In conjunction with the blockbuster exhibition "David Bowie Is" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, three upcoming shows at the museum spotlight Chicago musicians performing some of Bowie's most acclaimed material.
The concert series "Bowie Changes" takes place in the MCA's Edlis Neeson Theater. A trio of diverse acts will salute the rock icon with their own interpretations of the Bowie oeuvre. Avant-garde artist Bobby Conn takes on classic album "Station to Station" on Saturday. Jon Langford and Sally Timms of long-running punk band the Mekons perform Nov. 21. Chicago experimental band Disappears will play the entirety of Bowie's "Low" on Nov. 22.
All three acts say they've come to celebrate Bowie, not copy him.
"David Bowie did David Bowie just fine back in 1975," says Conn. "I'm not going to try to match his physique or appearance. On the other hand, I've got some costuming and presentation ideas. We're definitely interpreting the material both in terms of how we appear and what it's going to sound like."
Brian Case of Disappears says he's looking forward to performing his favorite Bowie album. "We want to be respectful to the songs and what people want to hear, but also give them something different."
The "David Bowie Is" exhibition runs through Jan. 4. The multimedia show celebrates the pioneering artist with more than 400 historic artifacts including videos, photographs, album art and 60 costumes, including the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits.
In association with the retrospective, the MCA reached out to local artists to participate in the "Bowie Changes" concert series.
"I chose people I felt could bring their own interesting, idiosyncratic takes on Bowie and his music," says Peter Taub, the MCA's director of performance. "More than just about any other musician, Bowie created distinct musical periods and distinct personae. They provide a very broad spectrum of influences. If you look at Bobby Conn, Disappears, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, they're musicians who are working in different arenas, but they all share a common enthusiasm. They're all focusing on different aspects of David Bowie."
Bowie was a seminal influence on the artists honoring him.
"It goes back to the 1970s for me, pre-punk," says Langford, recalling when Bowie came onto his cultural radar. He first heard Bowie's "Starman" single on the radio in 1972. At the time Langford was a Welsh teen more obsessed with soccer and rugby than music. That equation changed when he finally caught a glimpse of the flamboyant Bowie on TV.
"It was a real shock because he looked like some kind of alien," Langford recalls. "It was completely weird at the time. He was a very strange phenomenon. There was a heaviness to what David Bowie did. He was playing with sexuality and gender. He was dressing up in mad costumes, very artsy."
Langford will be joined by his longtime Mekons bandmate Timms for the show at MCA.
Timms contributes a trenchant analysis of Bowie and his artistic impact to the evening's program notes.
"It sounds a bit grandiose but I don't know if we would be making music if David Bowie hadn't come along when he did, in the way he did," Timms writes. "It's hard to explain the impact of seeing Bowie and Roxy Music on the hordes of football hooligans and spotty, impressionable teens who watched Top of the Pops on the BBC in the early 1970's. Would there have been punk rock without that? Maybe, but the sight of those 'extraterrestrial' beings in makeup and glittery, effeminate clothing singing songs about alienation and aliens was a game changer."
Langford and Timms will bring their own sensibilities to such cuts as "Starman," "Panic In Detroit" and "Where Are We Now?" The set will include films and storytelling.
Disappears' Case points out that one great thing about the mutable superstar is there are plenty of Bowies to choose from.
"There are so many perspectives on what he does or how he did it or who he is," Case says. "You can look at him as the pop star. You can look at him as the cross-dresser. There are so many different ways to look at him."
Bowie's flair impacted Conn, known for his singular, quirky stage presence.
"He's a huge influence," says Conn. "He had such a theatrical presentation. For many years I deliberately avoided covering any Bowie stuff because it just seemed too obvious for Bobby Conn. People have accused me of ripping him off for many years anyway, so I thought I shouldn't encourage that. But at this point I feel my body of work is established and I don't have anything to prove."
Conn will bring his full band, and he's looking forward to the MCA's state-of-the-art theater. "I'm used to playing in nasty rock clubs or basements," he says. "It's nice to have a full lighting rig. There will be video elements. It'll be an extravaganza."
When: 7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday: Bobby Conn
7:30 and 10 p.m. Nov. 21: Jon Langford & Sally Timms
7:30 and 10 p.m. Nov. 22: Disappears
Where: The Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Tickets: $20; Students $10. 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org