January is a time of celebration and mourning for David Bowie fans. Today would’ve been the Starman’s 71st birthday, and Wednesday is the second anniversary of his death. Since debuting five years ago, Chicago-based Bowie tribute band Sons of the Silent Age have been throwing occasional fund-raisers for cancer patients and cancer research, and their efforts feel even more pointed since their inspiration’s death from the disease. Front man Chris Connelly and drummer Matt Walker brought their nine-person group to Metro on Saturday, focusing this time on the Berlin trilogy—that is, the three albums Bowie created after he moved to West Berlin in 1976. (The show benefited the NorthShore University HealthSystem’s integrative medicine program.) Everything about the concert—opening act TALsounds, the stories from the cancer patients and survivors who were invited onstage to speak, the dark, electric performance from actor and musician Michael Shannon as Iggy Pop—highlighted just how influential and meaningful Bowie’s work continues to be.
Bowie had spent years experimenting with drugs (well, “experimenting” is probably too gentle a word for the out-of-control habit that he left Los Angeles to flee—remember the coke spoon from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “David Bowie Is” exhibit?), but he spent his time in Berlin experimenting with sound. He roomed with Iggy and collaborated extensively with iconoclastic producer Brian Eno. It was a period of healing, renewal, and creativity, which not only offers hope to many of the patients honored at the concert and their personal battles with a terrible disease but also suggests that there are ways to survive the upheavals currently happening across so many industries (including the music biz). Though Bowie and his wife at the time, Angela, would divorce in early 1980, he’d proved it was possible can get rid of private demons and go on to create innovative and lasting work.
The Berlin trilogy consists of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, the second of which features the song “Sons of the Silent Age.” Other than the ubiqitous “Heroes,” a song I’d be sick of by now if I didn’t love it so darn much, songs from these relatively artsy albums have gotten less than their fair share of play in the onslaught of Bowie tributes that have emerged over the past two years.
And there’s no one I would’ve rather seen tackle these records than this band. The range of Bowie’s voice isn’t easy to match, but Connelly sounds uncannily like him without just doing a cheap impersonation. (He’s best known from his years as a sideman with industrial juggernaut Ministry, and in the decades since he’s established himself as a singer-songwriter.) As a Bowie fan, I’m always excited to see Sons of the Silent Age play from their hearts as Bowie fans themselves. During lesser-known songs, they occasionally lost the crowd (at least the part of crowd I was standing near), but through it all every single band member maintained that late-70s Bowie swagger.
Bowie’s friendship and collaboration with Iggy Pop played a huge role in the creation of the Berlin trilogy, and with all due respect to my hero (and to the talents of the Sons of the Silent Age), that role really stole the show on Saturday. I’ve never thought that I’d want to see Michael Shannon playing Iggy in a biopic or writhing around onstage, but the second a shirtless Shannon started “Lust for Life,” I realized it was all I needed to feel complete. Even though he was up there as Iggy, not Bowie, Shannon embodied everything Bowie is about: showmanship, pushing boundaries, and complete transformation.