Masks come off at Crystal Bay, David Bowie’s soul emerges

Mates from the Rollings Stones, Bernard Fowler, left, and Karl Denson share the stage during “A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie” on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tim Parsons

Concertgoers removed their masks and David Bowie’s soul lifted into outer spaces of the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room Saturday.

Seven hundred and thirty-five faces witnessed the third performance Karl Denson’s “A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie.”

Denson has a penchant for musical exploration and he said his David Bowie endeavor was more challenging than expected. Logistics also have been tough with the Covid situation. The debut of “A Diesel Insane” was to have occurred at the canceled New Orleans Jazz Festival and a Jan. 16 Crown Room show was postponed after the band leader caught the virus. It’s slated to be performed again at The Fillmore theaters in San Francisco March 5 and New Orleans May 5. More are planned.

Bowie died in 2016 after making 26 albums that broke musical ground in rock, pop, glam, psychedelia and theater. Space is a recurring topic of his songs and it took one of the greatest ensembles on the planet to create an accurate, tasteful spin on them.

Denson, who replaced saxophonist Bobby Keys in the Rolling Stones after he died in 2015, recruited Bernard Fowler – a Stones’ touring and studio contributor since 1989 – to share lead vocals on the Bowie project. Onstage for the Crystal Bay show were members of his band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, guitarists D.J. Williams and Ricky Giordano, bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor. Special guests were backing vocalists Dorene Carter and Tereasa Betts and keyboardist Kenneth Crouch, a Los Angeles music director who’s worked with everybody from Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey to Dr. Dre and B.B. King.

“You look good out there, especially without masks,” Denson, 65, said before introducing the song “Golden Years.”

Just two days after Nevada lifted the indoors mask-wearing requirement, there was a spirited energy in the Crown Room. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the audience sang along to choruses they knew back when this world was a different place. People danced as they walked about. They were dressed up. Some in spacesuits. It felt normal.

Bassist Chris Stillwell intensely watches the fingers of guitarist D.J. Williams. Bandleader Karl Denson said Bowie’s music was far more complex than he’d anticipated.
Tim Parsons/ Tahoe Onstage

Contemporary soul flavored the vintage songs, many of them opening with a slower groove than the originals. Bassist Stillwell focused on guitarist Williams’ fingers. Roars came with the recognition of the tunes. So many to choose from. Denson’s favorite is “Station to Station,” the title track of a 1976 album when Bowie was at his most drug induced.

“He didn’t even remember writing it,” Denson said. “That’s what genius is all about.”

Bowie had a flair for the dramatic and he might have been smiling from above as organist Crouch soloed on the bopping “art rock” tune about a girlfriend being eaten by a television set, “TVC 15.” The music matriculated on Super Bowl eve into a crash of noise that felt like a hurtling, out-of-control spacecraft and onto “Station to Station.”

Lights and sound engineer Chango O’Brien had notes on the set list. “Station to Station” and “Life on Mars” were marked “Featured.” “Suffragette City” was marked “Action,” and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, it was just that.

Denson told the story behind “Life on Mars,” the final tune recorded for the 1971 album “Hunky Dory.” Bowie was commissioned to write something for French pop singer Clocio. The tune was rejected but Paul Anka used the music and rewrote the words and made “My Way” for Frank Sinatra. Bowie’s response was to make a parody of his own song that includes “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.” “Life on Mars” also became a hit that was covered by Barbara Streisand, Nine Inch Nails and now Denson’s Diesel Insane.

The funkiest tunes were annotated “Cool Shit” on the set list: “The Jean Genie” and “Fame,” which featured D.J. Williams chording the familiar riff locked in a most groovy pocket with the rhythm section. Chango added an asterix: “Cool Shit*.”

Some of Mick Jagger must have rubbed off on Fowler, who has a great stage presence and often puts a hand on a hip and a shuck in the shoulders. But a different transition was complete by the 13th song of the 125-minute show: To every ear, Bernard Fowler really was David Bowie as he sang “Oh You Pretty Things,” right down to the British accent. (Fowler’s from New York City.)

Appropriately, the last song before encore was Bowie’s final single, “Lazarus,” also the title of a musical he wrote based on the Walter Tevis novel “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
The lyrics: “Look up here, I’m in heaven; I’ve got scars that can’t be seen; I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen; Everybody knows me now.”

Bowie knew that after his death his star would continue to rise. Karl Denson’s “A Diesel Insane” gave it an extra boost.

Tim Parsons

Karl Denson’s ‘A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie’
Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room, February 12, 2022
16 songs, 2 hours, 5 minutes

‘Sound And Vision (from the album ‘Low’ — 1977)
‘Ashes to Ashes’ (‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’) – 1980)
‘The Jean Genie’ (‘Aladdin Sane’ — 1973)
‘Panic in Detroit’ (‘Aladdin Sane’ — 1973)
‘Hang On to Yourself’ (‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ — 1972)
‘Fame’ (‘Young Americans’ — 1975)
‘TVC 15’ (‘Station to Station’ — 1976)
‘Station to Station’ (‘Station to Station’ — 1976)
‘Young Americans’ (‘Young Americans’ — 1975)
‘Life On Mars’ (‘Hunky Dory’ — 1971)
‘Golden Years’ (‘Station to Station’ — 1976)
‘Suffragette City’ (‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ — 1972)
‘Oh You Pretty Things’ (‘Hunky Dory’ — 1971)
‘Fascination’ (‘Young Americans’ — 1975)
‘Lazarus’ (‘Blackstar’ — 2016)
Encore song: ‘Rebel Rebel’ (‘Diamond Dogs’ — 1974)

The band:
Karl Denson, vocals, tenor and soprano saxophone, flute
Bernard Fowler, vocals
D.J. Williams, guitar
Ricky Giordano, guitar
Chris Stillwell, bass
Zak Najor, drums
Kenneth Crouch, keys
Dorene Carter and Tereasa Betts, backing vocals

Keyboardist Kenneth Crouch responds to his bandmates and the audience after a solo.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
D.J. Williams works up a sweat. The price of “Fame.”
Zak Najor is a KDTU regular on drums.
Bernard Fowler’s stage presence is out of this world.
Dorene Carter Tereasa Betts provide sweet vocals.

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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