David Bowie left this planet two years ago, and his passing still leaves a profound sense of shock and loss, not only for fans but for the many musicians who performed with him. That’s certainly the case for keyboardist Mike Garson, the longest tenured player from Bowie’s bands, appearing on more than a dozen albums and performing 1,000 concerts, including the singer’s first and last American shows.

“Every time I’m telling stories or thinking about him, I’m holding back tears,” says Garson, 72, now the musical director for Celebrating David Bowie, an international tour that unites him with other alumni for a career-spanning retrospective of the British rock icon’s work, landing at Medford’s Chevalier Theatre on Feb. 16.

“He’s obviously impacted me as a friend first—and as an artist,” Garson says. “I was a little older than David, so he wasn’t someone I was aware of when I joined [his Spiders from Mars band] in 1972, ’cause I was involved in the jazz world. But to everyone who comes to these shows, it’s like the soundtrack of their life.”

On the phone from Berlin, the city where Bowie recorded “Heroes” as part of a late ’70s trilogy of revered albums, Garson recalls the previous night’s show in the Netherlands, where a teenage girl came up afterward and cried in his arms for a few minutes. “This man’s impact is as great as anyone who has come through the music scene and passed,” the keyboardist says of shared catharsis with fans. “It’s overwhelming, humbling, shocking and, in a way, never-ending. I’m finding that my biggest joy is bringing the music to them and hearing them sing with us.”

Photo Credit: Jamie Trumper

The “us” includes a changing pool of players who recorded and toured with Bowie. For the U.S. dates, Garson will be joined by bassist Carmine Rojas (who worked on Bowie’s ’80s commercial watershed Let’s Dance) as well as guitarists Gerry Leonard (Heathen, Reality) and Earl Slick, whose own sprawling tenure included work on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station to Station. Slick’s son Lee John Madeloni handles the drums. For the vocals, Bernard Fowler—a longtime backup singer for the Rolling Stones—splits the repertoire with Guatemalan sparkplug Gaby Moreno, and the tour promises other “special guests” along the way.

To hear Garson rattle off the names of alumni and friends who either performed at earlier shows (among them Adrian Belew and cameo guests Sting and Gary Oldman) or who might join later brings to mind Bowie’s own revolving door of musical talent. “He was the ultimate casting director,” Garson says, “and he had the sixth sense that everyone he chose was the right one for that project.”

Photo Credit: Tom Dellinger

Garson credits his own foundation in a broad array of musical styles—from jazz and classical to gospel and pop—for his invitations back into the chameleonic singer’s fold. “[My] first two years, I played in five bands with him and I was the only one he kept,” says Garson, who worked on ’70s albums Aladdin Sane (forging an avant-garde piano solo on the title track), Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, only to return for ’90s outings Outside and Earthling (in an underrated band that sported ex-Bostonian guitarist Reeves Gabrels and delved into electronic drum ’n’ bass). Bowie, he says, “was just trying to expand his wings and soak it all up.”

Garson approaches Celebrating David Bowie in much the same way. Shows in Europe spanned 30 wide-ranging songs, and the keyboardist talks about adding others from the era he shared with Slick as well as personal favorites such as the late ’60s leftover “Conversation Piece” and “Where Are We Now?” from 2013’s The Next Day. “I’m digging deep into the catalog, but I’m still doing ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Changes’ and ‘Ziggy [Stardust],’ ” Garson says. “People would be very upset if I did all esoteric and they’d be upset if I just tried to milk the hits.”

In turn, expect some twists. For instance, Garson says he spontaneously added a section to his “Aladdin Sane” solo in the Netherlands. “That’s what [Bowie] would want from me, to keep pushing it forward,” Garson says. “He wasn’t big on getting stuck in the comfort zone.” 

Celebrating David Bowie comes to the Chevalier Theatre in Medford on Feb. 16. 

For more music coverage, check out Paul’s Weekend Music Ideas.

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