The loss of David Bowie in January of this year was a tipping point. It sent our world spinning out of control. Since his death, we’ve experienced tragedy after tragedy and the loss of some of our most revered cultural icons. The election of Donald Trump as president is surely the final nail in the coffin that carries our collective optimism. But just 24 hours after the death rattle of American democracy, Seu Jorge was in town to offer a glimmer of hope.
Jorge gave a tremendous performance in 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In the film, he serves as a member of the crew who is prone to playing Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs. The songs are beautiful and intricate. They provide a new layer of depth to Bowie’s originals. But, these were not songs he had been working to perfect for years.
Speaking between songs of his set at Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jorge told the story of how he got involved in the project. Wes Anderson, the film’s director, called Jorge at home one day and asked if he had ever heard of David Bowie. “I said ‘Of course, he has the two different colored eyes’,” he joked with the audience. And while he knew of Bowie, he only knew two of his songs: “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance,” Bowie’s foray into 80’s dance pop. But no matter, Anderson still brought him on board.
Boston Symphony Orchestra is a cavernous, yet intimate venue. Jorge’s performance took full advantage of the setting. The stage was sparsely decorated with various aquatic-themed items, a stool, and an extra guitar on a stand. Jorge strutted on stage carrying and acoustic guitar and wearing his costume from the film.
Plenty of people in the audience had dressed up for a night at the symphony. Some came in full tuxedos like the opening scene of The Life Aquatic. Others wore the iconic red hat that the entire crew wears throughout the film; their covered heads dotting the crowd made for an impromptu game of Where’s Waldo?.
For his first number, Jorge launched into “Ziggy Stardust.” Silhouettes of Bowie with his classic Aladdin Sane lightning bolt look flanked him on either side. Jorge was cross lit by floodlights that projected him onto the walls of the symphony. The lighting display was one of the highlights of the night. A unique lighting arrangement accompanied each song, providing an extra element to engage the audience. During “Life on Mars,” the lights would fade away except for a red light that encircled Jorge whenever he sang the title line.
The real star of the show was Jorge’s voice. It was warm and full, and paired perfectly with the building’s excellent acoustics. Jorge’s voice was fluid and malleable; he brought it high,then dropped it to be full of bass. It’s both velvety smooth and sugary sweet. His voice is key to his ability to rearrange complicated music using only a guitar.
David Bowie’s music is complex—otherworldly at times. Take a song like “Five Years,” for example. The recorded version uses guitar (acoustic and electric), drums, bass, piano, backing vocals, and strings to increase the tension and stakes. Jorge recreated the swelling nature of the original using only an acoustic guitar and his voice. He also found a sadness lost in the chaos of Bowie’s version. The fact that he was singing in Portuguese did nothing to distract from the beauty of the music. In fact, hearing the songs in a different language highlighted Jorge’s brilliant compositions.
Early on in the night, Jorge told the audience about his quick orientation on the set of The Life Aquatic. After only a day or two on set, Anderson approached him and asked him if he was ready to play. And, he asked, how about “Rebel, Rebel”? Jorge hadn’t learned that song yet and only had 15 minutes to do so. He, of course, pulled through in the end.
His status as a bit of an outsider on the set — because he didn’t speak much English, and the huge star-power in the cast — is easy to connect to Bowie. Bowie was an outsider his entire life. First, because he was strange and new and doing things no one had ever seen before, and later, because no one could ever get close to his level.
With the death of David Bowie, we lost someone truly unique. Someone who set trends, innovated, and made it OK to be different. Losing Prince a few months after reinforced that we are running out of people who are so strangely, unrelentingly, singularly themselves, the kind that bend culture around their personalities like a gravitational field.
Donald Trump won on a platform of scare tactics and paranoia. He says the unknown is to be feared, that change is inherently bad; that no one should dare stand out. 2016 is bleak. More than ever, we need people unafraid to be different and go against the grain. Yet we are losing them at an alarming clip. (Leonard Cohen, another true visionary, died during the writing of this review.)
Seu Jorge, if only for an hour and a half, provided a respite from all that. He gave a beautiful performance that inspired optimism. The music, the storytelling, and the visuals all combined to make an unforgettable night. Right before playing “Changes” Jorge introduced the song: “There’s been a lot of change going on in America lately, so I think you all need this.”
- Stunning vocal performance
- Explored new depths of Bowie's music
- Incredible atmosphere and lighting
- Repeated two songs in the encore