Holy Holy: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool


Holy Holy

Holy Holy bring Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World and Ziggy Stardust albums to life and Getintothis’ Banjo basks in the affection Liverpool still has for these albums.

Holy Holy have been treading the boards for some time now, bringing David Bowie’s music to eager audiences.

Their tenure as a band predates Bowie’s death and they had his seal of approval when he was still with us.  Bowie’s website would advertise their gigs and, on one occasion, Tony Visconti phoned Bowie up from the stage and got the crowd to sing happy birthday to him.

Their pedigree is immaculate, with Holy Holy including the last surviving Spider from Mars Woody Woodmansey on drums and the aforementioned Tony Visconti on bass.  Visconti produced no less than 13 of Bowie’s albums, from his 2nd album in 1969 right the way through to Blackstar.

Glenn Gregory bravely steps into Bowie’s shoes and, as we have noted before, wisely sings the songs as himself rather than be tempted to attempt a Bowie impression.

They first played Liverpool back in March 2016 and tonight’s gig is their third here in almost as many years.  Their gigs are celebrations of one of Bowie’s golden ages, playing songs from 1696 – 1973.

Before the Holy Holy take to the stage, we are warmly entertained by former I am Kloot frontman John BramwellBramwell faces his audience aremed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a stool and tells us his stories .

He is a mean guitar player, with echoes of Simon & Garfunkel in his folky stylings.  His unnassuming persona means that, after finishing his set, he thanks us for listening, wishes us a good evening and leaves the stage with no grandstanding or hoping for an encore.

Seeing him perform in somewhere like Leaf would probably suit his ouvre more than a grandiose Philharmonic Hall full of politely impatient Bowie fans, and we hope our paths cross again.

Holy Holy know how to make an entrance and have chosen Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as their intro music.  The last time I heard this particular piece of music was when watching A Clockwork Orange.

From here the band launch into proto-metal stormer The Width of a Circle, the first track from Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the Word album.

Width of a Circle is a great song and one I must admit to not having heard for some time.  It has stood the test of time well and demonstrates just how memorable and catchy Bowie’s vocal lines could be, even if it turns a bit trad rock towards the end, with solos galore from James Stevenson and Paul Cuddeford.

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To be fair to the two guitarists, a lot of what they do is as restrained and true to the spirit of the original recordings as we can reasonably expect.  They take it in turns to fill in for the mighty and irreplaceable Mick Ronson, sometimes they play the same licks together and sometimes they play harmonies that put one in mind of Thin Lizzy.

From here we are treated to The Man Who Sold the World album in full.  Perhaps an underappreciated album, or at least one that was forced into shadow by the success of subsequent albums, it is an record that is worth rediscovering.  Sure, some of it sounds a bit aged and it occasionally slips into rock jamming, but it was released in 1970, so perhaps that is to be expected.

Holy Holy bring a modern sensibility to songs that are now 39 years old, but do so with enough respect that their charm and structure remain intact.

Tracks such as All the Madmen and She Shook Me Cold show a Bowie who had not yet found his unique style and was perhaps too rooted in 60s/70s rock.  However, greater things were just around the corner.

Following Man Who Sold the World’s last track, a bravura performance of The Supermen, Gregory tells us that the first part of the show is over and we will now  hear the whole of the Ziggy Stardust album.

Woodmansey strikes up a familiar drum riff and a roar of approval strikes up when Gregory starts to sing the opening lines to Five Years.

We are into the evening’s second album and the atmosphere ramps up noticeably.  It is almost as if Holy Holy are their own support act, with The Man Who Sold the World here to warm us up before the main act.

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Ziggy was Bowie’s entry into superstardom and the songs here have a timeless quality that makes them less rooted in the past than what we have heard so far.  For many people, this was Bowie’s high water mark and it is an album that has influenced countless people since its release in 1972.  That it still influences people in 2019 is a testament to the album’s undisputed brilliance.

The response from the audience to these songs is quite something.  This is the closest we can come to hearing Bowie sing Ziggy Stardust, and it is something to be celebrated.  Liverpool does this in spades, standing and singing along.  A mix of ages here tonight shows how broad and long lasting Bowie’s appeal is.

Special mention must surely go to Glenn Gregory for taking on such a daunting task and for doing it all with such style and charm.  His enjoyment at being on stage and being in this position is evident and at times he seems genuinely moved by it all.

His voice is incredible, better than his career with Heaven 17 led us to believe – in Holy Holy he has the chance to let his vocals run and he seizes this with both hands.  It is hard to imagine anybody else more suited to the near impossible task of fronting this band.

As Rock n Roll Suicide comes to an end, the band take their bows to applause and cheers that threated to do serious damage to The Philharmonic’s elegant interior.

But before too long Holy Holy are back on to move things on somewhat.  Where Are You Now, from Bowie’s 2013 The Next Day album is an unexpected departure from the era Holy Holy are most associated with.

Gregory introduces the song by saying that the band performed it the day before they came to Liverpool and it was “very, very difficult”, not technically but rather because the song’s refrain was an emotional struggle given that its creator is sadly no longer with us.

From here we get a wonderful run through Life on Mars and a stompy Rebel Rebel before the band gather centre stage and take their bows.

So what can we take away from tonight?  Well two things really.  First we are reminded what a singular and immense talent David Bowie actually was.  We will never see his like again because he was, quite simply, a one off.

And secondly, we can see that the only people worthy of attempting to carry Bowie’s torch forward are Holy Holy.  Their connection to the songs they play qualifies them as the only band we would trust to carry out this task for us.

And their ability, their conscience and their relationship to the songs means they are the only ones who can do it properly.

Images by Getintothis’ Warren Millar