one but one of his most beautiful pieces called “Conversation Piece” from the Toy album in 2000.

AXS: Do you vary the setlist from city to city?

MG: I’ll do a little varying, especially when we get comfortable with the set I put together. I give the audience a couple of obscure ones but they want to sing the words to every song so we do “Panic in Detroit” when we’re in that city and “Young Americans” when we’re in Philly. We’re gonna do “Station to Station” with Earl Slick, that was a big feature with him. And I’ve written a piece for David that includes the audience as well as the band. I have another 15 bonus pieces that I’m going to teach the band, but in a two hour show maybe we can get about 23 or 25 songs in there and I’ve got about 40. So we’ll know them, and as the band gets strong from doing show after show I’ll start throwing in other ones. That’s how we used to do it with David. I’m kind of following David’s template in that he wanted you to know the music really well, he wanted you to know more songs then we would play, and he wanted you to be flexible and not just play the same way every night and get stuck in a comfort zone. David would throw things at us that we had rehearsed but were not on the setlist, and he would do it right onstage. So we had to be on our feet.

AXS: We’ve talked a little bit about how Bowie approached his performances, but for you personally, what was it like to play with David Bowie?

MG: The whole thing is bizarre. I started on the Spiders on Mars' first tour in 72. I didn’t know who he was. I was a jazz musician. And I ended up being the longest player by hundreds of concerts. Who would have known? Because I came from a different world. Working with him, he was so creative and I was able to switch styles with him. In the first two years, he fired five bands except for me because I could switch from English rock to the soul on Young Americans to how he wanted me to play on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. He knew that I was bringing the history of jazz and classical piano and putting it on top of his music as a collaborator, and that was like the whipped cream on the cake. I was sort of like the secret weapon, of course, I knew none of this when it was going down, I was just having fun playing. But 50 years or so later history has taught me that.

AXS: Do you have a favorite moment with Bowie?

MG: Hundreds (laughs), but I’ll give you one or two. What he was renowned to do, and he used to get a big kick out of this, right before a show he would go out and tell me to warm up the audience. Can you believe that? 250,000 people at Glastonbury in 2000 we were all walking out and he says "You go out and play a little medley before I come out." He did that at Hammersmith in 73. He would test the waters with me and I was the guinea pig. Another one you might enjoy is we were playing the Montreux Jazz Festival, and he knew I was a jazz musician and it was a jazz audience at Montreux. He says, “Play Duke Ellington’s ‘A Train.’” Right in the middle of the band playing songs he stops the show and says, “Mike, show em’ you can play some jazz, play ‘Take the A Train.’” He was a character. Very funny, great sense of humor. And when he chose you to be in the band he let you do your thing. He never micromanaged, otherwise he wouldn't have chosen you. The ultimate casting director. I see it that way.

AXS: What do you think makes Bowie’s music so timeless?

MG: I think about it every day. Now that he’s passed, he was one of the greatest artists if not the greatest artist of the 20th and into the 21st century. His music had layers upon layers, and he wasn't just a great rock and pop star. He was deep, he was philosophical, he was spiritual. He could confront evil and he saw where the world was at. He was trying to make changes in it. But as we’re all human, we make mistakes. So, you listen to the words, you listen to the songs, you listen to the harmonies he created. You listen to the fact that he was always changing his music, the styles were changing. He never rested on his laurels. These were very good reasons as to why he rose to the top. Who do you have? You have The Beatles, you have John Lennon separately, you have Dylan. But David was an artist. He was an actor, he was a sculptor--he made beautiful sculptures--he was an editor of an art magazine, he was a producer, he was a great songwriter, he was an amazing performer, he was inventive in fashion. I don’t know anyone else like that. David was in another universe. The lesson to learn when someone passes earlier than you expected is to appreciate every moment.

Celebrating David Bowie is currently on tour in North America. Click here to browse AXS for tickets to select Celebrating David Bowie dates.