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Former David Bowie band members to perform in Las Vegas

For over 30 years, he had David Bowie’s back.

Literally, figuratively, musically.

“I sat on the piano behind him,” Mike Garson recalls, his New York accent betraying his East Coast origins, “so I didn’t even get to see all his facial expressions. I watch these YouTube videos now like a fan, going, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what he did then with his face. That’s where he acknowledged me.’ I didn’t even remember him thanking me, and then I watch these YouTubes and it’s just me and him at different events.

“It’s just … I don’t know what to say,” he continues, haltingly. “I guess it’s a gift that I received.”

It’s a gift he’s now sharing.

Garson, 72, is at the center of Celebrating David Bowie, a touring collective of former Bowie band members and guest singers who are digging deep into one of the boldest, most influential discographies of all time to keep the music alive, even though the man behind it all is gone.

A musical chameleon

Perhaps no alumnus of Bowie’s many, many band lineups is better suited to helm a project such as this than Garson. It’s not just because he was one of Bowie’s most frequent collaborators, having played with Bowie beginning with his first U.S. tour in 1972 up through his last in 2004, performing in 13 incarnations of his band, contributing significantly to some of Bowie’s most seminal works, such as his inimitable piano solo on “Aladdin Sane.”

What really makes Garson ideal for something such as Celebrating David Bowie is that, just like Bowie himself, he is a true musical chameleon — more than anything else, this is why his relationship with one of music’s most multifaceted frontmen endured for as long as it did.

A prodigious piano talent from a young age, Garson turned down opportunities to play with titans such as Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra when he was a kid — “I was kind of a jazzer, only wanted to play more esoteric music,” he explains — but finally met a kindred musical free spirit in Bowie.

“I had studied so many styles, practicing eight hours a day, year after year, in the areas of classical, jazz, pop, rock, gospel, and anything I could do well, he found a place to put it in his music,” Garson says. “It was the most bizarre thing. It was like a psychic, telepathic, third-eye gift or something. He was like the ultimate casting director.”

And Garson was cast often, so much so, that he became a sought-after target for various Bowie-related projects.

“Over the last 30 years I was asked to play in 30 (Bowie) tribute bands, but my thought always was, ‘Why would I do this if I’m playing with the real thing?’ ” he says. “But since he passed, I knew it was my responsibility to bring this music to the people who loved it. My joy comes from being on the piano and looking out there and seeing tears and laughter and every word being sung like karaoke on steroids. To be able to do it with the alumni people who I played with back in the day, it sounds like what it sounded like when we played with him.”

‘Keeping everybody on their toes’

In other words, it doesn’t sound like anything else — even the original recorded versions of the songs in question, in some cases. Garson didn’t assemble the Celebrating David Bowie band, which also includes guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard and bassist Carmine Rojas, to play all the requisite hits or perform fan favorites note for note — because that’s not what Bowie ever did.

Bowie catered to his audience by catering exclusively to his artistic whims and ignoring what said audience might have thought it wanted at the time. This sounds counterintuitive, but in reality, it was the only way to maintain the creative fire that drew so many to his music to begin with.

Garson knows that if he was to make Celebrating David Bowie little more than a two-hour hit parade, it would defeat Bowie’s creative purpose.

“There would be no reason to do this otherwise, because that’s not David. He never wanted to sit in the comfort zone,” explains Garson, who purposely takes liberties with Celebrating David Bowie’s source material. “I’m the loose cannon, changing it every night, doing something different, keeping everybody on their toes. It’s what I did with David. That’s why he wanted me to play with him. He liked that.”

And so with the help of singers Bernard Fowler and Gaby Moreno on this tour, as well as various guest singers depending on the city (actress Evan Rachel Wood will perform with CDB in Vegas), the band has rehearsed 38 songs and performs around two dozen a night, mixing up the set list with deep album cuts and seldom-played songs such as “Conversation Piece,” from 1969’s “Space Oddity,” “Time,” culled from “Aladdin Sane,” and “Lady Grinning Soul,” which Garson says even Bowie never sang live.

Together, these Bowie band vets aren’t out to relive memories.

They’re all about making new ones.

“Everyone who was ever in his band was the perfect person at any given part of his history,” Garson says. “Everyone’s bringing their love and their experiences that they had with David to this moment.”

Preview

Who: Celebrating David Bowie

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Brooklyn Bowl at The Linq, 3545 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Tickets: $32 in advance, $35 day of show (702-862-2695)

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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